A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Family Plot (Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

Barbara Harris, as the "spiritualist" Blanche Tyler, is the best thing about Alfred Hitchcock's last movie. According to Stephen Whitty's  The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia, Hitchcock wanted Harris for the role, but he met resistance from the studio, which wanted a bigger name, so he cast Karen Black in the slightly lesser role of Fran to please the higher-ups, who gave Black higher billing than Harris. Which brings up an old question: Why did Harris never become a major star? She made an impressive movie debut in A Thousand Clowns (Fred Coe, 1965), was a standout in Robert Altman's Nashville (1975), and received an Oscar nomination for Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (Ulu Grosbard, 1971), but is pretty much forgotten today. She may just be a case of the right talent having been born at the wrong time: Harris had just turned 40 when she made Family Plot. If she had been born a decade later, she might have given Goldie Hawn or, even later, Meg Ryan competition for the romantic comedy roles they became famous for. Family Plot is feather-light lesser Hitchcock, though on the whole it's a return to form for the director after the rather grim Frenzy (1972) and the late misfires Topaz (1969) and Torn Curtain (1967). There are some touches of the master director to be seen in it. The film makes us think that its main story is that of Blanche and her boyfriend George Lumley (Bruce Dern) as they try to track down the missing heir to a fortune, but as Blanche and George are riding in his cab arguing, he suddenly slams on the brakes to avoid hitting a woman crossing the street. The camera takes a sharp left turn and follows the woman instead, taking us into a plot about jewel thieves. The setup is in Ernest Lehman's screenplay, but Hitchcock is classically artful in the way he keeps both plots dangling until we can see how they intersect. There's another glimpse of the master at work in the way he films George trying to meet up with a woman he's trying to question. The scene takes place in a cemetery, and Hitchcock films it with an overhead camera so that we can see the crossing paths among the graves as George maneuvers his way toward the woman. I doubt that Hitchcock ever played one, but the sequence reminds me of a video game maze. Harris, Black, and Dern are all good in their roles, and William Devane is a fine villain. (Though have there ever been toothier leading men than Dern and Devane?) John Williams adds a touch of Bernard Herrmann in some parts of his score, the only one he did for Hitchcock.