Family Plot


The last Alfred Hitchcock film, 50 years after the first, showed that the director had not lost his macabre sense of humor. Family Plot may lack the taut, intricate story line of his more famous works but it succeeds well for what it attempts to be, a light comedy-thriller. It’s a fun, unassuming film, especially compared to the R-rated Frenzy and the cold-war machinations of Torn Curtain and Topaz.

My original memories of this film, from viewing it perhaps 20 years ago, told me that this film was styleless, that Hitchcock’s setbound directorial style gave it the ambiance of a made-for-TV movie-of-the-week. I was wrong, perhaps due to the fact that my previous experience was with a VHS copy of the film, projected on a large screen in a college lecture hall. That sort of presentation is never going to do a film justice.

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The style of Family Plot is definitely pared down, probably owing to the director’s advancing age. Set-ups are fewer as many scenes are done in a master shot as often as possible. However, the film makes the most of the quirkiness of its characters and the wit of its double-entendré-laden dialogue.

Blanche (Barbara Harris) is a phony “spiritualist” preying an a rich, aging widow, Mrs. Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt). At the end of her days, she’s feeling the guilt that comes with having no living heirs, except for a lost nephew that was given up for adoption. She wants to find this last surviving relation and make him the heir to her entire estate. To this end, she offers Blanche some semi-honest work. If she finds Mrs. Rainbird’s nephew, the widow will pay her $10,000 dollars. Blanche quickly enlists the aid of her accomplice and boyfriend, George Lumley (Bruce Dern), an out-of-work actor working as a cab driver.

Meanwhile, the police are delivering a ransom of a very large diamond to a mysterious blonde woman (Karen Black). She returns the ransom to her accomplice, Arthur Adamson (William Devane) and they make a spotless getaway. It helps that the tall blonde, Fran, is really an average-sized brunette in a wig and six-inch heels. She and Arthur are a pair of very successful kidnappers, posing as a jewelry store owner and his wife.


Meanwhile, George Lumley has determined that the lost nephew was named Edward Shoebridge. Unfortunately, Shoebridge was apparently killed in the same fire that took the lives of his adoptive parents. The odd thing that George notices is that while Eddie Shoebridge and his parents supposed died on the same day, Eddie’s headstone is conspicuously newer than that of the late Mr. and Mrs. Shoebridge. A check of the cemetery’s records confirms that Eddie’s headstone wasn’t purchased until fifteen years later and no one is actually buried in the grave. Also, no death certificate was ever grant although one was applied for. The name on the application was Joseph Maloney (Ed Lauter).

For his part, Maloney is spooked by Lumley’s persistent questions and his knowledge about Eddie Shoebridge. He heads into the city and pays a visit on Arthur Adamson. Someone is poking around, asking about the Shoebridges, and if they find out what really happened to Eddie, they might discover it was his friend Joe Maloney who set the fire. Having traced the car back to Blanche, Maloney wants to take care of them.

One thing sets Family Plot from the body of recent Hitchcock films. Most of his movies for the previous two or three decades had a very specific sense of place. Hitchcock used recognizable locations in real cities to link the stories back to our everyday world. This time, the location is conspicuously generic. Even through San Francisco locations were used, they are no recognizable landmarks and the city is never named.

Like I indicated, the dialogue in Family Plot is riddled with sexual double-entendré between the two couples. Lumley gripes that Blanche has him “by the crystal balls” and Adamson compares the danger associated with their kidnapping to foreplay. It’s amazing just how sexy dialogue can be and still stay within the bounds of a PG rating.

Somehow I find it appropriate that a director who always enjoyed having one over on his audience, exited the stage with neither a bang nor a whimper but with a fond chuckle.

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