Hitch on the Hump: Family Plot (1976)

On May 12th, 1975, Alfred Hitchcock began production on a film that was then entitled Deceit. Since 1922, he had averaged a new film every two years of his career, but it had been almost four years since his last film, the critically panned Frenzy. At first Hitchcock had sought another spy story intending to try and erase the failure of similarly themed films Topaz and Torn Curtain. Hitchcock even went so far as to meet with the Soviet Ambassador to propose that his newest film be filmed entirely within the Kremlin. The Soviet representative demurred stating that he had “doubts that the Moscow leadership would fully appreciate the depth and originality of the idea.”

While taking a lunch with two of the young writers working on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, they suggested a book, Victor Canning’s The Rainbird Pattern, that they thought might interest the director. It was not a political thriller, but a darkly humorous novel about a psychic, a lost heir, and a villain plotting a kidnapping. Hitchcock offered scriptwriting duties to Anthony Schaffer who penned the screenplays for The Wicker Man and Sleuth. Schaffer balked at the assignment after hearing Hitchcock's interpretation of the source material. The writer recalls that Hitch wanted “a sort of light, Noel Coward- Madame Arcati thing”. After telling Alfred he would have to think about it, Schaffer was relieved of his duties when Hitchcock claimed that the writer’s agent had made excessive demands.

Instead Hitchcock turned to Ernest Lehman, a writer that he had collaborated with some 15 years earlier on the script for North by Northwest. Lehman and Hitch had suffered from a falling out when Ernest declined to adapt a script for a project titled No Bail for the Judge during the time they were working on North by Northwest. Even though that picture was in production, the director did not talk to the screenwriter for four days, and then he waited a decade and a half before approaching him with another project. From the start the collaboration was fraught with disagreement and personal strife. Hitchcock would suffer from gout, a case of the flu that would cause him to be hospitalized, and the installation of a pacemaker before the process was done. Hitchcock intended to take only the bare essence of the book, or rather has he put it, “I don’t have any regard for the book. It’s our story, not the book’s.”

By the time the cameras rolled under the gaze of cinematographer Leonard J. South (Frenzy, Rod Serling’s Night Gallery), it bore little resemblance to either Canning’s novel or any ideas put forth by Lehman. In the end, Lehman and Hitchcock no longer even had face to face meetings. Instead, Hitchcock sent a massive amount of notes attached to each of Lehman’s pages breaking down each action or line of dialog the page contained. The finished product was a script that Lehman felt was devoid of everything Canning’s novel contained that was “Hitchcockian”, but the director wanted a change after the commercial failure of his last few films.

The film that would become Family Plot (1976) was the story of two couples, each running a con of some sort, but the scale on which they operated was vastly different. Cab driver Lumley (Bruce Dern) and his “psychic” girlfriend Blanche (Barbara Harris) become involved in tracking down a missing heir to a million dollar fortune when a trusting spinster puts her faith in Blanche’s abilities. At the end of their rainbow awaits a payday of ten thousand dollars. On the other hand there is Fran and Adamson (Karen Black and William Devane) involved in kidnapping public figures and ransoming them for giant diamonds. The goals of each couple become intertwined through a series of events that involve a gas station attendant with murderous intent, a runaway car careening down a mountain, and the kidnapping of a Bishop.

Hitchcock’s last two films had starred actors that were mostly unknown to the American movie going public. For this feature he was interested in working with several performers who were thought to be part of “New Hollywood”. Originally the part of Lumley was intended to go to Jack Nicholson, but Jack was in heavy demand and could not take the part due to the filming of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Instead the part went to Bruce Dern, Nicholson’s co-star in The King of Marvin Gardens as well as Hitchcock alum having performed a small role in Marnie. Dern and Hitchcock got along very well and the actor had the upmost respect for the legendary director commenting, “He noticed everything-- a shadow on a performer’s face, a bad angle on a prop, a few seconds too long on a take.” Dern is a performer that I generally don’t care for, and his role in Family Plot is no exception. I just don’t enjoy his tic filled mugging, and for that reason had a hard time getting into his character.

