Blanche (Barbara Harris) is a phony psychic (otherwise known as just a psychic) who is currently pretending to communicate with the deceased sister of her latest client, Mrs. Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt). Rainbird is exceedingly wealthy and very old, but her only known relative and heir is her nephew, her sister’s son, who was given away as a child to protect the family’s honour. Blanche is recruited to find the son, and uses her partner George (Bruce Dern), an actor working as a taxi driver and moonlighting as a private detective, to help. Meanwhile, two kidnappers (William Devane and Karen Black) have just collected their latest ransom – a rather large diamond – in a flawlessly executed crime. It’s not long before these two plots become entangled within one another in Hitchcock’s final completed film.
I’ve seen Family Plot before, and I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to watching it again. It’s not a bad film, it just isn’t terribly memorable, other than one sequence in which a car, whose brakes have been cut and accelerator has been jammed, runs headlong down a twist-laden and traffic-filled cliff top road, whilst its driver (Bruce Dern) struggles to control the vehicle and his passenger (Barbara Harris) suffers fit of hysterics and for some reason believes the situation will be improved by her grabbing the wheel, clawing at Dern, clambering over him and attempting to strangle him with his own neck tie. It’s a very silly sequence, made all the more ridiculous by the unharmed manner in which the pair survive the perilous journey, as they should have careened of the road long before they rumbled to a stop. If all I could remember was a scene that annoyed me, what hope could I have for the rest of this movie? As is so often the case, the film greatly improved upon re-watching. The chase still felt silly, but that’s because at least half of this film is very heavily comedic. The characters of Blanche and George are straight out of a comedy, specifically Blanche’s hammy over-acting during her seances, and George being permanently attached to his pipe. Plus, Dern’s gangly, John-Cleese-like lanky gait always drew a smile from me. They played their roles straight, but for most of the film their storyline is a lot of fun. At times Blanche came off as overly demanding (she seems outright furious that George is going to work to pay the bills instead of pursuing the potential wild goose chase of the missing person, when he is their main source of steady income) and George in turn is short and abrupt with her, but their chemistry together is always good.
The other plot, on the other hand, is much more serious in tone, and could be paralleled against some of Hitchcock’s thrillers. It is at times brutal and shocking – a bishop is knocked out and kidnapped, quite unexpectedly – and the final struggle, when the two plots violently collide, is gripping and tense in a manner akin to Rear Window. Karen Black doesn’t get a great deal to do other than don a blonde wig and a black get-up, but William Devane is excellent as the brains of the operation. He’s an actor who crops up in small roles in lots of things, which was disconcerting given how many Hitchcock movies I’ve seen of late that have featured no-one I’ve recognised outside of Hitch’s filmography. This makes sense, however, as Family Plot was released less than 40 years ago, so of course there are actors involved who are still working today.
Another such fellow is Ed Lauter, playing Joe Maloney, a mechanic and blunt instrument used by Devane’s Arthur Adamson when the need arises. Lauter, who I know best as the coach from Not Another Teen Movie, has cropped up in dozens of great movies, and apparently he’s never had a full head of hair. Regardless, it was fun seeing him here, and he did a good job with his role.
I really liked the overall plot here, which was neatly sewn together and only got ridiculous and over the top when it wanted to. One decision made right at the end involving Blanche didn’t work for me, and I’d have greatly preferred it not to have happened, but it wasn’t enough to ruin the film. I’m also glad my initial thoughts on where the plot was going – I assumed Blanche would recruit George to pretend to be Rainbird’s long lost nephew and claim the inheritance himself – didn’t pan out, as that would have led to a far more typical and less entertaining movie. This is by no means ranked amongst Hitchcock’s best work, but for a final movie he could have done a lot worse.
Choose Film 7/10