Saturday, March 11, 2017

Family Plot

Family Plot was Alfred Hitchcock's 53rd and last picture.  It's an intricately plotted crime film, mostly played for laughs, written by Ernest Lehman, the scriptwriter for North by Northwest.  The story in Family Plot involves not one, but two larcenous and romantically involved couples.  William Devane and Karen Black appear as exquisitely polite kidnapers who hold their victims for ransom -- they exchange their prey for million dollar gems that they blithely stash in the chandelier in the foyer of their posh LA apartment.  Barbara Harris and her boyfriend, a cab driver played by Bruce Dern, are less ambitious and more amateur crooks.  Harris specializes in defrauding old ladies by conducting fake séances.  In the course of one of those séances, Harris learns that an old lady named Raintree is obsessed with guilt over having persuaded her sister to relinquish and disavow her illegitimate child, the last of the Raintrees.  The old woman enlists Harris' psychic to hunt for the missing heir so that the Raintree fortune can be bequeathed to him.  Harris agrees to find the lost heir in exchange for a payment of $10,000 to her by the old woman if she is successful.  The narrative challenge posed by this plot is that there are really two strands of story and Hitchcock seems to be interested in seeing how long he can keep the two plots separate from one another.  (It's a feat similar in form to what Hitchcock accomplished in Psycho in which a story carefully established in the first third of the movie is completely annulled by what happens in the last two-thirds of the picture.)  As it happens, of course, the lost Raintree heir is the wicked jewel thief and kidnaper.  The dogged efforts of Harris and her boyfriend to unmask the jewel thief and establish his true identity, of course, result in disclosure of their criminal activity -- or, at least, threatened disclosure.  Although Harris only wants to advise the jewel thief that he is an heir to a large fortune, Devane and Black misconstrue her motives and decide that they must "eliminate those two (Dern and Harris) ourselves."  All of this sounds promising and could be the basis for a fun movie, but Hitchcock seems exhausted, parodying himself at times, and directs the movie in a remote haphazard way.  Late sixties and early seventies on-screen candor has not done this film any favors -- Harris makes vulgar unremitting sexual demands on Dern and, instead of the graceful double-entendre in North by Northwest (or a film of similar emotional temperature, To Catch a Thief), Lehman's script is vulgar and crudely suggestive.  (Hitchcock caught up with, or perhaps, shaped the cultural relaxation of standards as to nudity and violence in Psycho and later his horrific masterpiece Frenzy, a film that I'm not sure that I would be willing to see again -- it seems that he was frightened by what he was capable of, scared of his own imagination, I think, and, although, Family Plot is full of dirty talk and nasty toilet images -- there's a big close-up of a portable toilet that Karen Black demands the debonair William Devane empty -- it's relatively decorous except for the vulgarity, all dirty talk but no action.)  It's unfair to demand of a great director that he provide the world with a classical "late work" -- that is, a summation of his career obsessions in a kind of simple, broadly drawn and powerful parable, but this film, with its busy, humming plot, and farcical complications, doesn't have that quality at all.  (Unfair to demand this of Hitchcock, as well, I think because he did deliver a "late work" in The Birds, a movie that, I think, summarizes in a very naked form all of Hitchcock's perverse themes.)  Hitchcock's greatness resides in his ability to wed the analytical, objective/schematic way of telling story through pictures that he learned in the silent cinema with a swooning point-of-view subjectivity.  But there's little of those elements in this film.  Suspense is limited to an attempted murder involving dysfunctional brakes and a stuck accelerator on a mountain road -- Hitchcock had done this winding mountain road thing before and here he takes scarcely any interest in the proceedings, in fact, playing the whole thing for farcical laughs.  At the end of the sequence, Bruce Dern is shown in large close-up with his face comically squashed by Barbara Harris' shoe -- an image that seems more suited to an Abbot and Costello picture than a Hitchcock film.  One lovely shot seems to summarize the film's elaborate plot:  we see an abandoned and neglected graveyard with many small, branching paths running between the unkempt graves.  A funeral is underway but two figures sneak away, both proceeding in opposite directions.  The camera is located high above the graveyard and we watch as the two figures turn this way and that in the labyrinth of pathways, seeming to diverge, before they inevitably encounter one another.  The principal vehicle of satire in the film seems to be the contrast between the upper class thieves and kidnapers and the proletarian phony mystic and her dimwitted cabdriver boyfriend.  (Bruce Dern who always looks a bit weird here is shot like Ichabod Crane, a tall disjointed figure with a crazed look and a thatch of unruly red hair.)  But America is relatively without class distinctions (or refuses to acknowledge those distinctions) and a contrast that would have made sense in a British picture -- that is, between a felonious Peer of the Realm and his Lady and a cockney hack-driver with his moll -- here isn't really legible.  This is particularly true because the rather smarmy William Devane is no Cary Grant and Karen Black is certainly no Grace Kelly.  In this film, Hitchcock seems too exhausted to even establish his fundamental obsessive object of desire -- the glacially cold, blonde ice-mistress.  In one shot, that could have been lifted from DePalma's Dressed to Kill, we see Karen Black all clad in dark leather stalking through the velvet black night wearing a garish blonde wig.  But soon enough, she strips off the wig and reveals that she is not Hitchcock's muse, the lethal blonde.  And the real blonde in the movie, Barbara Harris is foul-mouthed and gamine -- she comes across as a child actor told to mouth dirty lines. 

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