Family Plot - For the Love of Film III



Family Plot is a film I really love.  It was the first film of Alfred Hitchcock that I saw multiple times.  I’m going to date myself here, the multiple viewings was a direct result of an embryonic cable television station called Home Box Office which screened this film a whole lot.  Of course, they also screened Peter Bogdonovich’s regrettable At Long Last Love as many times.  Regardless of the fact the film featured the always delightful Madeline Kahn, does not mean I watched that painful film more than once.  It’s still a bitter memory.  Family Plot, however, was another matter entirely.  I watched it repeatedly and enjoyed it every single time.  I still have a very fond memory of the film.  It has been far too long since I screened it and I’m happy to have the excuse to revisit it for the film preservation blogathon.

The story involves low-rent psychic, Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris) stringing along a wealthy client, Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbit).  Rainbird has been suffering from sleep problems which she feels is the result of guilt and sorrow for forcing her now deceased younger sister’s illegitimate child to be given away to a nameless family.  She enlists Blanche and her psychic guide Henry to find the now adult child so Rainbird can make things right and declare and recognize him as the rightful heir to the Rainbird fortune.  To sweeten the deal, Rainbird offers Blanche $10,000.00 cash if she finds the heir.

Blanche and Henry (presumably) are helped by Blanche’s sometime actor, more often than not cab driver and amateur detective boyfriend George Lumley (Bruce Dern) to find the missing man.  As Blanche and George drive off, Blanche and George banter back and forth, at one point George nearly strikes a pedestrian crossing the street.  And we now cut to the second “family plot” of the story. 

Fran (Karen Black) crosses the street and enters a gated enclosure, armed with a gun and a note, she’s led into the office (looking suspiciously like Hitchcock’s office on the Universal lot) where she’s met by the police and an FBI agent.  It is made clear that she is there to collect a ransom, a huge diamond.  She then boards a police helicopter and instructs the pilot where to take her, the local golf course.  She walks across the fairway and meets Arthur Adamson (William Devane) who examines the jewel.  On the ground is the subject of the ransom, a man called Constantine (Nicholas Colasanto).  They drive off and while making their escape, Fran peels off what is revealed to be her disguise.  They soon arrive at their house and drive into the garage.  It’s revealed, their side business is kidnapping and ransom, completed with a soundproofed room, and that Adamson is a jewel collector.  Fran stores her blonde wig in the vegetable bin in the fridge (storing away the ice-cool Hitchcock blonde, I love that) and Adamson hides the diamond “where everyone can see it” (taped in the chandelier).

George masquerading as an attorney (McBride) finds Mrs. Hannigan (the always delightful Marge Redmond), the daughter of the former chauffeur to the Rainbird family in the hope she can illuminate him.  Sadly, as her tale unfolds, she relates her parents are long dead, but she remembers a night with her father bringing home a child and delivering it to their friends, Sadie and Harry Shoebridge.  George brightens up at this news, only to have his hopes dashed that not only are Sadie and Harry Shoebridge dead, she thinks the son is too, all burned in a house fire.  She suggests he head to the local cemetery to see for himself.

George makes his way to the Barlow Creek cemetery and finds the graves of the Shoebridge clan.  Frustratingly, it's a dead end.  In a wonderful Hamlet like moment, the gravedigger (John Steadman) rises up behind George from the grave he’s been digging.  George notices that the headstones appear to have been placed at different times.  The marker for Edward Shoebridge is much newer than the parental Shoebridges.  “Smart fellow!”  Perhaps not such a dead end after all!



George pays a visit to the stone carver Mr. Wheeler (Charles Tyner) to see if he can determine who bought the new marker for the younger Shoebridge.  In his prodding Wheeler reveals that the sale was made 15 years after the fact and the rumor is that the younger Shoebridge set the fire himself and tells him that there is no body in the grave.  He also gives George a name, J.P. Maloney (Ed Lauter) as the man who bought the stone.  A visit to the County Clerk’s office give George a clue to Maloney’s whereabouts.  Staking out Maloney’s garage George puts a scare in Maloney who pays a visit to the jeweler Arthur Adamson, and it’s revealed he is the thought to be long dead Edward Shoebridge. 



