Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sundays with Hitch: Family Plot (1976)

Alfred Hitchcock’s final film has its admirers, including Rosemarie. I don’t know why I’d never seen it. Maybe it’s because I’m a fan of Hitch’s previous movie Frenzy and wish that had been his curtain call: a psychological thriller brimming with black humor and shot on the streets of London. Or maybe I’m still holding out hope of a comeback, that somehow there’ll be another new Hitchcock. But I don’t abide magical thinking. Let’s put this one to bed.

Family Plot announces itself as an odd duck from the start. Barbara Harris (wonderful) plays a bogus psychic whose spirit guide sounds a lot like Sydney Greenstreet. A client offers her ten thousand dollars to find a nephew put up for adoption decades earlier so that he can be made an heir. Harris’ cab driver boyfriend (Bruce Dern) turns out to be a decent detective, and soon is on the trail. But the nephew, played by William Devane, has been a bad boy – he’s carrying out a series of shrewdly orchestrated kidnappings with his girlfriend Karen Black – and is in no hurry to be found, blithely unaware that the bumbling twosome dogging his steps can make him legitimately wealthy.

The cast is the film’s best feature. Considering Devane played this silky psychotic the same year as his memorable turn in Marathon Man, it’s a wonder he ever worked again. (Devane said Hitchcock’s main direction was “think William Powell.” When Devane proved initially unavailable, Hitchcock cast Roy Thinnes in the part. Thinnes still appears in several long shots.) The script by Hitch’s North by Northwest cohort Ernest Lehman has a rambling quality suitable to its time that occasionally verges on Altmanesque, especially whenever Dern’s loquacious loser is onscreen. Hitchcock underscores the seedy vibe by shooting in nondescript corners of the Northern California landscape he loved.

At this point Hitch was set in his ways. The rear projection he insisted on using looks terrible and feels woefully out of place in a film made in the 1970s. A comic car chase is simply leaden. But Hitchcock could still work his magic. A slow-building crane shot at a cemetery keeps Dern and his quarry in the frame to amusing effect. And the wit and playful spirit is intact. Family Plot is a shaggy dog story of a movie, taking its time to reach a payoff that’s never in doubt. But the trip is an engaging one. There are worse ways of leaving the stage.