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.”