Adamson plots his next kidnapping and ransom, Bishop Wood, former parson at his childhood church and the only person left who can identify Edward Shoebridge.  Fran is got up as an elder lady and Arthur as a deacon.  George makes his way to the church (Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill in San Francisco) and from the back sees the end of the service and inquires on how to make an appointment with Bishop Wood.  As the Bishop leaves the pulpit, Fran begins to walk past him and promptly faints, the Bishop kneels to help and Arthur comes to her aid.  The pair jab the Bishop with a powerful drug and he collapses in a stupor, they grab him and whisk him away.  The staid church members and George stand there helpless as they watch the kidnapping, doing nothing.

Maloney is enlisted to put Blanche and George off the scent.  Maloney calls the pair and arranges to meet them at a distant roadhouse.  They arrive and wait for Maloney, all the while George is nursing a couple of beers (not something to do today).  Maloney shows up and cuts the brake line of their car in the parking lot.  Lamenting they’ve been stood up, the pair leave and quickly learn they’ve got no brakes.  This is a terrific set piece from the film, most of it taken from the viewpoint inside the car, the acceleration and the twists and turns on the mountain roads.  George’s skill as a driver is fully utilized and he manages to get the car pulled off and it rolls gently off an embankment on its side. 



Blanche and George while physically unhurt now face a long walk.  In moments Maloney drives up and offers them a ride all the while apologizing for being late.  George confronts him, knowing he cut the brakes.  Maloney plays dumb and drives off.  They continue walking and soon see Maloney’s car turned around and heading straight for them.  He’s trying to run them over.  Now the chase resumes as they run and in an instant, Maloney narrowly misses a convertible filled with teenagers and his car goes off the road and down the cliff.  The sound of a crash, the start of a fire and a huge plume of smoke comes up signaling Maloney’s demise.  Blanche in a rare moment of compassion says they need to get to a phone to call the police.  George chimes in cheerily, “What!? And lose the $10,000.00??”


Next scene George returns to the Barlow Creek cemetery for Maloney’s funeral.  He stands off to the side while the prayers are read.  He spies Maloney’s widow (Katherine Helmond) who also fixes an eye on him.  Here we are treated to another Hitchcockian set piece, the maze like crane shot following the pair as they criss-cross the cemetery.  George in pursuit and Maloney’s widow trying to escape.  They meet near the Shoebridge graves, the cause of all the misery.  George presses her for information and she finally relents and identifies Eddie Shoebridge as a man called Arthur Adamson.  In her grief and frustration she kicks the headstone, and knocks it aside yelling “fake fake!”    Hitchcockian set piece, the maze like crane shot following the pair as they criss-cross the cemetery.  George in pursuit and Maloney's widow trying to escape.  They meet near the Shoebridge graves, the cause of all the misery.  George presses her for information and she finally relents and identifies Eddie Shoebridge as a man called Arthur Adamson.  In her grief and frustration she kicks the headstone, and knocks it aside yelling "fake fake!"

Blanche is now enthused to find "the" Arthur Adamson, many in the phonebook and they need to narrow it down.  She's annoyed, however, because George needs to actually work for a day in his cab, otherwise he'll get fired.  He tells her to wait and they'll get to it on his day off.  She's not buying it and once he's gone, she starts her journey with the torn pages from the phone book searching for Arthur Adamson.  After many stops and obvious dead ends, Blanche comes across Arthur Adamson Jeweler.  She meets his assistant and succeeds in wheedling out of her Adamson's address as the harbinger of good news. 
Blanche stops at one of the hotels where George hangs in a cab line and leaves a message with the doorman she's found Adamson and to let George know she's going to his place to give him the good news. 
She finds the Adamson place (looking much like some location shot in Pacific Heights, I've not been able to identify it).  As an aside, Hitch reported told the location assistant that he found the coldest corner in San Francisco.  She arrives just as Adamson and Fran are about to pick up their latest ransom for Bishop Wood.  She rings the bell, Fran sees her and starts to panic.  They wait her out and it appears she's gone.  Gone until they open the garage door and find Blanche and her car parked right in front.  She's thrilled to see him and tells him she has good news.  They're having none of it and wanting to get out of there to retrieve the ransom.  Unfortunately to them, the Rainbird fortune is a much better deal. 

