Family Plot (Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

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.

Dern, Dern, Deeeeeeeern!

Dern, Dern, Deeeeeeeern!

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.

Record Store Day 2015 – The Result

I’ve just got home from Nottingham after visiting Rough Trade for Record Store Day. It has become somewhat of a pilgrimage for my wife and I who do this every year and we always have a great day out with today being no exception. I have to say that Rough Trade has been the best experience I’ve ever had at a Record Store Day event, and the fun is still going on as I type. Get down there quick!

Supergrass – Sofa (of my Lethargy)
As I mentioned in my preview, top of the bill was a 7″ vinyl pressing of Supergrass track “Sofa (of my Lethargy)”. It was fantastic to hear that this was finally being released. A promotional CD had been sent around to radios ahead of the Mercury Music Prize on 12th September 1995, which was a couple of months after “Alright” (and “Time”, technically) had infested the charts and infected the subconscious of an entire nation. Previously the only way to hear the radio edit was to get hold of that promo CD or a copy of the Ten Albums of the Year promotional CD issued as a tie-in with the Mercury Music Prize that year. Finally, however, this release has seen the light of day and allows “Sofa…” to sit pretty with the rest of my Supergrass 7″ vinyl singles, in all its luscious green glory.

However, for the die-hard Supergrass fans out there, there is also a much more interesting track on the b-side. Titled “I Believe In Love”, it is an out-take from the “I Should Coco” sessions from 1995 and represents the first new Supergrass material to be released since the “Rebel In You” b-side “Car Crash” in 2008 (also a vinyl-exclusive). It’s a nice catchy summer tune with a memorable “Ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba” chorus. It sits somewhere between early Supergrass and stuff most of the band had been producing as part of The Jennifers, though it doesn’t give any of the album tracks a run for their money. A nice track to hear and I’m sure it will see the light of day on a CD re-issue sooner or later.

Matt Berry / Mark Morriss – This Is The Lie (and That’s the Truth) / October Sun
I’m a huge fan of Mark Morriss, who has been working hard since the break up in 2011 of The Bluetones. One of his projects is playing rhythm guitar in Matt Berry and The Maypoles. Another is as a solo artist in his own right, most recently releasing the excellent 2013 album A Flash of Darkness. Combining these two elements, this Acid Jazz Records release (the home of both Mark and Matt) sees Mark cover Matt track “October Sun” as the AA-side, whilst the A-side is a version of “This Is The Lie (And That’s the Truth)” by Matt Berry. Both tracks are excellent and this item is a must have for fans of either, especially given that the songs contained aren’t available anywhere else. Keep an ear out for the new psychedelic ending to the A-side, which takes the song in a whole new direction.

Syd Barrett / R.E.M. – Dark Globe / Dark Globe

One of many Side-by-Side releases this Record Store Day, this item sees the song “Dark Globe” performed by its original writer and performer Syd Barrett and what many consider the definitive version as performed by R.E.M. The latter originally included it as the b-side to “Orange Crush”, though it later reappeared on the b-side to one of their biggest hits “Everybody Hurts” after successfully being included as a regular on their touring setlist. I have to say, R.E.M. take the bare-bones of a song and turn it into something haunting, revealing layers that aren’t even evident in the original version. This is a nice artifact for fans of Pink Floyd and R.E.M. (of which there are many), but it’s also a really effective way to compare the two versions. It may seem a little more back-to-back than side-to-side, but somehow it works.

Graham Miller and Steve Shill – The Moomins Theme
A bit of an oddball release this one, but not so if you’re aware of the Finders Keepers record label. Whilst the label website provides a comprehensive overview of what they do there, it is essentially a label lovingly overseen by Andy Votel and Doug Shipton who dedicate a disproportionate amount of their time to seeking out obscure, rare and forgotten music from around the globe, with a heavy emphasis on soundtracks of (usually) unknown films. The results are more often than not astounding and I’ve never been disappointed with a release.

The item we get this Record Store Day is a debut release for The Moomins Theme as created by Graeme Miller and Steve Shill. It was a UK-specific release as they were hired to re-soundtrack the show ahead of it being brought to UK television screens in 1983. The contents of the vinyl are quirky but worth the attention that has already been afforded by those behind the release. The packaging alone is worth your money – a hand-stitched fuzzy felt sleeve in one of two designs (approximately 450 each). Snap it up before it disappears for another 32 years!

