Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Movie Review: Family Plot (1976)


A comedy thriller, Family Plot is Alfred Hitchcock's final film. A pleasant enough experience enlivened by an excellent cast, the story features intersecting narratives treated with a light touch.

Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris) is a fake psychic, milking small amounts out of desperate clients. But the elderly Mrs. Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt) offers Blanche $10,000 if she can discreetly locate her long lost nephew who stands to gain a large inheritance. Blanche presses her boyfriend and taxi driver George (Bruce Dern) into service, and he identifies the missing man as Edward Shoebridge, who is apparently dead and buried. George also locates gas station owner Joseph Maloney (Ed Lauter), who seems to have had a keen interest in declaring Ed dead.

In the meantime, Arthur Adamson (William Devane) is a seemingly respected jeweller, but along with his lover Fran (Karen Black) runs an elaborate kidnapping scam, capturing then releasing hostages in exchange for precious diamonds. Joseph alerts Arthur that George and Blanche are investigating Edward Shoebridge's background, triggering more devious plots.

For what proved to be his final outing, Hitchcock chooses to maintain a peppy and humorous attitude. Family Plot contains no suspense or horror, almost as if Hitchcock was acknowledging his brand of wicked and sophisticated prey-on-your-fears cinema was no longer relevant in an era now offering darker psychological material such as Don't Look Now and more brutal punctuation marks as in Deliverance.

So Family Plot plays like an amateur investigative mystery engaged to a suave criminal tale. Blanche and George are a likeable scrappy and argumentative couple chasing after a dream payday by poking around the puzzle of a grave that may be empty. Arthur and Fran are smooth criminals dressed up as respectable citizens pulling off non-violent kidnappings. The two stories of course will come together, dragging along no shortage of plot holes and a void of competent law enforcement.

Screenwriter Ernest Lehman worked with Hitchcock on North By Northwest, and the most obvious look back at Hitchcock's past comes courtesy of a trouble-on-the-isolated-highway sequence, Blanche and George grappling with a sabotaged car then an attempted run-down. Even here Hitchcock chooses to inject an overdose of comedy with Blanche's histrionics inside the car defanging any attempt at invoking genuine danger.

The ensemble cast is sturdy and helps to drive the film forward. The trio of Bruce Dern, William Devane and Ed Lauter represents a strong collection of beady-eyed men up to various degrees of no good. Barbara Harris and Karen Black do their part to complete the set of greed-inspired characters.

Villainous secrets and colourful mischief intermingle around the Family Plot, but for better or for worse, the master of suspense signs off with a harmless wink.






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