Hitchcock's last film, this is a fun caper. It's written by Ernest Lehman, who also wrote North by Northwest, and there are several similarities between them: both centre on the theme of mistaken identity, both feature a set piece with a tampered car careering down a winding mountain road, and both have jokey protagonists far out of their depth, facing antagonists more serious than they realize. The main difference is that in Family Plot, the heroes are near-buffoons, and the situation is played for broader comedy.
The story centres on Madame Blanche, a fake medium (Barbara Harris, charming despite an amazing bouffant hairdo), whose elderly client, Miss Rainbird, hires her to find her long-lost illegitimate nephew. The boy was cut out of the substantial family fortune and adopted, but in her twilight years Rainbird has relented, and wants to leave him everything. All Madame Blanche has to do I find him, and a 10,000 dollar finders fee can be hers. Employing her taxi driver boyfriend George (the excellent Bruce Dern) as her accomplice, they form an amateur detective couple after the elusive son. Meanwhile, kidnapper Arthur Adamson (William Devane, brilliantly creepy) and his girlfriend Fran (Karen Black, great) abduct rich men and hold them hostage in a basement strong room. The two couples come on a collision course of misunderstanding that is amusing and tense. Coded as direct opposites: Blanche and George both have light hair, while Adamson and Fran are both dark. Inevitably, Fran puts on a signature Hitchcock blonde wig at one point.
The seventies settings make the film strangely anachronistic, as Hitchcock shoots in exactly the same style as in his earlier, more famous films. The rear projection used for driving scenes is as dodgy as ever, and it's weird to see unkempt seventies characters composed with the same attention given to Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. There's a slight feeling that the oddballs have stumbled into the wrong film, but at the same time, this gives the film its charm. Simultaneously a little dated, but also ahead of its time, Family Plot anticipates the style of the Coen brothers' crime films, and is more than worth a look. 8/10
Adrian Horrocks (February 2005)
North by Nothwest
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