Bishop Wood, groggy is in the back seat of Adamson's car and Fran is desperately trying to hide the Bishop from view and the car door opens and all is revealed.  Quickly, Adamson closes the garage door and Blanche realizes she's trapped and in dangershe had not bargained for.  She tries to fight him off and fails.  A quick and painful jab drugs Blanche and the pair shove her in the hidden room for the kidnap victims and go off to drop Bishop Wood and collect.
Meanwhile, George gets the message and shows up at the Adamson house and finding it dark and with Blanche's car parked in front.  He tries to get in the garage and finds a side window and makes his way in.  In the garage he finds Blanche's handbag, drops of blood and no sign of Blanche.  He makes his way into the house and hears the garage open.  In hiding he discovers that the pair has locked Blanche up and that she's apparently drugged.  They enter the house with their loot and George sneaks into the room.  Blanche indicates to him she's fully awake and he hides in a  dark corner of the garage, lying in wait.  Adamson and Fran try to rouse Blanche who fakes them out, yells for George and runs out of the room.  George quickly slams an locks the door. 
They both walk upstairs to call the police and muse about the reward for the kidnappers and how much more lucrative it would be if they could find the diamonds.  Suddenly, Blanche goes into a trance-like state and makes her way up dreamily the stairs.  In a moment she points to the chandelier and the diamonds hidden there.  George declares that she's done it, she's really psychic.  He heads happily to the phone to call the cops and Blanche, self-satisfied sits down on the stairs and with a wink and smile.  Hitchcock's last blonde a mystery, was she really a clairvoyant?  We'll never know.

  

Family Plot is Alfred Hitchcock's swansong, his final film in a long list of great and near great films.  Family Plot is a film that seems to get tossed off with barely a nod, that it was Hitch, but not particularly good or creative Hitch.  The last ditch effort of an old man.  I really beg to differ on the film getting a slight.  Hitch may have slowed down a lot and was an elder statesman when he made this film, but the film deserves more, a whole lot more, respect.  It's a good deal of fun to watch; has a crackling good script (by Ernest Lehman) and performances by the four leads are all solid.  The supporting cast is also all solid as a rock.  The film is also filled with Hitchcockian touches we all love.  The only thing about this movie, to me, that has not aged well would be the process shots.  It is well known, that Hitch favored work in the studio, so this is a norm rather than an exception.  The rear projection/blue screen does not fare well and if that is my only real complaint, then that's not bad at all.
  
In his review for the New York Times, Vincent Canby began "Not since "To Catch a Thief" and "The Trouble With Harry" has Alfred Hitchcock been in such benign good humor as he is in "Family Plot," the old master's 56th feature since he began directing films in 1922."  That's a good start and a surprise for me to read.  While I did not see the film in the theater during the original release, its reputation has always been this was a pretty sad end to an illustrious career.  Reading Canby's review delights me and proves wrong in my thinking that everyone greeted the film as a flop.  Likewise, Roger Ebert reviewed the film positively and ended his review with this:
  
"And it's a delight for two contradictory reasons: because it's pure Hitchcock, with its meticulous construction and attention to detail, and because it's something new for Hitchcock -- a macabre comedy, essentially. He doesn't go for shock here, or for violent effects, but for the gradual tightening of a narrative noose.
  
Everything's laid out for us and made clear, we understand the situation we can see where events are leading... and then, in the last 30 minutes, he springs one concealed trap after another, allowing his story to fold in upon itself, to twist and turn, and scare and amuse us with its clockwork irony."

