Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Family Plot

After the sluggish Cold War thrillers 'Torn Curtain' and 'Topaz', and the cynical and misogynistic 'Frenzy', Hitchcock's swansong was a return to the pacily plotted, playfully irreverent thrillers of old. And while it never quite manages the heights of, say, 'North by Northwest', 'Family Plot' is still good fun.

The hilariously (deliberately) overplotted narrative sees fake medium Blanche (Barbara Harris) persuade apathetic taxi driver boyfriend George (Bruce Dern) to assist in a scheme to fleece rich widow Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt). The stakes are raised when Julia offers Blanche $10,000 to track down her late sister's illegitimate son with the intention of restoring his name and making him heir to the fortune. Blanche and George set about trying to find him, but the trail leads to a dead end: a cemetery, appropriately enough, and a dodgy headstone. George twigs that the headstone is new; the guy under it allegedly died twenty years ago. Their continued investigations lead to a shady gas station owner named Maloney (Ed Lauter) and a priest who officiated at the Rainbird boy's christening.

Then the priest is kidnapped, the second victim - after a wealthy industrial - of husband-and-wife team Adamson (William Devane) and Fran (Karen Black). Their modus operandi is honed and professional, the Feds flummoxed at the lack of leads. Meanwhile, Maloney is out to get Blanche and George, concerned that a dirty little secret from the past - one that connects him with Adamson - is about to surface.

The fun of Ernest Lehman's script is the way it plays off the two sets of couples. Blanche and George are stuck in the doldrums of the low-income bracket, Blanche's wonderfully over-the-top seances bringing in barely enough to supplement George's earnings (the amount of time he bunks off shifts to assist in Blanche's schemes doesn't go over too well with the taxi firm). They bicker like an old married couple and their lack of pretentions is wryly pointed up every time Blanche relinquishes her medium act and drops back into her normal accent. Harris's comic touch in the seance scenes is nicely balanced by Dern's hangdog persona.

Fran and Adamson, on the other hand, exude glamour and sophistication, he bedecked in sharp suits and acting cock-of-the-walk in his jewellery store, she the vampish brunette (except when disguised as a blonde - this is Hitchcock, after all) in figure-hugging outfits. Devane, with his bristling moustache and teeth-clenched grin, is a fine hissable villain, while Black provides sparky chemistry.

There are several great scenes: Fran's wordless collection of the industrialist's ransom; Blanche and George waiting at a diner for a contact who never shows, unaware that Maloney is setting them up; George haranguing a mourner at a funeral to get information; the drugging and carrying off of the priest mid-service, Adamson counting on the congregation being reticent about making a fuss in a house of the Lord.

Best of all, though, Hitchcock gleefully subverts that most cliched moment the thriller or suspense film has to offer: the hero, driving along a precipitously windy road, suddenly realising that his accelerator pedal is stuck and the brakes don't work. Hitchcock throws in slow moving vehicles, lumbering lorries, a slew of cyclists; he speeds up the film as the car rounds bend after bend; while Blanche and George's antics in the front seat hysterically puncture any tension, painting the sequence as a splendid bit of piss-taking.

The same can be said of the ending: a quite literal wink to the audience. It's a nice image to think of Hitch going out on, a glint in his eye and just the shadow of a smile.

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