Fridays With Hitchcock: Family Plot
The Master of Suspense made 53 films and I have managed to see all of the existing films projected on the big screen at least once in my life. I love suspense films and thrillers and have had a handful actually produced, so it’s no surprise that I’ve always been a big fan of Hitchcock’s film. Difficult to work in the thriller genre without being influenced by Hitch - he was the trail blazer for just about every film maker we have today. Hey, the first British sound movie was a Hitchcock film! He’s probably the most recognized film director in the world - due to hosting duties on his TV show. And you can watch any Spielberg film and see some trace of Hitchcock, from the dolly-zoom in JAWS to that scene they never shot in NORTH BY NORTHWEST at the auto assembly-line that shows up in MINORITY REPORT. Hey, and 53 films means I can do a blog entry every week for a year!
Hitchcock truly understood the language of cinema. He knew that every angle, every camera movement, every composition of the frame, and every juxtaposition of shots and images created an *emotional response* in the audience. No director since has understood the language of film like Hitchcock, and I fear we may be losing this language as more and more directors would rather use a “cool shoot” than the shot that makes the audience feel something. Hitchcock told films visually - there are often long sequences in his films without dialogue which manage to give us deep information about characters and story...
Hitchcock began as a writer in silent movies - he was the one who wrote the title cards and illustrated them. He became an art director and assistant director... and eventually they let him call the shots. He married an film editor and screenwriter, Alma Reville, who probably advised him on story throughout his career. He also worked with the best screenwriters in the business throughout his career, and treated them very much as he treated his actors. No, not like cattle. Hitch would allow his actors to do whatever they wanted creatively as long as they hit their marks. Ernest Lehman said in an interview that after he discussed the story with Hitchcock, he was sent away to write it while Hitchcock worked on another project. There was no micro-managing, no excessive development, not much rewriting. Hitchcock hired the best writers and allowed them to do their best without looking over their shoulders. This sort of creative freedom is unusual, and also means these great films can be traced back to some great screenwriters. Film may be a director’s medium, but as the famous story goes about auteur Ernst Lubitsch, a director can’t put his mark on 120 blank pages of paper.
So we will be looking at a different Hitchcock film every week from a screenwriter’s point of view. Beginning with his last film and moving backwards into the silents where he began. One of the interesting things about Hitchcock is that he was always experimenting with both cinematic storytelling and storytelling itself. Even the worst Hitchcock film (and there are some stinkers) contain some interesting story experiment and some interesting scenes. What can we learn as writers from these films?
FAMILY PLOT (1976)
Screenplay by Ernest Lehman based on the novel “Rainbird Pattern” by Victor Canning.
Hitchcock's final film. I have a soft spot for this film - it was the only Hitchcock movie I saw in a cinema during it's initial release. I was too young to see the others when they came out. Though FAMILY PLOT isn't Hitchcock at his best, it's a fun film... written by the multi-Oscared Ernest Lehman who also wrote NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Though not a chase film, both films share the same sense of humor.
One of the great things about FAMILY PLOT is the strange cast - it *stars* Bruce Dern. Dern played psycho Viet Nam Vets and twitchy villains and is probably most famous for being the only actor to ever *kill* John Wayne on screen. Not a leading man... but has a great sarcastic delivery like his pal Jack Nicholson. Playing his girlfriend, was the always cute Barbara Harris, who played the mom in the original FREAKY FRIDAY... and John Cusack's mom in GROSSE POINT BLANK. On the villain side we have Karen Black (who was probably the biggest star in the cast when this was made) and the always suave William Devane who replaced Roy Thinnes halfway through shooting - you can still see Thinnes in long shots. Devane had played JFK on TV, and was considered a leading man... not a villain. One of the great things he brings to the film is his charisma - early in the film you are rooting for him and Black to get away with their crimes - they are so clever and elegant and cool. Hey, and the great Ed Lauter plays a childhood friend of Devane's who will kill anyone for a buck fifty.
