The New Yorker (19/Apr/1976) - Hitch: Family Plot
(c) The New Yorker (19/Apr/1976)
- keywords: "The Rainbird Pattern" - by Victor Canning, Alfred Hitchcock, Barbara Harris, Bel Air, Los Angeles, California, Bruce Dern, Cary Grant, Cathleen Nesbitt, Ernest Lehman, Family Plot (1976), Grace Kelly, J.M. Barrie, James Stewart, Jessica Tandy, Karen Black, Kim Novak, Mary Rose, The Birds (1963), The Trouble with Harry (1955), Victor Canning, William Devane
THE CURRENT CINEMA
With a kick on a cemetery headstone that has no body below ("Fake! Fake!" shouts the kicker), and a gentle, lethal plopping of brake fluid, the sound track of Alfred Hitchcock's "Family Plot" firmly plants us in a world in which the hallowed is a hoax and the mechanically sophisticated is dangerous to treat as a plaything. Hitchcock has never made a strategically wittier film, or a fonder; and this in his seventy-seventh year.
The beginning reminds us that the Master has always wanted to direct, of all things, J. M. Barrie's "Mary Rose;" and, though he once cheerfully informed me that he has it in his studio agreement that he is not allowed to film the play, the wily old jackdaw has managed to smuggle a whit of Barrie's fantasy into his new comedy-mystery. Mary Rose hears voices calling her from another world; at the beginning of "Family Plot," when Barbara Harris, as a ravishingly pretty and constantly famished con-woman spiritualist named Blanche, is conducting a séance with a loaded old biddy named Miss Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt), Blanche speaks in the voices of a woman and a man from the Great Beyond. The voices confirm Miss Rainbird's guilt about having long ago covered up the illegitimate birth of an heir to the Rainbird fortune. Then Blanche, exhausted by her bogus insights, returns from the Other Side and gratefully accepts a drink. "A double shot of anything."
Blanche works hard to make her wide-eyed living out of the dead. The offer of a reward of ten thousand dollars if she can find the missing heir is an amazing windfall. She generally manages frugally. Her boyfriend (Bruce Dern) drives a taxi. They exist on hamburger-munching and sex, both of which are perpetually being interrupted by twists in the Rainbird-heir mystery and by shift-work for the taxi company. The Bruce Dern character, called Lumley, puts up with deprivation better than his girl, whose temperament endearingly refutes generalities about women being too finely bred to have appetites. Blanche is a girl of simple longings whom fate keeps calorically and erotically ravenous.
Hitchcock lias always thrived on making stories about couples. In "Family Plot" — written by Ernest Lehman, from an English novel by Victor Canning which has been transplanted to California — we see how his attitude toward casting has changed. Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern occupy the places that would once have been held by Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, or Kim Novak and James Stewart. The part of the glossy blonde (Karen Black) is now villainous, and the glossy blondness is a matter of a wig. Called Fran, she is in murderous collusion with a smooth diamond thief named Adamson (William Devane). Another couple. The two pairs are piercingly different. Blanche and Lumley adore each other, though they often seem about to throw lamps at each other; Fran and Adamson are partners in crime who cherish little love for each other and talk to each other with a formality that is eerily violent. There being no chivalry among thieves, Adamson unblinkingly sends Fran on dangerous missions by herself, for which she wears six-inch heels, black clothes, and the blond wig: at one's first glimpse of her in this disguise she looks as if she might well be a man in drag. The music-hall sight is funnily linked to the way Blanche's voice suddenly hits an air pocket and comes out as a baritone's at the opening séance.
One of the thieves' ploys involves a red-robed bishop whom Fran knocks out, in church, by plunging a loaded hypodermic through his vestments. No worshipper moves a muscle to stop her. People in church are in an inhibited and insensate state, says this film, which is droll about the religious as only a believer like the Catholic Hitchcock can be. Fran and Adamson tell the kidnapped bishop over an intercom that they are going to have to put him to sleep again; he complains that he hasn't finished his chicken. Blanche and Lumley, waiting over endless glasses of beer in a seedy roadside cafe for a cryptic and dangerous-sounding appointment, watch a parson drinking Coke with four Sunday-school children; the door opens, a dulled-looking girl comes in, and we laugh from bathos, because nothing happens except that the parson turns out to have imported the kids as a cover for a date.
And then, in a hair-raising but somehow majestically comic scene, Lumley and Blanche give up waiting for the man they were summoned to see, and find that they have at least met his work, for their car brakes won't function. Lumley is driving: downhill. Blanche adds to the terror by panicking. Hitchcock elects not to show us details of the dashboard. He simply cuts between views of the road and shots of Blanche nearly throttling Lumley, clasping him round the neck and providing the desperate man with the unhelpful information that her hamburger is making her feel sick. Hitchcock is good on feminine hysteria. One remembers Jessica Tandy crouched in a corner of her living room in "The Birds" (1963). He often has a wryly amused view of women's scares. I remember that he was once showing me his kitchen in Bel Air. Everything was spick-and-span. Not a cornflake visible. A desert for cockroaches. He opened a door, and icy air steamed out. The freezer locker: a whole room. I saw hams and sides of beef hanging from hooks like rich women's fur coats in summer storage. Hitchcock courteously bowed me in first. I hesitated and looked back, imagining the door clanging shut behind me. He knew what I was thinking, and I knew that he knew. A Hitchcock scene was in our imaginations, and an equally Hitchcock flash of irrational fear had come to pass.
Each of his films has been full of moments of red-herring disquiet, but he has never laid such a bland set of ambushes as in "Family Plot." The Master makes unsettling use of an oaken-looking woman in a jeweller's shop, whom Blanche cheerfully asks if her sign is Leo; of a brick wall that comes open and then closes hermetically, causing steep claustrophobia; of a remote-control garage-door gadget; of a fragment of bishop's red robe shut in the bottom of a car door in a garage, making one think of the gaudy socks of the unlosable corpse in "The Trouble with Harry" (1955); of an overhead shot of a weeping woman hurrying through a maze of paths in a cemetery, pursued by Bruce Dern; of a woman physician, a disgruntled old man in shirtsleeves, and identical-twin mechanics, who are successive false trails in Blanche's chase; of a genteel chiming doorbell on the front door of the thieves' house. Hitchcock's ominous mechanical devices and his dark clues leading nowhere build up in us a farcical discomfiture. We are like oversensitive princesses troubled by peas under mattresses.
But "Family Plot" does not rest on the fostering of anxiety. Hitchcock allows himself a camaraderie with the audience which makes this film one of the saltiest and most endearing he has ever directed. It is typical of the picture that he should have the sagacity and technique to bring the terrifying car incident to such an untroubling close. Only a very practiced poet of suspense could slacken the fear without seeming to cheat, and end the sequence without using calamity. With this picture, he shows us that he understands the secret of the arrow that leaves no wound and of the joke that leaves no scar. Sometimes in his career, Hitchcock has seemed to manipulate the audience; in this, his fifty-third film, he is our accomplice, turning his sense of play to our benefit. There is something particularly true-pitched in his use of the talent of Barbara Harris. She has never before seemed so fully used. The film finishes on her, as it begins. She goes mistily upstairs in pursuit of the enormous diamond that the villains have stolen. Lumley watches her. She seems to be in a trance. Maybe she has got supernatural powers, after all. She brings off a clairvoyant's coup, though we know more than her lover, does. He is purely delighted by her. A Hitchcock film has seldom had a more pacific ending.
— Penelope Gilliatt