Family Plot Revisited

Family Plot, Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1976, 120 mins – 4K UHD

We’re staying in the 1970s with a rewatch of Alfred Hitchcock’s light-hearted caper Family Plot. Its a great decade for movies, the ‘Seventies: it gave us Irwin Allen disaster movies, The Godfather films, Star Wars, Rocky, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, The Exorcist, Chinatown, The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three,  Days of Heaven… so many others, it’s a great decade of films to lose oneself in.  I could spend the next few months just watching films made during that decade and I’d have a great time.

I’m not suggesting Family Plot deserves to be considered as a great 1970s film or deserves to be in that list I just rolled off, its Hitchcock’s last film and not one of his best. I watched it for the first time a few years back and wasn’t hugely impressed, but its inclusion on the second Hitchcock 4K UHD boxset meant that it was inevitable I’d give it another go.

My feeling remains the same: it a very slight feature; indeed, it often has the look of a 1970s TV Movie, it lacks pretty much any sense of cinematic scale or ambition. But it is a 1970s movie: so it has a great cast, Bruce Dern, Karen Black, William Devane, Ed Lauter, faces we grew to know over that decade watching films and television shows. Its that weird thing about generations of actors through the decades, their time in the limelight. There were decades where James Stewart, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, would feature in films,  or Henry Fonda, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, or Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, and Jack Lemmon, or later on Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Al Pacino. I think I refer to the 1970s as a great decade of films not just because it simply WAS a great decade for films, but also because it was the first decade in which, as I was growing up, I began to recognise and enjoy seeing familiar faces time and time again in various films and American TV shows. Some fifty years later now, the nostalgia is like some fine wine to be savoured.

In the 1970s, actors didn’t need to be impossibly beautiful and perfect, they didn’t need to be bulked-up in the gym as some model of physical ideal. They could still be greasy-haired, bald, overweight, wrinkled… there was a reality to the actors mirrored in the reality of their flawed characters, a reality mirrored in their tense dramas.

Anyway, back to Family Plot: at times its great fun, and others its pretty excruciating (the scene with Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern, their car tampered with and careering down a winding mountainside road, the actors hamming it up with horrible front projection work behind them, is one of the worst sequences Hitchcock ever did). On the whole its light and entertaining, but a lot of that is that 1970s nostalgia, those old cars, those familiar faces, and that languid pace in which scenes were allowed to breathe and not cut to a breathless frenzy as they are so often now. The film also looks quite splendid in 4K- the Blu-ray was very problematic but having been remastered in 4K it looks really fine and filmic. Yeah, there’s that strange double-take when one realises that a (to be kind) very average film such as this gets a 4K UHD release before so many other more deserving films just from that same decade, but hey, we’re living in a world where The Sword and the Sorcerer gets a 4K disc before there’s even a whiff of Milius’ Conan the Barbarian ever getting one.

I enjoyed Family Plot much more second time around than I did watching the Blu-ray disc a few years back (the poster cheekily advises ‘you must see it twice!’). Maybe its diminished expectations and all that, maybe it was the prettier picture, in 4K. Maybe it was appreciating the John Williams score a bit more than I did before (its a weird thing, William’s familiar music style married to a Hitchcock film, it feels a bit odd). But yeah, it was rather fun. And William Devane is such a great slimy bastard, his voice just dripping with slippery menace: I first knew him from that 1980s TV show Knots Landing (American TV soaps/drama were so big that decade it feels rather peculiar now, and hard to explain, looking back) but of course he was great in The Marathon Man and the later Mel Gibson flick Payback.  There’s a guy who deserved better movies, and less TV work, in his career. As for Bruce Dern, what a joy that actor is, always (soft spot for Silent Running and The ‘Burbs, obviously).



4 thoughts on “Family Plot Revisited

  1. I wasn’t that crazy about this film when I first saw it, which would have been the early to mid-80s – not that long after it was made when you think about it. After Torn Curtain Hitchcock’s films lacked the kind of star power we’d become accustomed to and, even though the cast here are all actually quite good, it’s something that struck me back then.
    That said, I have grown to like the film – OK, it isn’t the best of Hitchcock, but it’s far from his worst and the tone and cast do add a great deal of charm. I remember I used to like Frenzy more, and that is a better film all round, but I find the disturbing meanness of a few scenes, as well as the completely unsympathetic nature of Jon Finch’s character, hurt it and it’s slipped a lot in my estimation. All of that is a long-winded way of saying I’m rather pleased Hitchcock ended his career on this lighter note.

    1. Yes in some ways, considering Hitchcock’s reputation as the ‘master of suspense’ Family Plot is a strange final film, but few directors are aware that a last film is going to be, well, their last film (maybe some are planned that way, but if they love their work, I guess every director feels they have another film in them and don’t consider ending on a convenient ‘high’).

      I always think it a telling judgement on Hollywood that the careers of both Hitchcock and Billy Wilder went the way they did. Poor Wilder struggled to get funding for his last few movies, and why else would Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese go to streamers for funding if anything had really changed? The art and commerce balance seems weighed the wrong way whatever the lofty aspirations touted by Hollywood press.

      1. Matthew McKinnon

        I think Ridley Scott and Scorsese would be fine getting movies made whatever. Scorsese had a home at Miramax making very big expensive films that consistently lost money* for a long time, so it’s not like he’s been scrounging around for funds. Sure, he might not be able to get his huge period pieces made as easily but who can these days?

        It’s just that streamers were a sudden and flush new revenue stream so why not?

        I have to admit, I do think sometimes a career just runs out of steam, and times change. It wasn’t that Hollywood turned its back on Wilder and Hitchcock out of spite – they just weren’t making the kind of films people wanted to see. That Hitchcock got to make films right into the 1970s is not a bad innings. And did his last few films really suggest someone who was anywhere near his creative peak?

        *this is no reflection on the quality of the films.

      2. Admittedly its obviously not first-hand knowledge, its only what I’ve read, but I think that Hollywood’s increasing preoccupation with big blockbuster entertainments over the years has marginalised certain kinds of films? To be fair, that’s likely as much a case of what films the public are prepared to pay to watch in the multiplex as it is Hollywood machinations.

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