So, what about the film today?  To me it still holds up very well.  Barbara Harris really walks away with the picture as the final "Hitchcock Blonde" - a frosted blonde in this case.  Her Madame Blanche is funny, gusty, earthy and quietly sexy.  She steals the picture.  Bruce Dern is at his most likeable as George Lumley, sometime actor, cab driver and amateur private dick.  Probably the nicest guy role Dern ever had.  Karen Black is really quite funny as Fran and William Devane is urbane and a little scary as Arthur Anderson/Eddie Shoebridge.  Devane said Hitchcock's guidance on what he wanted was "William Powell."  Hitch may have been happy, I do not see much Powell in Devane, he's more like a scary and edgy Clark Gable.  He is very good at being sepentine, he's quite creepy in a roguish way.
  
I've hardly done the plot justice with my recap.  All I can say is go watch this film, it's as enjoyable as To Catch a Thief in many ways.  It's lighthearted and clearly Hitch enjoyed making it and you won't feel it to be time wasted.  It's not Notorious or North by Northwest nor is it the least bit glamorous, and I'm not bothered by that in the least.  It's still Hitch and a pretty darn good film. 

In 1976 it held its own up against All the President's Men, Marathon Man, Network, Carrie and Rocky.  In the box office totals it finished 9th for the year.  Hitchcock had nothing to be ashamed of and this film deserves a nicer reputation than history has given it. 
Not originally intended to be Hitch's final film, poignantly it is.  While Hitch was deeply saddened by not having the stamina to continue, one hopes he looked kindly and fondly on what was his final film.  It is filled with good humor, a good mystery and enough twists and turns to satisfy any armchair sleuth.  Ultimately it ends with a wink and smile.  At the end in my recent viewing, I also smiled.
She finds the Adamson place looking much like some location shot in Pacific Heights, I’ve not been able to identify it.  Hitch reported told the location assistant that he found the coldest corner in San Francisco.  She arrives just as Adamson and Fran are about to pick up their latest ransom for Bishop Wood.  She rings the bell, Fran sees her and starts to panic.  They wait her out and it appears she’s gone.  Gone until they open the garage door and find Blanche and her car parked right in front.  She’s thrilled to see him and tells him she has good news.  Bishop Wood, groggy is in the back seat of Adamson’s car and Fran is desperately trying to hide the Bishop from view and the car door opens and all is revealed.  Quickly, Adamson closes the garage door and Blanche realizes she’s trapped and in danger and tries to fight him off.  A quick and painful jab drugs Blanche and the pair shove her in the hidden room for the kidnap victims and go off to drop Bishop Wood.

Hitch providing directorial nuance filming the opening sequence
 "Too much pain, too much sorrowwwwwwwwww"

Meanwhile, George gets the message and shows up at the Adamson house and finding it dark and with Blanche’s car parked in front.  He tries to get in the garage and finds a side window and makes his way in.  In the garage he finds Blanche’s handbag, drops of blood and no sign of Blanche.  He makes his way into the house and hears the garage open.  In hiding he discovers that the pair has locked Blanche up and that she’s apparently drugged.  They enter the house with their loot and George sneaks into the room.  She indicates to him she’s fully awake and he hides in the corner of the garage.  Adamson and Fran try to rouse Blanche who fakes them out, runs out of the room and George quickly locks the door. 
For the Love of Film is a fundraising blogathon hosted by The Self-Styled Siren, Ferdy on Films and This Island Rod. I am honored to be a participant for such a worthy and noble cause. If you like what you've been reading, or not, please consider making a donation to the NFPF to help reach the goal of making what remains of the 1923 film The White Shadow available for online streaming. Any amount is a welcome and is tax deductable. Be it $5, $10, $20 or $100, no amount it too small to help reach the goal of $15,000. Donate Here or hit the pic of Hitch or the donatation button to the right. By all means, just donate!
He goes upstairs to call the police and they muse about the reward for the kidnappers and how much more it would be if they could find the diamonds.  Blanche goes into a trance-like state and makes her way up the stairs.  In a moment she points to the chandelier and the diamonds hidden there.  George declares that she’s done it, she’s really psychic.  He head to the phone to call the cops and Blanche, self-satisfied sits down on the stairs and with a wink and smile.  Hitchcock’s last blonde a mystery, was she really a clairvoyant?  We’ll never know.
Family Plot is Alfred Hitchcock’s swansong, his final film in a long list of great and near great films.  Family Plot is a film that seems to get tossed off with barely a nod, that it was Hitch, but not particularly good or creative Hitch.  The last ditch effort of an old man.  I really beg to differ on the film getting a slight.  Hitch may have slowed down a lot and was an elder statesman when he made this film, but the film deserves more a whole lot more respect.  It’s a whole lot of fun to watch; has a crackling good script (by Ernest Lehman) and performances by the four leads are all solid.  The supporting cast is also all solid as a rock.  The film is also filled with Hitchcockian touches we all love.  The only thing about this movie, to me, that has not aged well would be the process shots.  It is well known, that Hitch favored work in the studio, so this is a norm rather than an exception.  The rear projection does not fare well and if that is my only real complaint, then that’s not bad at all.








