Friday, April 09, 2021

Fridays With Hitchcock: Family Plot (1976)

45 years ago today...

Family Plot (1976)

Screenplay: Ernest Lehman based on the novel “Rainbird Pattern” by Victor Canning.
Starring: Bruce Dern, Karen Black, William Devane, Barbra Harris.
Director Of Photography: Lenny South... who had an office on Lankershim in the Valley and I met him!
Music: Great John Williams score!

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, my parents wouldn’t let me see THE BIRDS in the cinema as a kid... had to wait for the cut down TV version. 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.

I sometimes think Hitchcock should have quit after FRENZY - that was a good film to go out on. The great thing about FRENZY is that it’s a 70s film - gritty and raw and really performance oriented. It seems like an unusual film for Hitchcock. FAMILY PLOT is kind of a return to his comfort zone. It’s like an old studio movie, and much of it *looks* like it was shot on a sound stage. It seems very tame compared to FRENZY, and even the sexy dialogue seems like something from a Doris Day/Rock Hudson movie instead of a movie made in the 1970s..

Hitchcock had a bunch of projects crash and burn, and some he cancelled himself because they required extensive location shooting and he wasn’t up to it. He’d just had a pacemaker installed and was getting back up on his feet. One of the projects he was working on that didn’t pan out was an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s “Unknown Man #89" - which has a very similar plot to this film. “Unknown Man” is about a recovering alcoholic process server - famous for once serving a rock star on stage - hired to track down a missing heir by a freakin’ evil lawyer. This lawyer obtains lists of missing stockholders, tracks them down, makes a deal to get them their stock in exchange for a large percentage. In this case, it’s the son of a chauffeur who inherited some stock that is now worth millions. The problem is, that kid has grown up to become an armed robber who does not want to be found. The great thing about the book is the process server falls off the wagon big time and has to scrape his life back together again... and along the way finds some missing self respect and kicks a little ass. He goes from doing what he’s told, to standing up to that freakin’ evil lawyer and his trigger happy bodyguard... and we discover the true meaning of “Chinese And Canadian Food”. Anyway, Hitchcock made this film instead.

FAMILY PLOT is a great experiment in storytelling, but also offers experiments in casting and an interesting technical experiment that Hitch had done once before on NORTH BY NORTHWEST (so maybe it was really an Ernie Lehman experiment).

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. Shot him in the back in THE COWBOYS. Not a leading man... but has a great sarcastic delivery like his pal Jack Nicholson. Dern had played a role in Hitchcock’s MARNIE early in his career, and played characters on the “Hitchcock Presents” TV show. In MARNIE he was the rapist - not the kind of guy you cast as your romantic lead. One of the reasons why I was interested in this movie when it first came out was Dern as the *hero*. Totally weird casting. Gotta see that!

On the villain side we have Karen Black, who was probably the biggest star in the cast when this was made. Karen Black was *the* leading lady of the 1970s. From EASY RIDER to FIVE EASY PIECES to PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT to the Redford version of THE GREAT GATSBY to NASHVILLE to AIRPORT 75 to TRILOGY OF TERROR, Karen Black was in *everything*. She had that great combination of animal sensuality and tough vulnerability that allowed her to play wealthy Southern Belles or Truck Stop waitresses. She always seemed *real*. I mentioned in the Protagonist Blue Book that FIVE EASY PIECES is one of my favorites, and she shines in that film. You feel for her.

Her partner in crime was played by 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. This is an eclectic cast, unusual for a big studio film.

The reason behind the odd casting experiment? Hitchcock came up through the studio system where stars were under contract with the studio and didn’t really cost the production anything, the studio would assign a star to a movie or the star might select a movie based on script and director. Hitchcock was a name director and all of the stars wanted to work with him. He could pick and choose. But when the studio system began to disintegrate in the 1960s, stars became free agents and began demanding high salaries... and getting them. Hitchcock *hated* paying a huge chunk of his film’s budget to stars, after paying half of his budget on the stars for TORN CURTAIN in 1966 (when stars were still “cheap”) he never made another movie with a star in the lead. TOPAZ, FRENZY and FAMILY PLOT all use character actors in their lead roles. Karen Black, the only one who might be considered a star in this cast, was never the star of any of those films she was in. The closest she comes to being the main attraction in a movie are FAMILY PLOT and DAY OF THE LOCUST, where the rest of the cast are character types. TRILOGY OF TERROR was a TV movie, where she was big enough to carry the movie.

Though the cast of FAMILY PLOT is more edgy/indie than a typical studio film, that may have also lead to it’s relatively poor box office. Great to see Bruce Dern play the romantic lead... but few people did.

Hitch Appearance: Silhouetted in a window at city hall's bureau of records.

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 order 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 film contains some great Hitchcock set pieces, including a Bishop kidnaped in the middle of Mass, a crazy out of control car going down a winding mountain road, a car chasing our couple who are on foot, and several other great scenes.

There’s more on this film in my HITCHCOCK: EXPERIMENTS IN TERROR book where we look at its use of *Intersecting Story Lines* and Extreme POV Car Chase and Double Entendres and the Puzzle Set Piece and the Arthur Adamson Montage and using Weird Weapons in the Thriller Genre and Start/Stop Story Issues. Check it out!

- Bill

Of course, I have my own books focusing on Hitchcock...



Alfred Hitchcock, who directed 52 movies, was known as the “Master Of Suspense”; but what exactly is suspense and how can *we* master it? How does suspense work? How can *we* create “Hitchcockian” suspense scenes in our screenplays, novels, stories and films?

This book uses seventeen of Hitchcock’s films to show the difference between suspense and surprise, how to use “focus objects” to create suspense, the 20 iconic suspense scenes and situations, how plot twists work, using secrets for suspense, how to use Dread (the cousin of suspense) in horror stories, and dozens of other amazing storytelling lessons. From classics like “Strangers On A Train” and “The Birds” and “Vertigo” and “To Catch A Thief” to older films from the British period like “The 39 Steps” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” to his hits from the silent era like “The Lodger” (about Jack The Ripper), we’ll look at all of the techniques to create suspense!


Only 125,000 words!

Price: $5.99

Click here for more info!

(links actually work now)

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.



USA Readers click here for more info!


We all know that Alfred Hitchcock was the Master Of Suspense, but did you know he was the most *experimental* filmmaker in history?

Contained Thrillers like “Buried”? Serial Protagonists like “Place Beyond The Pines”? Multiple Connecting Stories like “Pulp Fiction”? Same Story Multiple Times like “Run, Lola, Run”? This book focuses on 18 of Hitchcock’s 52 films with wild cinema and story experiments which paved the way for modern films. Almost one hundred different experiments that you may think are recent cinema or story inventions... but some date back to Hitchcock’s *silent* films! We’ll examine these experiments and how they work. Great for film makers, screenwriters, film fans, producers and directors.

Films Examined: “Rear Window”, “Psycho”, “Family Plot”, “Topaz”, “Rope”, “The Wrong Man”, “Easy Virtue”, “Lifeboat”, “Bon Voyage”, “Aventure Malgache”, “Elstree Calling”, “Dial M for Murder”, “Stage Fright”, “Champagne”, “Spellbound”, “I Confess”, and “The Trouble with Harry”, with glances at “Vertigo” and several others.

Professional screenwriter William C. Martell takes you into the world of The Master Of Suspense and shows you the daring experiments that changed cinema. Over 77,000 words.

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.

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