Saturday, August 22, 2009
Alfred Hitchcock's final film is the light, enjoyably fluffy Family Plot, which balances Hitchcock's flare for suspense against the kind of airy, slightly goofy comedy that propelled his autumnal masterpiece The Trouble With Harry. If this final film isn't quite worthy of being compared to the master of suspense's best thrillers, nor to his best comedic work, it's certainly a reminder that few directors could handle mood and tone as agilely as Hitchcock, who could control his audiences' every reaction. Throughout Family Plot, Hitch cuts deliberately between two different stories, one a gritty thriller about a pair of expert kidnappers, the other an airy Hardy Boys-esque mystery about a ditsy psychic and her oafish boyfriend, investigating a mystery for a rich patron. It's painfully obvious, almost right from the beginning, just how these two stories are going to collide, how they'll eventually link up, so the film's delight lies in Hitchcock's utter mastery of tone, how deftly he transitions from comic bumbling to sinister plotting.
The film opens with the psychic Blanche (Barbara Harris) agreeing to take on a case for the aging socialite Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt): it seems that Julia's long-deceased sister had once given away an illegitimate son for adoption, and a remorseful Julia wants to locate the poor child, who is now her sole heir. To help her find this mysterious man, Blanche enlists the help of her taxi driver boyfriend George (Bruce Dern), a bumbling goofball who's actually much shrewder than he looks. He walks with a loping, slightly drunken gait, always on the verge of bopping his head on a hanging tree limb or stumbling over his own feet, and yet always just barely retaining his balance; in the same way, he has flashes of insight, sugary guile and investigative prowess that suggest his bumpkin demeanor is just a façade. His comic investigation into Julia's lost nephew is just one of the threads running through the film, though. During the opening scenes, after Blanche has learned about the missing heir and the promise of a hefty reward if she finds him, Hitchcock deftly switches the focus away from Blanche and George when the latter's taxi nearly hits an elegant blonde woman crossing the street. This turns out to be Fran (Karen Black), a kidnapper nicknamed the Trader for her habit of kidnapping important men and then trading them back in exchange for massive diamonds.
As the car with Blanche and George drives away from this chance encounter, Hitchcock's camera lingers behind, taking up a floating position, following Fran (much as he'd followed the titular heroine in the opening scenes of Marnie) as she walks into a police station and silently passes notes with her instructions. In her all-black outfit and floppy hat, with her platinum blonde hair the only hint of color in her appearance, she is a striking, unforgettable figure, and from the moment Hitchcock begins following her the audience is intrigued. He observes the mechanics of the hostage exchange with precision and grace, as Fran smoothly accomplishes the trade-off and is reunited with her partner and lover, Arthur (William Devane). Within the first half an hour of the film, Hitchcock has introduced two stories, each equally complex, populated with fascinating characters, stories with entirely different tones that nevertheless seem fated to collide eventually; the only question is whether the comic lightness or grim criminality will win out in the end.
Beyond the mechanics of the plot and the compelling characters, however, Hitchcock seems primarily interested in having fun with his elaborate set pieces. Some of these are rather perfunctory, like a playful and brief recreation of the famous crop duster strafing sequence from North By Northwest, here staged with Blanche and George running from a killer car and capped with a tragicomic, anticlimactic resolution. But throughout much of the rest of the film Hitchcock's visual verve and wit are continually on display. The latter is especially apparent in a scene where George attempts to corner a grieving widow for some information at her husband's funeral, a scene that Hitchcock, of course, plays for morbid comedy. His camera takes an aloof high angle that turns the cemetery's grid into a maze of paths and graves, and he watches as the widow and George try to outflank each other in this maze, evasively dodging along the trails while maintaining a polite walking pace. Hitch also inventively stages Fran and Arthur's kidnapping of a bishop, with Arthur comically disguised as an altar boy, looking hilarious in the flowing robes with his Neanderthal's angry face and bushy facial hair.
The film moves at a brisk pace, and Hitchcock's visual imagination is continually filling the frame with off-kilter, compelling images, cramming in little details like the ornate, cluttered decor in Mrs. Rainbird's palatial home, or the naughty humor of a priest's furtive meeting with a pretty brunette in a bright red dress, or the kidnappers' ingenious hiding place for their stolen gems, a touch that would've been at home in any classic Hitchcock thriller. Even so, despite the film's overall charm and verve, it's far from perfect, and displays some of the same problems with performances that plagued Hitchcock through virtually all of his late films, excepting the British-made Frenzy. The performances here are inconsistent and often stiff, as though the actors weren't sure what was wanted of them. The normally controlling Hitchcock uncharacteristically allowed the actors to improvise much of the dialogue here, and one can detect this in the hesitant quality of the acting, the occasionally bland dialogue and lazy rhythms of the conversations. It doesn't really work, and it especially afflicts George and Blanche, who get some of the film's best pattering, naughty (and lovably corny) sexual innuendos, but also frequently stumble through passages of aimless meandering.
Despite these lulls, Harris' performance as a whole is cute and endearing, with an appealingly fuzzy quality, as though she's always half-asleep. During Blanche's psychic sessions, she exaggeratedly mugs and does silly voices, gesturing wildly and only occasionally taking a sly sideways peek at how her client is reacting. During one session, she catches a glimpse of George gesturing to her from the next room, and has to go into a bit of psychic wandering, speaking to an invisible spirit as she slowly makes her way over to him, then frantically searches for her car keys while periodically yelling back to the next room as if still in a spirit trance. She's such a fun, likable character that it's especially disappointing when Hitchcock subjects her to some of his nastier impulses towards women, treating her like a useless nuisance. In one of the film's most uncomfortable sequences, the brakes go out on George and Blanche's car as they're speeding around the curves on a treacherous mountain road. While George desperately tries to keep the car on the road and think of a way to stop it, Blanche simply thrashes around, hanging off him, throwing herself across his lap, berating him the whole time for his horrible driving. It's staged like slapstick, as though it's supposed to be funny, but instead it comes across as a nasty portrayal of a stupid woman who can't realize what's going on and becomes hysterical under pressure.
Moments like this sabotage the film's easygoing charm, but Hitchcock makes up for it with a taut, perfectly executed final act, with a chilling suspense sequence in which Blanche's oblivious good cheer finally comes face to face with the deadly Arthur. And it all ends with a wink to the camera that indicates Hitchcock's disarmingly casual approach to his final film. Family Plot may not rank among his finest work by any means, but it's a minor pleasure in which the suspense master is clearly having fun, and passing on that fun to his audience.