Other Items

One of my favourite items from Record Store 2015

I was able to pick up three (THREE!) David Bowie releases, the nicest of which is probably the “Changes” picture disc. There was also a lovely Foo Fighters 10″ vinyl titled “Songs From The Laundry Room”, which features demos of two tracks from their debut eponymous release, plus a cover of Kim Wilde’s “Kids In America” and a new track “Empty Handed”. The White Stripes released “Get Behind Me Satan” on vinyl for the first time, which I was lucky enough to locate. Finally, I was extremely pleased to find the Silva Screens Records release of the Psycho orchestral themes, which is a beautiful piece for cinephiles like myself.

I missed out on Paul McCartney’s “The Family Way OST”, though I’m hoping to pick it up at a later date. One missed item from such a long list isn’t bad, even though I did have to set my alarm to 2am to guarantee my luck.

Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock, 1944)

Lifeboat, the first of Hitchcock’s limited-setting pictures, follows the story of British and US civilians, merchant marines and service members in the aftermath of a battle that sees the sinking of their boat and a German U-Boat. When a German man Willi (Walter Slezak) is also rescued, the tension on the boat increases and coping with the harsh environment and the claustrophobic arrangement takes its toll. Pretty soon suspicion and accusations take the place of compassion and reasoning, with a plot that keeps the audience guessing way beyond the final scene.

Released towards the end of World War II, the film was shrouded in controversy due to the seemingly fair portrayal of a German man who turns out to be a Nazi soldier. This was enough to make the studio give it only a limited release – a surprise given that Rebecca, Saboteur and Shadow of a Doubt had all been box office successes in the immediately preceding years. Furthermore, John Steinbeck (who wrote the original novel) distanced himself from the adaptation, unhappy with the way Hitchcock had dealt with his work.

It is perhaps only years later that we can appreciate this film for what it is – a good film heavily influenced by the times and heaped with elements of propaganda. In that sense it’s as much a film as it is a historical document. In a way, all cinema is the same.

Lifeboat isn’t amazing, certainly not one of Hitchcock’s finest. I had hoped that the lack of popularity was because of the controversy surrounding its release, but in truth it’s probably because it just doesn’t pack as many punches as the likes of Vertigo and Psycho. It’s worth watching out of interest and worth buying the Masters of Cinema release for the detailed bonus features and two additional little-seen Hitchcock shorts Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache, though these are more for the avid fans, even more so than the main feature. It’s worth watching, but not as a Hitchcock starting point.

Lifeboat is available on Masters of Cinema and SteelBook Blu-ray now.

Saboteur (Alfred Hitchcock, 1942)

The earliest film included in the Hitchcock Masterpiece Blu-Ray Collection, Saboteur offers viewers a chance to see the master before the string of films he is most remembered for (Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds, to name but three) but long after he had established himself as a first class director.

Barry Kane

The wartime story follows Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) as he is framed for a murder he did not commit. We pick up the story as Kane, a worker in an aircraft factory, is accused of causing a fire that kills his friend Mason (Virgil Summers), though he believes that it is a mysterious man named Fry (Norman Lloyd) who is really behind it. Kane is quickly being embroiled in the unravelling of a complicated cover-up involving a whole array of people he comes across, all seemingly involving a secret community of saboteurs attempting to fulfil a plot to blow up the USS Atlanta battleship. His eventual companion and love interest comes in the form of Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane), who provides a counterpoint to his story arc and is a very intriguing character in her own right.

The first thing to say is that this is not vintage Hitchcock. The cast will be largely unfamiliar to modern cinema fans, though that is not to say they are all terrible. The storyline is enticing but not gripping, with a number of conveniences allowing an easy route to the next step of the journey. Actually, the plot is at time nonsensical and you have to forgive this to enjoy it. Some of the acting is below par, particularly from the Mason housemaid and the blind father of Martin, whose performance is afforded a rousing and self-righteous speech about what it is to be a real American.

Saboteur Newspaper

There are a few hallmarks of the great director on display though. Of course he gets his cameo, this time quite early on in the film. It is quite standard, though this was mainly due to Hitchcock appeasing the censors by cutting his originally planned argument between two deaf-mute pedestrians. We also see a much-revisited theme: an innocent man presumed guilty and on the run from the police. It’s a joy to see an early take on this, though admittedly it would later be trumped several times by Hitchcock as he created some of the greatest films ever made.

One thing I loved was the climactic scene on top of the Statue of Liberty. It’s actually worth watching just for this scene, with some brilliant close-up shots and clever cutting between parallel stories building the tension into a frenzy as a life hangs by a thread. It truly is a masterclass in suspense and at this early stage was merely a hint of what Hitchcock would achieve later in his career.

The best way I can think to sum this up is that it’s a great place to start for people looking to investigate the underbelly of Hitchcock’s vast catalogue of films. With the 14-disc Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection currently on sale for a mere £34.99 at Zavvi, now is the perfect time to start.