The Pattern is Complete

Here it is — the end of Hitchcock Year, as far as the films go. What an odyssey it has been. From THE PLEASURE GARDEN (1925) to FAMILY PLOT (1976) — exactly fifty-two films in fifty-two years, watched and reviewed by me in fifty-two weeks. And yet I can’t think that Mr Hitchcock’s achievement in making the films is a bit more substantial than my achievement of watching them. And the numbers stack up so nicely one might almost have think he’d planned it.

A lot of facts conspired to make FAMILY PLOT an unlikely film to actually happen. Hitch was unwell. He had arthritis in his knees, which made walking agony, and he was treating the pain with vodka, among other things. His weight, more or less stable since LIFEBOAT (the wonders of Reduce-O!) was ballooning again. He was fitted with a pacemaker, which he delighted in showing to all and sundry (well, the scar and the bulge where it was embedded). I also recall Karen Black saying he showed her that he didn’t have a belly button. Or did I dream this? If true, it suggests that either Hitch was a clone, not of woman born (perhaps in some way explaining his dislike of eggs?) or that he’d had part of his gut taken away. At the time, I assumed this was some kind of primitive tummy-tuck op, but no — it seems more likely that his navel hernia, corrected by surgery around the time of VERTIGO, might have resulted in his buttonless condition. I remember an Oliver Reed interview in which the legendary wild man talked about his belly button turned inside out one day when he was lifting something or someone he shouldn’t have lifted. It hung down his front, a long flesh-tube, and he just left it there. For years. The only inconvenience he said was he couldn’t wear tight tops. But eventually he had it taken away because he was worried it was upstaging his penis.


Meanwhile (if we’ve all recovered), Alma’s condition was still more depleted. A stroke around the time of FRENZY had temporarily disabled her. She seems to have had good days and bad days. Hitch had to start cooking for her. He seems to have delayed the end of filming of FRENZY, taking his time over the trailer (the night shots of which show him clearly flagging), perhaps afraid to return home. Although she recovered well enough to join Hitch on location, bringing the dog, a further stroke after FAMILY PLOT was in the can disabled her permanently and affected her mind.

Vincent Canning’s The Rainbird Pattern attracted Hitchcock with its symmetry, the flow of the fake medium and her boyfriend searching for the long-lost nephew, while the nephew is engaged in a kidnapping spree with his girlfriend. Canning’s dark tone and downbeat ending was jettisoned, while Hitch aimed for “a Noel Coward flavour,” aided by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who had scripted NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Hitch found Lehman’s demands for plot logic and character beats rather a trial, and shut him out of the production once filming began — but then he returned to him to collaborate on THE SHORT NIGHT, his final, never-filmed, project.

FAMILY PLOT is as light and charming as FRENZY is dark and distasteful. If it lacks the tense moments that make FRENZY ultimately worthwhile, it adds sweetness and charm, making it a far nicer note for Hitch to end on than the sick psycho-thriller. There are two actual loving couples here, a reverse of the universal castration/homicide on display in FRENZY. True, Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern bicker about food and sex and seances, and William Devane pushes Karen Black towards murder, but they are nevertheless good teams, happy together. And death is almost pushed offscreen altogether in this film, unusually for any thriller.

After the pleasingly old-fashioned titles, which could have come from a 1940s movie, and which are blessed with lovely SNOW WHITE witch colour schemes, the opening scene is Hitch’s miniature version of JM Barrie’s MARY ROSE, his pet unmade project. Cathleen Nesbitt, the actress playing the old Mrs Rainbird, had appeared in THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK, co-written by Alma, back in the 30s, and Hitchcock likely saw her on stage in London in another Barrie play.

Shimmering within their green matte-lines (against his better judgement, Hitch had been talked out of using rear projection), Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris bicker lovably. Everybody warned Hitch that Harris was method and difficult and he wouldn’t like her. He didn’t — he loved her. She found his direction “Brechtian,” which was fine with him, as long as she followed it.  Dern, of course, played a small but key role in MARNIE, and though he didn’t get very close to the Master on that occasion, he’d played several roles in Hitch’s TV show. “I never know what you’re going to do next,” said Hitch, admiringly — as long as Dern stayed within Hitch’s predesigned frame, that was fine.