The other lead role of Adamson was more problematic for the director. First Roy Thinnes was cast, but Hitchcock was openly critical of his performance from the start. Thinnes, best known as the lead from TV’s The Invaders, was replaced by William Devane when the film was more than halfway complete. Hitch rushed the schedule to re-shoot Thinnes scenes even working behind the actor’s back before he was let go. The completed film still contains some shots of Thinnes as Adamson from the back. Hitch had set up many shots in this way in anticipation of replacing the actor. Devane had garnered some fame playing John F. Kennedy in the TV film The Missiles of October, but after Family Plot, he would take on higher profile roles in Marathon Man, Rolling Thunder, and most recently as James Heller on 24. Devane played the kidnapper with a slimy smirk throughout, and I enjoyed his gentle rise from mischievous cad to a man filled with deadly intent. Hitchcock found him no less frustrating to work with than Thinnes as his new Adamson was a Method actor constantly worried about his motivation.

Family Plot really shines in the performances of the two female leads both of which having just appeared in Robert Altman’s Nashville a film Hitchcock found interesting but criticized for its loose episodic nature. At first many people encouraged Hitchcock to give the part of the “psychic” to Liza Minnelli, but the director found her salary to be prohibitively expensive. Hitch preferred to cast Barbara Harris who he had enjoyed in 1965 film A Thousand Clowns. It probably did not hurt that Ms. Harris looked very much like Hitch’s wife Alma in her younger years. Harris brings a bubbly mischief to the role, and her improvisation skills were an asset in some of zanier scenes where the director cut loose from his rigid planning and let his actors have the reigns of the scenes. Harris would continue acting until 1997 with many memorable roles to her credit including the mom in the original Freaky Friday, Fanny Eubanks in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Mary Blank in Gross Point Blank.

For the role of Adamson’s complicit wife, Hitchcock cast Karen Black, another member of “New Hollywood” with films such as Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and the Ernest Lehman directed Portnoy’s Complaint to her credit. At their first meeting, Hitchcock decided to cast her in the role which would require the brunette Black to disguise herself under a blonde wig in an attempt to conjure up images of Patty Hearst. It also may have been that after all the iconic blondes that had appeared in Hitchcock’s films that having such an obvious fake amused the director. Black puts in the best performance of the film partially aided by the many disguises that she dons. After Family Plot, Black’s roles took a turn down a more decidedly genre laden path with roles in 1979’s Killer Fish, 1987’s It’s Alive III, and her appearance as Mother Firefly in House of a 1000 Corpses. I always enjoy seeing Black in any of her roles, and this film is no exception. The performances are mostly forgettable, but Black stands out above the rest.

Speaking of forgettable, composer John Williams was quite the hot property coming off of high profile assignments The Towering Inferno (1974) and Jaws (1975). John Russell Taylor, Hitchcock’s friend and authorized biographer, noted that, “Evidently nothing in Family Plot or Frenzy had been planned in relation to musical score.” The smattering of music that Hitchcock used in the finished product is largely throwaway “suspenseful” themes, and the most exciting portion of the film, a runaway car piloted by Bruce Dern hurtling down a mountain, was left largely silent with only the screech of tires and the terrified occupants of the car to punctuate it. Nowhere in the film does the score seem very indicative of the revered film composer, and the lack of attention Hitchcock gave the process was probably because of his failing interest in the project due to his many health issues.

When the film was released in 1976, Alfred Hitchcock had no intention of letting it be his last project, but first Alma’s fading heath and then his own would prevent him from ever starting another project. I found Family Plot to be a very interesting film, Hitch’s attempt to become relevant again in a world that had grown beyond his suspenseful shockers or even the barely restrained violence of Psycho. The film suffers from an overlong, bloated two hour running time and a pair of male leads, one not endearing enough and the other lacking menace. Family Plot will only really spark the interest of Hitchcock completists, and the stories behind the film are much more interesting than the film itself. If Hitch had lived to get another movie made, there is no telling if he would have had another flash of genius or if he would have continued to make films that got lackluster responses. As it is, Family Plot does not stand as a failed effort. Instead it marks the final achievement from a director determined to experiment and break the mold of the films that he was associated with.

Bugg Rating


  1. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobSeptember 9, 2009 at 4:46 PM

    Karen Black was such a hot chick back in the 70`s, her mince pies used to drive me wild.

  2. I haven't seen Family Plot in probably fifteen years, but I remember finding it decent—better than I would think considering the director’s health. I don’t like it anywhere near as much as Frenzy, however.

  3. I liked this slightly better than you did, but think it shares the same main weakness with Frenzy - the villain just isn't a very interesting or strong one and Hitchcock always was at his best when he had a memorable villain.
    I thought Bruce Dern was very good though and easily the best lead in any of the later Hitchcock films (certainly better than Stafford, Newman and Connery - the latter two are actors I'd usually prefer, but I don't think they were right for a Hitchcock film).


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