"Murder can be fun", said Hitchcock to the then-rising composer John Williams, unsure about the use of playful theme for ominous situations. Well, after watching "Family Plot" again, I would say that anything handled by Hitchcock can be fun. And it is not surprising that the original novel titled "The Rainbird Pattern" saw its dark material turned into a lighthearted comedy by Ernest Lehman's inspired writing and Hitchcock's wicked sense of humor, in the same vein than "To Catch a Thief" and "The Trouble With Harry". And I think this says a lot about a fascinating mix of self-confidence and humility that -I guess- only experienced directors can demonstrate at the twilight of their career.
And I'm convinced that it took the two 60's misfires "Torn Curtain" and "Topaz" to put Hitchcock on the right track again and allow him to make movies that would be more fitting swan songs. So Hitchcock was back to his roots (in every meaning of the word) with the wonderful "Frenzy", a thriller certainly not devoid of macabre humor. Indeed, who can ever forget the villain's struggle to get his pin off the hand of his last victim, hidden in a bag of potatoes, and the whole action set in a moving truck? Frenzy was a legitimate thriller but its darkly comedic undertones worked as the perfect transition to a more relaxed and upbeat "Family Plot", definitely a comedy, with a good balance of thrills and suspense.
The film starts in a wealthy elderly woman's house, Blanche Tyler, a psychic in trance, tries to communicate with the woman's sister, using different voices, howling, screaming, giving such an over-the-top performance we suspect she belongs to the fraudulent side of the business, but it takes some great acting to perform the bad one, and Barbara Harris, whenever she's in that state, is a delight to watch, she'd be even funnier in a similar scene later with her boyfriend. The comedy is integral to the film's appeal because the opening is extremely talkative and provides a vital flow of information and Harris' lively and funny performance catches our eyes, and inevitably our ears and our mind.
So, it all comes down to the woman asking Blanche to find her sister's illegitimate son given for adoption, so she can clear her conscience and allow him to inherit her fortune; in exchange, Blanche will receive ten thousand dollars (and I just love Harris' cute response when she tries to pretend that money doesn't matter). Blanche is a small-time fraud and her boyfriend George is a cabdriver and wannabe actor, so the reward means a lot. But what an unlikely, non-glamorous, goofy yet charming couple to lead a Hitchcock film! Still, the chemistry between them, with all the talks about the 'plot', sex and their job, feels genuine and real.
There is another couple though in the film, more in-line with the classy and icy correctness we're used to deal with Hitch. A jeweler (David Levane) and his girlfriend Fran (Karen Black) specialized in kidnapping dignitaries and rich figures, leaving them up in exchange of precious gemstones. They hide their victims in a cellar and are so professional they make impossible any identification. The first transition from Blanche and George to Arthur and Fran is abrupt and disconcerting (although creatively done) but once we get it that the film centers on the two couples, the pros and the small-time crooks, we know where the story is going, two plots coming across each other, in other words: a confrontation.
The thrill in "Family Plot" is to see these couples getting closer to each other, and even play a sprinkled-sprinkler game when George's lousy attempt to pass a lawyer raises the suspicion of Adamson's former accomplice (he's obviously the lost heir, the only way the two plots would converge). So the cat and mouse's role are reversed and Fran and Arthur spy on George and Blanche, thinking they want the reward for their capture. Which would lead to the first life-threatening sequence with a high-speed descent in a mountain road, and as much I enjoyed it, I can't get over the hilariously distorted face of George, crushed under Blanche's shoe, while she tries to climb her way out of the vehicle.
Just like the plot swings back and forth between two couples that couldn't have been more different, it does the same thing with thrills and comedy and the result is savorous and entertaining. Hitchcock also provide some pretty memorable moments: Adamson delicately taking a lint off a cop's suit, Fran putting parsley in the hostage's plate, a dazzling aerial view on a cemetery and a great kidnapping scene in a church where a bishop is taken away without any of the people reacting. Adamson knew that church-people are so polite and inhibited they wouldn't react, and we believe him. This level of confidence echoes Hitchcock's, he doesn't go to intricate and lengthy extremes to get a specific job done. And only Hitch can get away with it.
This is a film for the fans, his cameo doesn't bother to show his face and yet everyone immediately recognizes him, this is why his last cameo is one of his most inspired. Hitchcock have built so much confidence that only he could conclude such a film with a climax relying on something that a child could have done, but knowing the childish Blanche and her slow-witted boyfriend, it could work. And although the film wasn't intended to be the last, it couldn't have had a better final shot than a wink at the camera. Hitchcock always did movies with the audience in mind, it's all natural to end with a friendly farewell to those whose emotions he toyed with for half a century.
3 out of 3 found this helpful.
Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.