Nutshell: Fake psychic Harris learns that a wealthy client’s sister gave up a kid born out of wedlock when she was a teen, and now wants to find the kid and put him in her will. If Harris and Dern find him, the wealthy client will pay them a huge chunk of money. Only one problem - that bastard child is now a notorious jewel thief known as “The Trader” who is the top story on every TV news program. How do you find a man who is doing everything in his power not to be found?
Dern is a failed actor who drives a cab, and throughout the film gets to use his acting abilities to play everything from a private detective to a sympathetic friend in oprder to get information.
Meanwhile, suave criminal Devane and his accomplice Black have a novel way of getting rich - they steal wealthy *people* and ask for famous jewels as ransom. Hey, aren’t you supposed to steal jewels from wealthy people? By twisting that around, it makes Devane’s “Trader” an unusual jewel thief.
The Experiment: Intersecting stories. The story cross cuts between these two pairs until it becomes apparent that the lost heir that Dern and Harris are searching for is the suave criminal Devane and his accomplice Black. Novels often have two different stories that eventually become one by the end, but movies tend to be focused on only one story and one protagonist. Hen we change protagonists or stories we tend to lose the audience completely. In FAMILY PLOT we actually have two sets of protagonists, and as the two stories come together each pair becomes the other pair’s *antagonist*. Devane and Black don’t want anyone finding them (because they are wanted by the FBI and criminals by trade), and Dern and Harris are searching for them! So Devane sends killer Ed Lauter after them... turning them into the antagonists in the Dern and Harris story.
This is accomplished with a great deal of skill by Lehman. Instead of just jumbling two stories together, he finds ways to connect the stories - bring the two pairs closer and closer together as the story progresses. We begin with Harris learning about the bastard heir, and she and Dern drive back from the wealthy woman’s house they almost hit a woman in a crosswalk - Black. Instead of continuing with Dern and Harris, we follow Black as she goes to pick up the ransom for a Greek shipping tycoon. After picking up this massive diamond, Black is picked up by Devane... and we learn about their scheme. The story continues moving logically between the two pairs of protagonists, helped along by every clue Dern and Harris discover leads to someone who knows or knew Devane when he was a child. The connections between story threads make sense and one character can enter a location just as another leaves it.
After that first connection, the audience will probably figure out the 40 year old heir Dern and Harris are looking for is probably the 40 year old criminal played by Devane, though it isn’t until close to the end that the characters figure it out. What the audience may lose in the surprise of that reveal is more than made up for with the suspense of knowing that the man they are searching for would rather kill them than be discovered. The closer they get to finding Devane and Black, the more danger they are in.
Hitch Appearance: Silhouetted in a window at city hall's bureau of
Great Scenes: The great set pieces in the film are a car chase on a winding country road... after Dern and Harris have been drinking pitchers of beer and shoveling down burgers - they get car sick in the car chase. This is funny and really suspenseful. I don’t believe I have seen another car chase where vomiting was a serious threat. Always look for the way to make each scene different than any similar scene.
Another great scene has Dern and Harris going to interview the Priest who baptized the bastard heir as a baby, but the Priest is kidnaped in the middle of a church service by Devane and Black! A great suspense scene that ties the two stories together.
Plus there's a puzzle-like scene at a graveyard where Dern tries to corner Lauter's wife - and the byzantine pathways keep pushing them closer to each other then pulling them apart. This scene is almost like an art piece - I have never seen anything like it in a film before.
And a harrowing scene where Harris is captured and the minutes to her murder tick away as Dern tries to re-trace her steps and find her. The method of murder is a great example of what works in a thriller script - a garden hose. You always want to turn the mundane into the threatening in a thriller, and when Devane grabs the garden hose off the garage wall, you wonder how it will kill someone... then he proceeds to show us!
Score: Great music from the great John Williams!
FAMILY PLOT is a fun little crime movie with some great dialogue and a couple of great scenes and some nice performances by actors who usually play different roles. And, you have to love Hitchcock's loyalty - one of Dern's very first roles was as a psycho dad in Hitchcock's MARNIE.... which we'll look at in a few weeks.
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