A word about pre-planning. Bill Krohn tells us that, just this once, after a few days following the storyboards, Hitch threw them aside and improvised his direction. Authorized biographer John Russell Taylor, who was present on location for some of the filming, reports a very orderly shoot with Hitch following his plans as usual. But he does report a couple of additional shots being taken, such as a very effective angle of Harris’s legs dancing in panic as she’s attacked in the garage near the film’s climax. So perhaps the truth is that Hitch followed his plan like a map, making little side-trips as inspirations truck? At any rate, it would be interesting to learn more, perhaps via a direct script/storyboard-to-screen comparison.

In Ken Mogg’s The Alfred Hitchcock Story, he writes, “Frenzy had a central character for whom love had gone absent; and in the subjective nature of Hitchcock’s films, the whole of London was shown as blighted. The central couple of Family Plot do love each other, and, despite obstacles, they muddle through.”

Furthermore, kidnappers William Devane and Karen Black have a rather successful relationship too, although he’s led her into a life of crime and will eventually persuade her to attempted murder. Black angled for the Barbara Harris part, but was put in her place by Hitch “You are going to be bad in this film,” and she becomes the movie’s one real iconic image in her sunglasses, hat and blond wig, an eye-less, bra-less criminal android. (Truffaut, rather comically, said that Kim Novak’s bra-free look in VERTIGO gave her “an animal quality” — I guess the same could be said for Black, whose tight white sweater is only revealed after she’s stripped off her kidnapper’s drag.

Devane was apparently Hitchcock’s first choice, but Roy Thinnes was cast due to his unavailability. Then, Devane became available and either Thinnes had displeased Hitch or he simply chose to reshoot a few days with his preferred choice. I’m reminded of Bunuel kicking Maria Schneider off THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE, and Kurosawa firing his original leading man from RAN (or was it KAGEMUSHA?) — these septuagenarian filmmakers have limited stores of patience.

Devane proves himself a master of what Hitch called “negative acting,” where an expression slowly drains from an actor’s face. Check his grin in this shot:

Hitch’s cinematographer, Leonard South, had been Robert Burks’ operator, so he was around not for his style and talent, but for his competence and the fact that he made Hitchcock feel comfortable. FAMILY PLOT contains virtually no beautiful images, either because Hitchcock winged it or because he’d lost interest in that, or because South wasn’t capable of it. So the movie gets by on sweetness and a little intrigue.

John Williams contributes a nice score, occasionally perhaps too big for the film, but then the film does occasionally need lifting — it too often looks like a piece of Universal TV fodder. Unlike so many Hitchcock thrillers of the past, FAMILY PLOT does not seek to interweave music into its narrative, so that Williams was assigned the job after the film was already shot.

Henry Bumstead, a long-term collaborator, did the production design: a spiral staircase made in plaster added to the cathedral seems like a nod to the fictitious church tower in VERTIGO, and the outside of Devane’s house, reconstructed entirely on the soundstage so Hitch wouldn’t have to brave the cold, is impossible to distinguish from reality.

After the cisterns and toilet paper and full-frontal toilets of NUMBER 17, SECRET AGENT and PSYCHO, it’s nice to see Hitchcock getting up to date with a chemical toilet. Did Lehman add all the toilet banter between Devane and Black to please the smutty-minded Master, or did Hitch simply get fascinated by the practicalities of long-term kidnapping and insist on its inclusion?

(Pause to reflect on Hitchcock’s unmade “documentary” about food, beginning with the livestock and produce entering the city by train, ending with the excreta of the populace departing by sewer…)

Hats off to Katherine Helmond and to Ed Lauter, a most useful bad guy actor, audibly a New Yorker even though the film is set in and around San Francisco. Hitch tried to rob the film of obvious geographic signifiers, for some reason, although those Frisco hills are rather unmistakable. We do know that Hitch had tired of seeing car chases going up and down those hills, in the wake of BULLITT I guess. I wonder if Hitch was responsible for the street sign reading “Bates Ave,” or if he’d have preferred to avoid the reference?