In his review for the New York Times, Vincent Canby began “Not since "To Catch a Thief" and "The Trouble With Harry" has Alfred Hitchcock been in such benign good humor as he is in "Family Plot," the old master's 56th feature since he began directing films in 1922.”  That’s a good start and a surprise for me to read.  While I did not see the film in the theater during the original release, its reputation has always been this was a pretty sad end to an illustrious career.  Reading Canby’s review (link: http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9C0DE7DF153BE334BC4852DFB266838D669EDE) delights me and proves wrong in my thinking that everyone greeted the film as a flop.  Likewise, Roger Ebert reviewed (link: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19760412/REVIEWS/604120301/1023)  the film positively and ended his review with this:





“And it's a delight for two contradictory reasons: because it's pure Hitchcock, with its meticulous construction and attention to detail, and because it's something new for Hitchcock -- a macabre comedy, essentially. He doesn't go for shock here, or for violent effects, but for the gradual tightening of a narrative noose.





Everything's laid out for us and made clear, we understand the situation we can see where events are leading... and then, in the last 30 minutes, he springs one concealed trap after another, allowing his story to fold in upon itself, to twist and turn, and scare and amuse us with its clockwork irony.”





So, what about the film today?  To me it holds up very well.  Barbara Harris really walks away with the picture as the final “Hitchcock Blonde” – a frosted blonde in this case.  Her Madame Blanche is funny, gusty and quietly sexy.  She steals the picture.  Bruce Dern is at his most likeable as George Lumley, sometime actor, cab driver and amateur private dick.  Probably the nicest guy role Dern ever had.  Karen Black is really quite funny as Fran and Willian Devane is urbane and a little scary as Arthur Anderson ne Eddie Shoebridge.  Devane said Hitchcock’s guidance on what he wanted was “William Powell.”  Hitch may have been happy, I do not see much Powell in Devane, he’s more like a scary Clark Gable.





I’ve hardly done the plot justice with my recap.  All I can say is go watch this film, it’s as enjoyable as To Catch a Thief in many ways.  It’s lighthearted and clearly Hitch enjoyed making it and you won’t feel it to be time wasted.  It’s not Notorious or North by Northwest and I’m not bothered by that in the least.  It’s still Hitch and a pretty darn good film.  In 1976 it held its own up against All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, Network, Carrie and Rocky.  In the box office totals it finished 9th for the year.  Hitchcock had nothing to be ashamed of and this film deserves a nicer reputation than history has given it. 

For the Love of Film is a fundraising blogathon hosted by The Self-Styled Siren, Ferdyon Films and This Island Rod. I am honored to be a participant for such a worthy and noble cause. If you like what you've been reading, or not, please consider making a donation to the NFPF to help reach the goal of making what remains of the 1923 film The White Shadow available for online streaming. Any amount is a welcome and is tax deductable. Be it $5, $10, $20 or $100, no amount it too small to help reach the goal of $15,000. Donate Here or hit the pic of Hitch or the donatation button to the right. By all means, just donate!

Comments

Tinky said…
I haven't seen this in years, and you're making me yen. And it's nice to remember that "Frenzy," which I have trouble watching, wasn't his last film.
Alas, I haven't seen this one, but it's nice to know that, like the previous comment says, Hitch ended his career with this lighthearted romp and not with the deeply unpleasant Frenzy.