Little known fact: this movie was the prequel to The Sopranos. Okay, so that's little known because it's patently false. It is, however, the final film of legendary director Alfred Hitchcock, and Judge Patrick Naugle flaunts his unusual predilections in his review efforts.
Our review of Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection (Blu-ray), published December 11th, 2012, is also available.
Family Plot was the last film directed by one of cinema's greatest, Alfred Hitchcock. Plagued with health troubles and a new pacemaker, Hitchcock still managed to fill his last movie with wit and style. Starring Bruce Dern (Marnie), William Devane (Payback), Barbara Harris (Nashville) and Karen Black (Trilogy Of Terror), Family Plot is available for the first time in anamorphic widescreen from Universal with a lengthy documentary to boot.
Facts of the Case
Cabdriver George Lumley (Dern) and his phony psychic girlfriend Blanche (Barbara Harris) have stumbled onto a way to get themselves out of the poorhouse. The catch: they have to find someone no one knows, has no physical description, and has no background. Blanche is a hack communicator with the dead whose latest elderly client (Catherine Nesbitt) wants Blanche to find her long lost nephew, Edward Shoebridge. Blanche accepts the job and drags her out of work actor/cabdriver boyfriend George along to help track down Shoebridge for a reward of $10,000.
At the same time, a couple of kidnappers/jewel store owners, Arthur Adamson (William Devane) and his girlfriend Fran (Karen Black), have just finished their last ransom pickup from kidnapping a local shipping boss. They are now eyeing their newest target for ransom: a local religious figure ("Two bits! I'll give you two bits for the guy in the robe!"). Arthur also has a "friend," Mr. Maloney (Ed Lauter), who helps him do his "dirty work" when things need cleaning up. Soon George and Blanche cross paths with Mr. Maloney as Arthur and Francis are dragged into the mix.
What do George and Blanche want with Arthur? Why is there a fake tombstone in the local cemetery? And just who is this mysterious Edward Shoebridge?
Slip on your detective hat and slide into Family Plot.
Though Family Plot started out a bit slow for my tastes, I really started to get into it as the half-hour mark rolled by. Of course, it goes without saying that any film starring Bruce Dern has to be entertaining. There's something special about the way he delivers his lines; it's a combination of irritation and befuddlement. I hope that the next time I'm on the Internet I find many web pages devoted solely to Mr. Dern's acting career. Of course, the one film that I always identify him with is The 'Burbs, where Dern played the misfit army neighbor Rumsfield. Comedy does not reach higher pinnacles, my friends. But enough about my borderline frightening fascination with Bruce Dern. Family Plot has a lot of good things going for it besides him.
Family Plot was written by Earnest Lehman, who had previously worked with Hitchcock as writer of North By Northwest. Lehman's script is punctuated with sexual innuendo out the ying-yang, using such phrases as "crystal balls" in the naughtiest of ways. I remember thinking during this film that there was an awful lot of sexual conversation for a Hitchcock film. Then I remembered that this was made in 1976, and suggestiveness was all the rage. Comparing this to Vertigo or The Birds of Hitchcock yesteryear is an eye opener. The story is well written, though the plot is essentially thin. If, by the end of Family Plot, you are surprised when you find out who Edward Shoebridge is, you need a swift rock'em-sock'em kick to the cranium.
The characters are all game for the winding plot, William Devane being especially creepy as a high-class kidnapper. Devane posses a certain weirdness, as if his whole face has been slathered in snake oil. He comes off as a car salesman who is as slippery as Horatio Sanz in a pool of castor oil. His Arthur is the type of villain who might have shown up weekly on "Falcon Crest" or "Dynasty." Barbara Harris as Blanche plays her role as camp, mugging for the camera and acting like a dingbat the whole way though. She has a certain cuteness to her, though her character does become grating at times.
Family Plot is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and looks fairly decent for a film from 1976. There were many signs of color fading in the beginning, and specks of dirt or dust were spotted throughout the presentation. Though the picture overall is not bad, this is by far not a great transfer. Digital artifacting was kept to the bare minimum and the blacks were generally solid. Universal could have done a bit better at cleaning up the print, but this can be overlooked as this is one of Hitchcock's lesser titles (for most fans).
Audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono and sounds fine for what you're getting. This wasn't the type of film that would have benefited greatly from a new sound mix, and for films of this period I almost think it's better to have the original soundtrack than some spiffy new redo (North By Northwest being an exception). Universal has also included an additional French 2.0 mono track, English captions and Spanish subtitles.
Extra features on Family Plot are meaty, if a bit lean. The big extra of note is the documentary "Plotting Family Plot," a documentary made especially for this DVD release. This 45-minute documentary includes interviews with cast members such as Bruce Dern, William Devane, and Karen Black. Other interviews included are with composer John Williams (Star Wars, the Indiana Jones films), daughter Pat Hitchcock O'Connell, and the assistant director of Family Plot. This whole documentary is very well done with stories and anecdotes from the film shoot. It seems as if every cast member has their own unique impression they do of Hitchcock (Bruce Dern's being the best of the lot). Amusing anecdotes, such as the time Hitch had to stop a take to check his pacemaker over the phone, pepper this interesting and lengthy piece, plus as a bonus there is much film footage of Hitchcock directing on the set. For fans of Family Plot or Hitchcock in general, "Plotting Family Plot" is a gem.
Also included are some storyboards that Hitchcock had made up for the chase scene. These are interesting for those of you who are either A.) artists or B.) bored. Nothing too exciting, but a good extra to include nonetheless. Some production photographs are also included that offer a rare glimpse of the set of Family Plot, many of Hitchcock in action. Typical production notes, cast and filmmaker bios and a theatrical trailer are also included. The trailers are always fun when it's a Hitchcock movie, as Hitch himself often introduces us to the film (as he does on Family Plot).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What the hell is with those hairdos and clothes? I mean, listen, I realize this was the '70s, but people…what were you thinking? Bruce Dern looks as if a small marmot died on his head and he decided to just let it stay there. Devane has a part that's sharper than a Ginsu knife, and the rest of the cast looks like extras from "That '70s Show." And let's have a chat about the collars and pastel suits Dern wears. It's like the video game "Leisure Suit Larry" came alive right on my TV screen.
Otherwise Family Plot is a fun movie. Sure, the car chase scene is pretty fake (you can tell when they are in front of a rear projection screen…a lot). And some of the performances teeter on overacting, such as the car chase scene where Blanche is crawling all over George and acting like an angel-dust addict. But you can overlook those inconsistencies, as Hitchcock directed this and it was the 1970s.
Family Plot is a fun, goofy black comedy that marks Hitchcock's final full-length film of his career. Though there are some things in Family Plot that haven't aged well, overall this is something that all film buffs should see just for the sake of history. For a price of around $25, Family Plot may get a bit steep for those of you who haven't seen it yet. I'd say rent it first and see what you think…preferably with a "family" member.
Innocent on account as it's Hitchcock and the fact that ten billion Hitch fans would beat me with their left shoes if I found this film guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Plotting Family Plot Documentary
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