FAMILY PLOT’s plot isn’t actually especially complex, with two procedural yarns — a kidnapping and a missing person search — interwoven loosely so they collide at the end. Character detail along the way is at least as important as narrative: my favourite moment was added by Devane, when he picks a piece of lint off a detective’s jacket, none-too-subtly asserting his mastery of the situation. Dern improvised a couple of lines, notably during the runaway car scene — after they whizz through a pack of Hell’s Angels, he gulps, “I gotta get off this road!” which cracked Hitch up.

While Hitch filmed Dern and Harris’s reaction shots in the studio, all forward-looking POV stuff was shot on location by the second unit. But this sequence was thoroughly planned by Hitch, who knew it needed basically two angles: Dern and Harris, shrieking in terror, and the road, zooming past them. The POV excluded all details of dashboard and windscreen to give an unimpeded view of the rushing road. It’s a classic example of Hitch’s use of the Kuleshov effect: high-speed version.

The car scene in some ways is old-fashioned or tame, compared to the colossal motorway mayhem being dished out elsewhere in the 70s, and the “sexy” banter between the two couples is likewise rather mild, though explicit for a Hitchcock film. But at least it’s in no way embarrassing, unlike the vulgarities of Billy Wilder’s unfortunate BUDDY, BUDDY. By contrast with that regrettable late work, FAMILY PLOT showcases a group of actors who are very comfortable with their roles, their colleagues and their story.

Of all the pleasing things in the film, I think the closing wink is my favourite — what a great way to go out! Of course, it was thought about long and hard. Lehman objected to the idea of Harris having real psychic powers (although the script establishes that she thinks she does, ergo she’s not a real con artist), so an overdubbed line allows her to just possibly overhear Devane telling Black where the diamonds are hidden. The overdub is a dicey moment, especially as he’s seemed reluctant to tell Black his hiding place earlier. But it passes OK. So now the wink seems to mean “I’ve convinced Bruce Dern that I have psychic powers, but me and my chums the audience know it’s all nonsense.” As Ken Mogg suggests, the film’s trailer (and poster) imply a sort of kinship between Harris and Hitch, so it’s really him winking at us.

Sitting halfway down the stairs, Harris resembles a cute little kid, and this return to childhood thing is important to Hitch, who in some ways remained childlike throughout his life. A slave to his appetites and anxieties, demanding to be in control, and playing with Welles’s “biggest toy train set,” he made of his life, as best he could, an extended playtime.

If the Devane overdub wasn’t in place, the meaning of the wink would be altered, but only slightly. Since Harris has apparently always believed in her powers, the ability to locate the diamond shouldn’t be a surprise to her, so she’s really stepping out of character to tell us not to take any of this too seriously. In a single movement of a single eyelid, she’s saying —

“It’s only a movie.”

30 Responses to “The Pattern is Complete”

  1. […] This post was Twitted by dcairns […]

  2. Congratulations on the completion of your epic achievement!

    Kagemusha was the Kurosawa film that he fired his leading man on – kicking out Zatoichi himself, Shintaro Katsu (who was planning on directing some of his scenes himself apparently, and then argued with Kurosawa about the direction of the character), and replacing him with the dependable Tatsuya Nakadai. There’s an interesting moment in Stephen Prince’s commentary on the Criterion disc where he notes the one remaining broad comedy scene (of finding the body in the vase as the double stealthily attempts to rob the place) as being a hint of what the Katsu starring version may have turned out like.

  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by dcairns: Hitchcock Year comes to a (near) end — please RT!

  4. I think Hitch had a “Veulcan Mind-Meld” with barbara Harris and the wink is from him.

    Congrats on makign it across the finish line.

    Needless to say the discussion of Hitchcock never really ends.

