Family Plot is the final film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, released four years before his death. Based on the book The Rainbird Pattern by Victor Canning, it is a shadow of his most celebrated works owing to a slow pace and a lack of chemistry between the lead characters.
The story concerns two couples. Fake psychic medium Blanche (Barbara Harris) and taxi-driver George (Bruce Dern) are petty criminals who find an opportunity to locate the son of an heiress called Edward Shoebridge and collect a £10,000 reward. In searching for this heir their lives become unexpectedly intertwined with professional criminals Fran (Karen Black) and jeweler Arthur (William Devane), who kidnap famous millionaires and return them in exchange for jewel-based ransoms.Bruce Dern wasn’t the first choice for the lead role. Hitchcock’s preferred actor was Al Pacino, but his price was too high. Hitchcock went with Dern following his experience with him in Marnie and also in Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes Night Caller and Lonely Place. Of the four central characters, he is perhaps the most entertaining to watch. It’s a highly believable turn as a man controlled by his girlfriend and partner in crime and his comic abilities are put to great use. It’s hard to see Pacino improving on this, as talented as he is.
Roy Thinnes was originally cast as the Arthur / Edward character and five days of shooting were completed before the first choice William Devane became available and Thinnes was dismissed. Devane’s turn is one that doesn’t really deliver. The character calls for malice and terror, which never really comes to fruition; this in turn makes Black’s performance as his partner fall short as the coldness she tries hard to rescue never really comes to the forefront of their scenes.
Barbara Harris was in the middle of a career purple patch when this was released. Family Plot came sandwiched between two other career successes: Nashville and Freaky Friday. All three earned her Golden Globe nominations, though it is hard to see why her turn as Blanche was so celebrated at the time. True, there are moments of real hilarity in there, and she is clearly having fun with Dern with the relentless innuendos Hitchcock has littered throughout the script, but often she comes across as irritating and it feels like she is over-cooking her lines. The low point in the film is a scene where the pair lose control of the car they are travelling in when the brakes are cut. It goes on far too long and her reaction to the situation is at odds with her portrayal in the rest of the film. It came as no surprise to find out that Hitchcock was unable to be involved with these scenes due to his deteriorating health and this and other such scenes were filmed by a second unit headed up by Wayne A. Farlow and Howard G. Kazanjian. They do, unfortunately, lack the usual Hitchcock touch.
Many of Hitchcock’s films feel like they inhabit the same universe, but the same can’t be said of this film. It is a genuine disappointment. Coupled with a lazy transfer by Universal – one of the worst I’ve ever seen on the Blu-Ray format – this is overall a real disappointment. Steer clear unless you’re really desperate.
Family Plot is available as part of the Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Blu-Ray boxset, or as an individual release.