Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Hitch's Final Plot

A celebrated director’s final film is rarely his or her most shining moment; most don’t end their careers on as high a note as Cecil B. DeMille (The Ten Commandments). No one cites Charlie Chaplin’s A Countess from Hong Kong or Billy Wilder’s Buddy Buddy among those auteurs’ greatest triumphs. Alfred Hitchcock’s last film may not be among the very best for the Master of Suspense, but the years have been kind to it. Viewed today, it’s a highly entertaining cap to one of the most brilliant careers in cinema. 

Though Family Plot (1976) is not in a league with the Master’s prodigious catalog of masterpieces— including but not limited to RebeccaRear WindowVertigoNorth by NorthwestPsycho and The Birds—it’s arguably as good as lesser efforts such as I ConfessStage Fright, Torn Curtain and Marnie. Hitchcock’s swan song is at turns mystery adventure, psychological thriller and comedic romp. His penultimate film, 1972’s Frenzy, had featured no recognizable box-office stars in its cast, and its frank treatment of a British serial killer’s sexual perversions and violence was not an audience pleaser (though remarkably ahead of its time and now a cult classic). 

For Family Plot, Hitchcock returned to a more middlebrow, tried-and-true formula that includes charismatic stars, romance, dark humor and a diamond heist subplot as its de rigeuer “MacGuffin” to add some sparkle to the proceedings. (The MacGuffin is, of course, a plot device that acts as a catalyst for the protagonist’s journey, often unimportant to the overall storyline, used most famously and pointedly by Hitchcock.)

The wonderful Barbara Harris
Family Plot is dominated by a delightfully zany performance by the brilliantly quirky Barbara Harris (Freaky FridayNashville) as a phony psychic who sends her detective boyfriend (a surprisingly likeable Bruce Dern) on wild goose chase to find a missing heir and claim a $10,000 reward. Harris, a Method actor and stage veteran (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever)  whose star rose and burned briefly in the 1970s, is one of Hollywood’s forgotten stars now, but every film performance she gave us is a gem. This is no exception, and she displays real chemistry with Dern, better known for playing dark and troubled characters (Bloody MamaComing Home) but refreshing and winning here as a charming average Joe. (Dern had played a bit role in Hitchcock’s Marnie 10 years earlier.)

Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern
Cathleen Nesbitt (An Affair to Remember) is effective as the elderly spinster who sets the search for her long-lost nephew into motion. William Devane, a ubiquitous TV presence in the 70s and 80s, is appropriately oily and menacing as the avaricious kidnapper, jewel thief and cold-blooded murderer who turns out to be the one they’re all looking for. Reliable character actors like Ed Lauter (Thirteen DaysThe Artist), Katherine Helmond (Soap, Brazil) and Marge Redmond (The Trouble with Angels) make the most of their somewhat oddball bit parts, giving the story dimension and color. 

Cathleen Nesbitt

Ed Lauter and Katherine Helmond
Also a standout is Karen Black as Devane’s paramour and partner in crime, who transforms herself into a mysterious blonde to aid him in his dastardly doings. (Note the tongue-in-cheek reference to the director’s own “Hitchcock blonde” motif.) Strangely, this final Hitchcock also happens to be one of Black’s last “A” pictures. After her star-making turn in Five Easy Pieces, she reached her career peak right here in the mid-’70s with performances in The Great Gatsby and Day of the Locust. But beginning with Airport ’75 and Trilogy of Terror, Black had already begun to slide into the abyss of the grand guignol, with more horror films to her credit than anything else. Her turn here as a Hitchcock femme fatale is a memorable one. 

Karen Black

William Devane and Karen Black
Harris, Black and Dern, exemplifying the “new breed” of 1970s actors, lend a contemporary edge to this basically old-fashioned film. (Harris and Black also appeared together in Altman’s masterpiece Nashville, and Dern acted opposite Black in The Great Gatsby.) In an attempt to be hip and current, a few four-letter words are thrown in, as well as humorous allusions to Harris’s and Dern’s spasmodic sex life. (They rock it on a waterbed, but alas, offscreen!) 

But of course, there are also moments of classic Hitchcock suspense...particularly the chilling sequence where Dern realizes his brakes have been tampered with as he and Harris careen down a mountaintop, and she claws at him for dear life. 

Hitch's last cast
Hitchcock was 75 when he directed Family Plot. He died just five years later, but lived to see Mel Brooks’s hilarious and affectionate spoof of his greatest films, High Anxiety (1977), which Brooks proudly showed to Hitchcock in a private screening. Hitchcock approved heartily, because, after all, in Hitch’s own words, “Every film I made was a comedy.”