  5. I hear Roy Thinnes fought (verbally) with Hitch during rehearsal and was shwon the door. Devane is quite wonderful, as is the ever-iconic Karen Black.

  6. Harvey Chartrand Says:

    I once interviewed Karen Black for Filmfax Magazine (Out of the Shadows with Karen Black, Feb. 2002). This is what she had to say about Family Plot:

    FAX: You starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s last film, Family Plot (1976), in the role of William Devane’s wife and partner-in-crime. Although Family Plot is enjoyable light entertainment, many critics have observed that Hitchcock (then 76) was no longer at the top of his game. Describe your experience working with the elderly Master of Suspense in his swan song film.

    Karen Black: Working with Mr. Hitchcock was very cozy. He was a very playful spirit. He would bring limericks and read them to me and Barbara Harris [who played a phony psychic]. Then I’d bring limericks and read them to him.

    Mr. Hitchcock would be very comfortable. He loved to sit and talk to the girls. I’d tell him: “That’s a very nice suit.” He’d say he had several of them made in different sizes by a Savile Row tailor, because he gained and lost weight very quickly. He had water retention problems and took pills to get the water out of his system. He had just had a heart monitor put in.

    Mr. Hitchcock was a lot of fun, a bit fatherly and very warm-hearted. He used to play vocabulary games with me, because I have a very good vocabulary. He’d try to catch me by using a word he’d think I didn’t know. He’d say (imitating Hitchcock): “Your work today was very perspicacious.” I’d say: “Mr. Hitchcock, don’t you mean perceptive? Are you sure you mean perspicacious, Mr. Hitchcock?” And he’d say, “Oh yes, your work today was indeed perceptive!”

    He said ‘Diction Harry’ would be able to answer these questions, so I gave him a big red dictionary, with ‘Diction Harry’ gold-embossed on the cover (laughter).

    Mr. Hitchcock didn’t think Roy Thinnes was threatening at all (as the jewel thief). We all loved Roy, but Mr. Hitchcock thought he seemed too pleasant and nice for the part. Mr. Hitchcock needed someone in there who looked scary, who looked like a bad guy. I must admit he found the man in William Devane.

    I didn’t even get the story. One day, after about a month of shooting, Roy just wasn’t there. Mr. Hitchcock eventually felt honor bound to talk to the actors about the change. It was just one of those things. He changed the cinematographer too after only two days. The guy couldn’t get the first shot done after several attempts and Mr. Hitchcock fired him, as far as I know.

    Mr. Hitchcock had a movie in mind that he wanted to make. He asked me to speak in a lower voice. You’ll notice in the film that I have a slight mid-Atlantic accent, very classy. He wanted me to sound like I’d had a nodding acquaintance with a finishing school. This suited the film much better.

    When I first got the script of Family Plot, I wanted to play the clairvoyant. I don’t know if Mr. Hitchcock ever considered me for that part, but I would have loved to play it. One day, I did say to him that I would like to play Barbara Harris’ part. Mr. Hitchcock was silent for a while, and then he said the part was much too lowbrow for me. He had obviously not seen me in Five Easy Pieces! He probably saw me in Airport 1975 and couldn’t imagine me playing a lower-class person. Of course, Barbara Harris is a very brilliant actress, a genius.

  7. Stories vary about Thinnes. He himself was quite baffled, saying he’d had good discussions with Hitch about the character. Which may have been why he was fired: such discussions tended to bore Hitch. He confronted Hitch in Chasen’s, and one account has Hitch explaining weakly “But you were too NICE.”

  8. Other great sign-offs from old masters…

    Le Petit Theatre de Jean Renoir, where the cast rush to the camera do a final-bow as the curtain falls for the last time on Le Grand Cinema de Jean Renoir.

    7 Women – “So long ya bastard!” as Anne Bancroft drinks poison and the screen goes black as she’s about to die and Ford fades away too.

    Cet Obscur Objet du Desir – Blown to bits. From cutting an eye with a razor to total explosion.

