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  • Benjamin May

Family Plot (1976) Review

Blanche is a 'professional' psychic, adept at conning the susceptible out of their savings with the help of her taxi-driver boyfriend George. The two are hired to find a fellow by the name of Edward Shoebridge, missing; presumed dead. Blanche and George think it's an easy gig. Little do they know that Shoebridge now operates under the name Arthur Adamson, and along with his partner Fran has been making a killing kidnapping the rich all across the state, ransoming them for valuable gemstones. The last thing Adamson wants is to be found; and Blanche and George are going to have a hell of a time trying to find him in 'Family Plot', Alfred Hitchcock's last motion picture.

Sadly, it is not a lyrical or melodic swansong. In fact, it is Hitchcock's least interesting film by far. Based on Victor Canning's novel 'The Rainbird Pattern', Ernest Lehman's screenplay lacks suspense, thrills or chills of any kind. Instead of the usual Hitchcockian atmosphere of tension and intrigue, 'Family Plot' relies on breezy campness to get by. Though ostensibly a mystery, the tale doesn't really contain any mysterious elements- of any wit or originality anyway. To be perfectly frank, the plot is rather boring and mindless, the comedy is uninspired, and the characters are colorless. It's a disappointment that this turned out to be the last story Hitchcock would bring to life; as it's so banal and mediocre.

The mediocrity continues in terms of visuals, unfortunately. Though Leonard J. South did impressive work on 'Hang 'Em High,' he was not a particularly visionary cinematographer; and the aforementioned Eastwood vehicle was probably the pinnacle of his career. His work on 'Family Plot'- even under Hitchcock's direction- is lifeless and uninteresting, lacking the visual panache and flair one associates with the master of suspense. If one judges the film by its' screenplay and visuals, one might think that Hitchcock wasn't even awake when directing the film; so bland it is.

It is often said that a film is 'made in the editing;' in this case J. Terry Williams didn't have much of anything to salvage for construction. While he surely tried to assemble the elements of light-comedy with those of the drab mystery into some sort of recognizable, coherent whole; the resulting effort is a tonal mess that lags in areas and is too curt in others. To top it off- and this is quite incredible- John Williams' score isn't particularly memorable or affecting; surely the first and last time Williams' work wasn't part of a movie's strengths.

Hitchcock's opinion of actors is widely documented, with his oft-repeated line "all actors should be treated like cattle" being particularly well known; insinuating that the performer is of considerable less importance to the finished film than the director, writer, editor or anyone else involved with the production. It is something of an irony, then, that in the case of 'Family Plot', it turns out that the cattle are the film's only saving grace; or two out of the herd, anyway.

The two being Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern. As Blanche and George, respectively, they bring a natural levity, charm and assuredness to the picture that the mundane screenplay and Hitchcock's overly restrained direction lack. Harris is particularly good, beguiling, wily and humorous; it's no surprise she received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance. William Devane and Karen Black also star, as Adamson and Fran; but neither deliver work that is especially admirable or notable- Devane going rather over-the-top and Black the opposite, coming across as quite insipid.

'Family Plot' is a sub-par thriller, the mundanity of which becomes overwhelming when one considers it's the work of Hitchcock. Despite a couple of good performances, the film is severely disappointing. A banal screenplay filled with paper-thin characters and weak jokes results in a swansong that is not the intriguing aria it should have been. As sad as the case may be- to borrow a line from T. S. Eliot- cinematically, Hitchcock went not with a bang but a whimper. What a woeful whimper 'Family Plot' is.


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