Content written by Tony Macklin. Originally published on April 16, 1976 in The Journal Herald.
The delight of a good Hitchcock film is watching the master at work. His style, tone, and touch have the surety of time and experience. He can take a mediocre plot and make it dance and throb with the perennial Hitchcock spirit.
Family Plot, at the Dabel, is good Hitchcock. It is the story of two pairs of characters who come together for a crucial showdown. One pair is made of an amateur psychic (Barbara Harris) and her researcher, cab driving partner (Bruce Dern). They try to find an heir for an old lady (Cathleen Nesbitt) in the hopes of getting $10,000 for themselves.
The other pair are kidnappers who ransom famous people for jewels. The man (William Davane) as a child murdered his parents by having their house set afire by a young accomplice. Now he has an alias and a new accomplice (Karen Black) as he gathers loot.
The couples cross paths as the fortune hunters think that the kidnaper may be the prospective heir. They finally merge in an ending of suspense and mirth.
The plot is fancy, but the film's real pleasure is watching how Hitchcock plays with it. Family Plot is full of allusions to past Hitchcock. A car is parked on Bates Avenue (an allusion to Norman Bates in Psycho); a gas station man tells a cab driver it is dangerous to light a match (which brings back memories of the gas station explosion in The Birds); the kidnapers tell each other how danger makes them tingle (which is reminiscent of Marnie); and the female kidnaper used a blonde wig (which is straight out of Vertigo).
And of course Hitchcock makes his patented appearance in a profile behind the glass part of a door. Perhaps the most clever of the Hitchcockian ploys is when the female kidnaper tells her mate that authorities have secured a diamond of 53 carats for the bishop they have kidnapped. Family Plot is Hitchcock's 53 rd film.
Family Plot is also a continuation of Hitchcock's emphasis on the church. The film is full of religious symbols. One suggests the church's decline when a priest is shown on a "date" with a woman in passion-red. Another symbol is when the wife of the boyfriend accomplice kicks over a headstone, and it falls like a toppled icon. Another is that the grave is empty. Also the villains are clothed in evil black.
Hitchcock has a solid cast, especially in Bruce Dern who is the right combination of actor and ham to give his role the proper heft. Both Barbara Harris and Karen Black acquit themselves well. And Ed Lauter is appropriately seedy as the boyhood accomplice grown-up.
The script by Ernest Lehman, from Victor Canning's novel The Rainbow Pattern, is a bit heavy with its double entendres. And some of the action, such as a wild car ride without brakes down a twisting mountain road, is outrageous.
But logic has never been Hitchcock's strong suit. Style has. Family Plot provides the latter in fine fettle.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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