Impeded by a muddy narrative that lacks a clearly defined main character, the Alfred Hitchcock comedy-thriller Family Plot has earned a dubious reputation over the years. In fact, it’s generally accepted that the picture represented a steep decline in Hitchcock’s artistry, which is unfortunate because it ended up being his final feature. Working once again with his North by Northwest screenwriter Ernest Lehman, Hitchcock obviously saw the potential for an entertaining mix of fright and fun in the Victor Canning novel from which Family Plot was adapted. The title stems from a comparatively minor story point, in which a principal character discovers that a grave is empty, meaning the person supposedly buried there must still be alive. That kind of morbid detail infused many a Hitchcock plot, and, indeed, some elements of Family Plot suit the Master of Suspense’s signature style. However, the movie never comes together in a satisfying way.
The main threads of the story involve a con-artist couple and a kidnapping couple. The con artists are fake psychic Blanche (Barbara Harris) and her private-investigator boyfriend, George (Bruce Dern). They’ve stumbled onto a chance for an easy paycheck, provided they can find the long-lost nephew of a rich, elderly woman. As for the kidnappers, they are Fran (Karen Black) and Arthur (William Devane). These two are in the midst of committing a string of abductions, collecting gigantic diamonds as ransom payments. (Arthur runs a jewelry store, so he knows how to fence the rocks.) Although the manner in which these narratives intertwine is pure Hitchcock orchestration, the mechanics of the story are murky and unbelievable.
Far too many scenes rely upon coincidences, last-minute rescues, and stupidity on the part of the characters. Moreover, the first hour of the movie drags because it takes Hitchcock an eternity to reveal where the story is headed. That’s not to say the film completely lacks charm. Although Black and Devane do rather ordinary work, Dern’s disquieting intensity complements Harris’ campy performance as a “seer” who speaks in tongues for dramatic effect. Had their strange characters occupied the center of the movie, Family Plot might have coalesced into a quirky black comedy. Alas, Hitchcock spends nearly as much time detailing the kidnappers’ elaborate methodology, suggesting the director couldn’t decide whether to concentrate on jokes or jolts.
Family Plot: FUNKY