Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Family Plot (Alfred Hitchcock; 1976)

It took him long enough . . . thirty-six years if you want to be precise about it . . . but in what eventually stood as his last film, Family Plot (1976), Alfred Hitchcock finally recaptured the swift, eccentric life-force that defined so much of his filmmaking prior to 1940. If there had been a drawback, a major one, to casting his lot with Hollywood, it was the necessary abandonment of a certain flexibility in his creative profile. In Britain he had developed a highly enigmatic approach to storytelling that permitted him to move with unusual ease from adaptations of John Galsworthy and Noel Coward to the prototypical (and slightly peculiar) suspense pieces that delivered him to the attention of America's film industry; working from a vision of the world that was relentlessly droll and off-center, but not without an active sense of the living darkness that might advance upon it at any hour (his mid-20s baptism in German expressionist tomfoolery was crucial to realizing this; without it he may have been merely, and hopelessly, eccentric). Once brought to these shores, however, that came to an abrupt end. His vision went underground. Like so many other directors, the range of what he was permitted to make became narrower; despite the occasional attempt at breaking out of the Romantic Suspense paradigm (as stated elsewhere, I firmly believe this was the key motivating factor behind his directing Mr. and Mrs. Smith for RKO in 1941; the most overt escape attempt he would ever make). Hitchcock's style was forever personal, but in America it was significantly less idiosyncratic; that is, until the very end. Ernest Lehman's screenplay for Family Plot, a concoction about a fake spiritualist, man-and-wife kidnappers and the search for a lost heir (drawn from a typically negligible source; something called The Rainbird Pattern by Victor Canning) was constructed in the same semi-comic vein as his work on 1959's North By Northwest, but where that film's offbeat elements were leavened with a couple of Hitchcock's more skillfully wrought set-pieces . . . as well as a double shot of late 50s Manhattan chic, Family Plot largely eschews its polished surface for a look not far removed from that of a Columbo episode (Universal's tight-fisted production methods might have played a hand in that, but I doubt if it was the entire cause). More important, the tightly . . . or, better still, too-tightly . . . controlled filming style that had come to cripple so much of Hitchcock's later filmmaking was now relaxed; scenes, moments were given some room to breathe. It's not a sloppily-made film, exactly (though the undisguised artificiality in his use of rear-projection at times seems almost as deliberate as Clyde Bruckman's in The Fatal Glass of Beer); nor is it what many critics dismissed it as at the time: the work of a totally exhausted man. Family Plot, never intended to be Hitchcock's final film . . . indeed, the film he was preparing at the time of his death was shaping up to be a truly grim piece . . . is the work of a man who has just taken a few well-earned steps back; who looks at the world around him and laughs to himself (and to us) at the thought that everything . . . everything and everyone . . . is still just as it was when he started.


Vanwall said...

I always felt "The Trouble With Harry" was a bit of a cry for help and a poke in the eye - droll blackness wasn't in the Hollywood playbook back then, it was a most English film in a most Yankee setting, and he went for the main chance when he made that film, something I'm sure had the studio suits scratching their heads and rubbing their sore sclerotics.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

I think the reason why I've never warmed up to Family Plot is precisely what you've stated: it looks more like an episode of Columbo, and I guess I expect a little more from Hitch. Still, I can't dismiss the performances (I'm a sucker for anything with Barbara Harris) and the labyrinthine plot is enough to keep watching with rapt attention.

As always, Tom, I enjoy reading your reviews because you're 100% guaranteed to spur me into looking at a film a second time.

Tom Sutpen said...


The Trouble With Harry is a movie I love (largely for what you cite here), but I think it has, at best, only the shade of Hitchcock's pre-Hollywood work on it. Films from the 1930s like Secret Agent and Rich and Strange were just as tightly constructed, but they feel looser than what came later (including Harry).

I realize I'm coming dangerously close to appearing as if I prefer Hitchcock's British films over his Hollywood output. That's not the case a'tall. His American films are at their best better, richer works of cinema (they endure mainly for that reason; notbecause of a general disdain for British cinema that far too many cinephiles possess). They're just less singular in their overall tone than what he did in the 30s.


Thankye, my good man.

John said...

I can't agree with your calling The Rainbird Pattern a 'typically negligible source'. Victor Canning's novel won the CWA Silver Dagger and was nominated for an Edgar in 1973. I think it has claims to be considered the finest suspense novel ever written. Hitchcock and Lehmann distorted it, and Canning disliked the result. Go back to the book for some real insights into people and some real studies of cruelty.

Tom Sutpen said...

I'm unfamiliar with that novel . . . and I'm sure what you say about it is true . . . but to Hitchcock and Lehman it was negligible; just as all primary sources were to Alfred Hitchcock. That's my point. He wasn't a model of fidelity in terms of adapting works to the screen; he never tried to be. And the one time it was virtually forced upon him (1940's Rebecca) he did everything he could think of to work around the original material.

To me this is to his credit as a filmmaker, even when he was distorting something brilliant like Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train.

S.Rengasamy said...

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