    But the wink is probably the best way to go…”So long folks, I love you, all the time, always and forever after!” I think film-making or art is an expression of love at it’s basic level and when Hitchcock talks about playing the audience like a piano he means it with pride and satisfaction that he’s given really good stuff to audiences around the world for years and years after he’s gone. He was a believer so if there is an up there, I’m sure he’d be thrilled someone devoted a whole year to his movies.

    The fact that Barbara Harris somehow guesses where it is recalls Kim Novak’s disappearance in the hotel room in Vertigo, one of the icebox moments. Only here it is considerably more than an icebox. I find it interesting that in the midst of all these personal troubles he made this light, sweet film and got on well with the next-generation of actors(two actresses imported from Nashville, Devane from McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Hitchcock liked a lot of Altman’s 70s movies though not Nashville).

  9. Bravo! Thanks for the posts all year!

    Heading off to watch Family Plot now because I’ve never seen it!

  10. I hadn’t seen it either! Turns out there was a reason I was holding off on it! Was delightful to finally see it at the close of Hitchcock Year.

  11. Well done DC!

  12. Congrats for a fine and very enjoyable AH year!

    “I also recall Karen Black saying he showed her that he didn’t have a belly button”

    I wonder, if taht was actually what he showed to Madeleine Carroll, back in the day…

    It’s ages since I saw Family Plot and I can’t remember the film very well, other than I liked it (which is good for a new, fresh viewing, I guess)

  13. […] This post was Twitted by NadesSF […]

  14. Joe Dante was talking about the fact that The Burbs was up on YouTube! he said he wished it sold as many tickets as it had views online.

  15. To Arthur S – Add to your list of great sign-offs from old masters, Nicole Kidman at the end of Eyes Wide Shut saying, “Let’s f**k.” (The Kubrick equivalent of Hitchcock’s wink.)

    To DCairns – Thanks for a great Hitchcock year. Looking forward to your James Whale and Robert Siodmak weeks!

  16. Is Kubrick an old master? He’s too recent and modern, ain’t he? Besides I am fairly ambivalent about his work on a whole and his last film. The idea of a final film is odd because a lot of film-makers did not intend that film to be their last, only two film-makers, as far as I know, ended their careers on their own terms rather than that which was dictated by health, producers and finance – Ingmar Bergman and Luis Bunuel. And maybe John Huston who died just before The Dead hit the screens and that was a personal film of the highest variety.

    And of course Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion what I love about that film is that when the credits roll you have the cast perform on stage as the credits roll for the last time, basically Altman’s denying finality to his career and films with a statement of great humility. And the film is of course about death – “the death of an old man is not a tragedy”.

  17. Richard Hughes suggested once (in his marvelous In Hazard) that old men resent death more than young ones because they have a better idea of what they’re leaving behind.

    Two last films which didn’t even get a release here, which I must watch now they’re sort-of available: Kurosawa’s Madadayo (“I’m not ready” — as Donald Richie says, the figure saying that is AK, and the figure he’s saying it to is Death) and Fellini’s The Voice of the Moon.

  18. Madadayo is a masterpiece. The best film ever made about a cat.

    The last shot of Dreyer’s Gertrud is claerly that of his own tomb.

  19. Well, we’re cat lovers here…

  20. > the film is set in and around San Francisco

    I’m surprised no one has commented on this yet. The film is set in Los Francisco and/or San Angeles. In other words … it’s San Francisco mixed in with Los Angeles, just for a distancing effect. The cathedral is SF’s Grace Cathedral, whereas most of the driving ’round is Mulholland stuff ’round Los Angeles.

    In any case, David, let me add my own congratulations to those of the others. You deserve ’em.

  21. Thanks again, it gives me a warm Hogmanay glow.

    Nobody quite knew why, but Hitch wanted to remove anything too obvious that would locate the film precisely. Maybe because he felt Frisco was overexposed. The LA filming may have been largely for convenience — Hitch would be driven right up to the set everyday so he didn’t have to take more than a couple of steps. But there’s a sense that the film is set Anyplace USA.

  22. Couldn’t resist this:


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