Saturday, August 22, 2009

Family Plot

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.


Sam Juliano said...

"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..."

Indeed, well said and agreed. Of course Ernest Lehman, who penned NBN, also wrote FAMILY PLOT. I do believe beneath all the lightheartedness there is a pointed statement about people being dishonest and greedt to the last, but this is a perceptive, witty and urbane thriller that engages the viewer with a rather complex narrative that is marvelously tied up at the end. Not a great film of course, but far better than the critics of it's time gave it credit for.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam, I agree that the film does have something to say about greed, and being content with what you have rather than always scrambling about for more. But on the whole it's just a fun, engaging film, a nice end to Hitchcock's brilliant career.

Tower Farm said...

I really liked this movie when I first saw it -- it's a pleasant, comfortable movie that's like "North By Northwest"-lite. I thought Harris gave an especially enjoyable performance here, too.
Nice write-up!

Ryan Kelly said...

Maybe I'm just so fond of Hitchcock is why I love this so much --- it's like Hitchcock's The Tempest; a gentle, benevolent, wonderful encapsulation of a storied career. I appreciate the light heartedness of it all, and I agree that there is much going on under its somewhat deceptive amicable surface. And I love the performances of all involved, and John Williams' score is just great I think.

As always great work Ed.

Ed Howard said...

Tower Farm, "North By Northwest-lite" is a good description for this film, which is definitely enjoyable. NBN is one of my favorite Hitchcock films, so even a slightly watered-down version of it has to be fun too.

Ryan, great comparison to The Tempest, a master saying goodbye with a light, fun work -- though I don't think Hitchcock intended this to be his goodbye. Thanks for bringing up the score too, which I really loved -- that alternately eerie and warm in its low-key pulsating. It is very much in the background, used sparingly, but it's very effective.

Troy Olson said...

Just a wonderful review here, Ed.

This is one of the few Hitchcock's my wife and I have yet to see, often hearing it's a weak effort. But your words on it have made me quite excited to seek it out. You seem to help prove the fact here that even when he wasn't perfect, Hitchcock had enough tricks up his sleeve to make the proceedings fun to watch.

DMac said...

Ed your review here has made me want to give Family Plot another chance. I saw it once a few years ago on the tail end of a Hitchcock marathon I did over the course of a couple of days (in retrospect probably not the best setting to view it).

I remember enjoying the film well enough, but it's tongue in cheek quality and fairly undramatic plot exposition felt so slight compared to the other masterworks I had just viewed that it was difficult for me to completely lock in with it.

Now that my sensibilities for Hitchcock's work has had some time to mature and a certain affection has developed, I have no doubt that I would take much more out of a revisitation of Family Plot. My dad who is quite the vocal Hitchcock enthisiast has always professed Family Plot to be his favorite of Hitch's films. That's always left me scratching my head a little bit but no doubt I'm probably due to give this one another shot.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Troy. I think any Hitchcock admirer could find much to enjoy here, as the rest of these comments attest. It's no coincidence that so many of the early auteurists considered themselves "Hitchcocko-Hawksians," since both directors are great examples of where, even when the film isn't top-notch, there's plenty of interest for those who know the director's work well. As a result, even lesser Hitchcock is worth seeking out.

DMac, I can see why this film would definitely suffer in comparison to the rest of Hitchcock's work. As charming as it is, it's no masterpiece, and I doubt you'll come to agree with your dad that it's one of his best. But taken on its own merits, it's really pretty fun.

John said...

Not the best Hitchcock but a good farewall from a master. Certainly nothing to be ashamed of and certainly better than it has been treated by the professional critics of the time. Thanks!!

John said...

My comment should read " a good farewell from a master." I really need to proof read.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, John, I agree.

nem baj said...

Even the most unsuspected material can be both a wonderful cinematic playground for an auteur, and an occasion to get new insights on some of his favorite themes.

First, the power balance between genders is very hitchcockian. Both couples seem at first to be rather one-sided, with Barbara Harris and William Devane as the alpha members - however, gradually, it becomes clear that William Devane's unilaterally controlling attitude will probably lead the couple into a dead end; whereas the 'detectives' couple appears far more balanced than it seemed. In that respect, the car accident scene is a prime example of how Hitchcock could manipulate its audience : Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris may not be our ideal couple, but it is hard, as we realize that both have strengths and weaknesses, not to become fond of them after that scene. And once we like them, the suspense reaches a whole different level.

By the way, the accident scene functions like the marrakchi restaurant scene in the second Man who knew too much, where James Stewart's uneasiness and, by contrast, Doris Day's perfect manners, tell us this is also a well-balanced couple - which was not obvious before that, and will prove useful later in the script. This kind of material is in my opinion a major key to Hitchcock's talent: his 'relief' scenes are everything but meaningless; not only do they provide a feeling of relief that is both endearing and full of humor (unless of course you consider yourself as never clumsy nor pathetic), but they are part of the character build-up without which there is no great suspense.

Second, the erotic power of danger is a classic Hitchcock theme deployed through both couples - the detectives and the criminals. It is stressed quite bluntly in the lines, and I'm still wondering whether this has to do with the director being in his seventies… or with the seventies era itself, i.e. a post-Code Hollywood among other things. However, the sex lives evoked here seem quite joyful and devoid of guilt when compared to the increasing darkness displayed in the directors' late period films, including The Birds.

Even the pygmalion theme is evoked in a comedic and ironic way. Since we have this time no fetishist to sympathize with, the transformation of Karen Black in a 'tall blonde' for criminal purposes reveals as a pure travesty : something unbelievable yet exciting for all men… including William Devane himself. As with the treatment of the eroticism of danger mentioned above, this is sheer self-irony on Hitchcock's part, as if being his own caricaturist was a way to overcome the despair of Vertigo and Marnie.

Finally, there is… family, or more exactly the bounds of love, which are also a recurrent Hitchcock theme. It is treated here - not unlike Vertigo - through the prisms of loss, ghosts, and deceit. There is the loss of a child, the loss of a sister, the murder of William Devane's foster parents, which bring several ghosts, either 'real' (Henry, the deceased sister) or totally fake (like William Devane's tombstone). And though we are induced at the start to believe that the younger couple will give in to the temptation of deceiving the rich woman, they end up by doing exactly the opposite: using the 'real' ghost to unmask the 'fake' one. This might seem too moral, but I find it quite touching that the actual respect of Barbara Harris for her customer's desire to correct the wrong she's done to a loved one has the unexpected consequence of destroying William Devane's efforts to erase his own past.

In that respect, it seems to me that Family Plot is undissociable from Hitchcock's previous works, and though it lacks a spectacular 'pièce de résistance' I consider it to be, far from a minor opus, a counterpoint as important when trying to grasp the complexity of his author's work as, for instance, Vivement dimanche is to Truffaut's.