Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In the spirit of Life Of Riley, the final film by Alain Resnais, we’ve singled out other swan songs from master directors.
It’s odd to think of Alfred Hitchcock still releasing movies in 1976, but that is exactly when Family Plot came out—two months after Taxi Driver and just six months before Carrie and Marathon Man. Those movies are more emblematic of the 1976-model thriller; Hitchcock followed up his first R-rated picture, Frenzy (1972), with a more genteel, even lightly comic, take on the genre. Family Plot follows two couples: Fake psychic Blanche (Barbara Harris) and her boyfriend/assistant George (Bruce Dern), who have been hired by an elderly woman to find her long-lost heir; and Arthur (William Devane) and Fran (Karen Black), professional kidnappers and jewel collectors. The initial intersection between these pairs is coincidental, and the movie doesn’t reveal their actual connection until about a third of the way through.
Even then, that connection isn’t a killer twist. Family Plot moves slower and more creakily than the director’s best work, pausing for plenty of bickering (sometimes cute, sometimes sour) and innuendos from both couples. It also generates a lot of charm by staying focused in on these characters—especially Dern as the pipe-toting investigator who moonlights as an actual cab driver. The script, based on a novel and adapted by Ernest Lehman (who also adapted West Side Story and The Sound Of Music for the screen, and wrote Hitchcock’s North By Northwest), offers enough meticulous crime-solving details to keep the small cast occupied.
Family Plot is also less formally ambitious than a lot of Hitchcock films. The most memorable set piece takes place in an out-of-control car careering down a mountain road; the speed is harrowing, but at the same time played for slapstick, with Dern and Harris pitching around the vehicle, pointlessly tangling their limbs. If the movie had been made a couple of decades earlier, maybe Cary Grant would have made the comedy more sophisticated, but the silliness of Family Plot effectively defuses the idea of a grand farewell to the director—and not just because it wasn’t intended as such at the time. Instead of a grand statement, it ends Hitchcock’s legendary career with a wink.
Availability: Family Plot is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library, or to rent or purchase from the major digital services.