Family Plot (1976): Hitchcock's Last Film

Hitchcock’s fifty-third feature–and last work (he died in 1980)–is unfortunately much misunderstood and still underappreciated.

A post-modern, self-conscious film, “Family Plot” is a brilliantly constructed, self-reflexive mystery-thriller-comedy.  As such, it points to a new direction in the maestro’s career toward a movie which is not based on a single star (or few stars), features intricate parallel plots (in this case, in more senses than one), boasts complex storytelling that revolves around a large ensemble, and is defined by an ambiguous but satisfying ending that could be interpreted in many different ways.

No surprisingly, the scribe is Ernest Lehman, who had earlier penned another brilliant film, “North by Northwest,” here loosely adapting to the screen the novel “The Rainbird Pattern” by Victor Canning.

The tale is multi-generational in narrative structure and multi-national in casting, blending the conventions of various genres and mixing American and British players, younger and older thespians, such as the legendary actress Cathleen Nesbitt.

Nesbitt plays Miss Julia Rainbird, an old, rich woman who tries to locate her long-lost, sole surviving heir- nephew. Early on she declares, “I am 78 years old and I want to go to my grave with calm conscience.”

In a parallel plot, we are introduced to a couple of American actors, Barbara Harris, who plays a spiritualist called Blanche (she’s actually a phony medium), and Bruce Dern, as her boyfriend, a cab-driver named George Lumley, who is actually an aspiring actor.

In another subplot, we meet another bizarre couple, Arthur Adamson (William Devane), a jewelry merchant, and his girlfriend Fran (Karen Black), a due engaged in kidnapping and robberies.

In quite an ingenious way, the paths of the two couples criss-cross, and it turns out that Adamson is really the missing nephew.

The film’s title point to numerous plots and plotting.  Each of the character had at some point engaged in a deviant plotting.  Julia Rainbird had persuaded her sister Harriet to give up her illegit son.  As a child, Adamson (aka as Edward Shoebridge) had plotted to kill his adoptive parents, Harry and Sadie, who are now buried in a family plot.

Some recurring Hitchcock themes run through the narrative.  Like “To Catch a Thief” and “Marnie,” there is a connection between theft and sexuality.  Except there is greater self-consciousness about it: Fran feels sexually aroused when engaging in stealing and kidnapping.

The pursuit of a missing individual is an issue that had concerned Hitchcock in a dozen films, going back to such 1930s British gems as “The Thirty-Nine Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes.”

Except that here the missing man, Adamson, is a kidnapper himself, specializing in kidnapping upper class men and professionals, whom he hides in his basement.

With no exception, all the characters assume false identities, names, and appearances, and they are heavily engaged in role-playing.

Stylistically, the movie is marked by symmetry.  The first and last images are the same: Close-up of Blanche at night.

What adds to the intricacy, dark humor, and irony is the fact that many scenes are set in the cemetery.

Overall, “Family Plot” reveals Hitchcock’s growing awareness that the movie scenes and its audiences have changed, and thus the start system, tight narrative focus, sharp emotional conflicts, and clearer resolutions of his earlier films can no longer characterize movies of the new era. 

Structurally loose but thematically dense,”Family Plot” shows that Hitchcock was in the process of readjustment to new type of cinema, one that’s more flexible, more dynamic, and less star-oriented. 

Cast

Fran (Karen Black)

George Lumley (Bruce Dern)

Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris)

Adamson (William Devane)

Maloney (Ed Lauter)

Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt)

Mrs. Maloney (Katherine Helmond)

Bishop (William Prince)

Crew

Produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Screenplay: Ernst Lehman, from the novel “The Rainbird Pattern” by Victor Canning

Camera; Leonard J. South

Production designer: Henry Bumstead

Set Decoration: James W. Payne

Editor: J. Terry Williams

Sound: James Alexander and Robert L. Hoyt

Costumes: Edith Head

Music: John Williams

F/X: Albert Whitlock

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