‘Family Plot': A Diamond in the Rough

6 March, 2013 (14:17) | Alfred Hitchcock, Essays, Guest Contributor | By: guest

by Evan Morgan

Alfred Hitchcock’s career proper begins with a blonde girl’s dying scream and ends on a similarly coiffed woman’s knowing wink. These bookends aren’t indicative of some tonal change over the course of the master’s work; Hitchcock the tragedian and Hitchcock the jester have been here all along, harmoniously sharing the same stage from the start. But it matters that Hitch closes his final film with a sparkle in his—and Blanche’s—eye. For a cinematic genius whose greatest masterpieces plumb the dark depths of primal obsession, chronic guilt, and abhorrent violence, the last shot of Family Plot glitters with a surprising whimsy. And while it’s hardly the crown jewel of his career, Hitchcock bids adieu with a film appropriately studded in gleaming diamonds.

Barbara Harris in ‘Family Plot’

But contra Hitch himself, Family Plot is no simple slice of cake. It oozes with corrosive greed, sadistic sex, and casual death, all festering under the blisteringly omnipresent California sunshine. It slowly peels back the shiny baubles to reveal a world built upon deceit in all its forms: financial, personal, and cinematic. In other words, Family Plot takes place in Hollywood.

The vaguely defined San Fernando setting—a handful of scenes appear to take place in San Francisco—connects the film to Hitchcock’s other California films: Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds. And like those films, Family Plot places a clear emphasis on acting. Everyone must, in some way or another, perform a lie to get what he or she wants. Many of Hitchcock’s previous characters were forced to act, as a means to save their skin or hide their sick desires. But something about the Golden State—with its relentless demand for optimism and association with Tinseltown—brings performance to the foreground in the California films. No surprise, then, that Family Plot opens with a spurious, sarcastic séance.

Hitchcock drops us into the middle of one of Blanche Taylor’s (Barbara Harris) psychic experiences. The hints of the supernatural in Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, and The Birds might lead us to assume something genuinely paranormal is going on. But Hitchcock quickly reveals how normal this situation is. As Blanche quickly peeks her eye out from behind her hands—subtly hinting at the film’s final wink—we realize how often she has performed this little masquerade. It’s an amusing moment that sets up the film’s comic tone. But it also cues us to the role acting, and its connection to deceit and money making, will play as the story unfolds.

Indeed, we meet the next female character, in medias res, performing another con job. There’s no suggestion of the otherworldly here though. Fran’s act—wigged, icy, and silent—is far less hysterical than Blanche’s. And her mission is more clearly criminal, although no less avaricious, than taking advantage of a superstitious old lady. Practically parodying the idea of the Hitchcock girl, Karen Black’s platinum blonde, red-lipsticked thief is too voluptuous to be believed. When she takes off her wig and opens her mouth, you can almost hear the deflation in her husband’s pants. She kisses Arthur (William Devane) and tells him “look who’s here”. He responds that he needs the “tall, blonde woman” “one more time.” The low whisper in his voice, and the lurid close up that frames him, makes us wonder exactly what acting job Arthur has in mind.

Karen Black’s platinum blonde, red-lipsticked thief

Sexual performance—in every sense of the term—continues to crop up throughout. After returning home from their heist, Fran and Arthur speak, not so subtly, about the “tingling” feeling crime has left them with. As they head to bed, Arthur makes a joke about his wife torturing him. Fran responds, drolly, that she intends to. Sadistic sexual impulses have long played a part in Hitchcock, beginning with that opening shot of The Lodger. But unlike Vertigo, Marnie, and Frenzy—among many others—Hitchcock’s final film emphasizes dirty humor over serious psychologizing. In Family Plot, the characters’ sexual issues boil up in relation to their money problems.

George (Bruce Dern), Blanche’s cab driver boyfriend, remains incapable of satiating his girlfriend’s financial and carnal desires. His work gets in the way of both. She continually pleads him to help discover the whereabouts of Edward Shoebridge and reap a hefty reward, but he can’t skip another shift. And when he returns home from work, he’s simply too tired for lovemaking. The film’s interest in the relationship between money and sex recalls both Psycho and Marnie. In those films, the heroine’s unlawful deeds grow out of her sexual behavior, morphing unsatisfied carnal desire into a criminal act brutally punished by the film’s men. Family Plot withholds such retribution. Blanche may be horny and greedy, but her desires never reach beyond the bumbling and feeble. The same can be said for George, who emerges as Hitchcock’s most impotent—in every sense of the word—protagonist since L.B. Jefferies.

Arthur, by contrast, reeks of moneyed virility. Perpetually encased in dark three-piece suits and sporting an impeccably insincere moustache, he’s the smarmiest of Hitchcock’s late-period villains. William Devane plays him with an oiliness perfectly suited to his day job as a diamond-dealer. His occupation works as a convenient plot device, providing him with a logical reason for committing nighttime jewel heists. But it’s also betrays the film’s cynical worldview. Wealthy men are rarely to be trusted in Hitchcock. And in Arthur, Hitch creates a particularly repulsive villain. Behind his groveling, toothy smile is a man willing to commit casual patricide for a few bucks. Like Tobin in Saboteur, he’s a consummately self-assured and utterly repugnant capitalist.

So it comes as no surprise when the film exposes that Arthur is, in fact, the missing Edward Shoebridge. Family Plot doesn’t dangle this mystery in our faces until the final moments; we know rather quickly of Arthur’s past. As in Vertigo, Hitchcock uses this early reveal to supremely ironic effect. The plot thrusts Blanche and George into Arthur’s arms, we know Arthur is about to come into a massive inheritance—no more jewel thievery necessary. Any danger Blanche is in should be diffused by this good news. But, in a devilish twist of fate, Blanche sees Arthur’s latest victim at the last moment. Now she must be done away with for good. If not for this mordant luck, everyone could’ve had his or her piece of the proverbial pie.

Barbara Harris

The clockwork efficiency and mocking brutality of Family Plot’s structure suggests Hitchcock’s God’s-eye-view; he witnesses the petty foibles of these greedy people from afar, watching as they squander their lives in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Hitchcock has always used his camera to expose the frivolous, jealous, and violent depths beneath our genteel surfaces. But most of his films refrain from passing judgment; Hitch kills along with his murderers. Family Plot, on the other hand, has a sour disapproving quality. It waves its finger at its stupid characters. Which is precisely why the film—and Hitchcock’s career—must end with a wink.

It’s a reminder that for all their cinematic and thematic seriousness, for all their scarily perceptive insight into human nature, Hitch’s films always were entertainments first and foremost. Hitchcock’s final film bows, as Shakespeare does through Prospero, to his audience: “Gentle breath of yours my sails/Must fill, or else my project fails/Which was to please”. It’s both a gesture of humility and grace from the master of control and despair, and an acidic thank you for our spectatorship. After all, Hitch wouldn’t have been able to commit those many robberies, rapes, and murders without our rapturous attention fixed to the screen. That’s the serious, subterranean moral prank Hitchcock’s cinema has played on us from the beginning. The last shot of his career assures us that he’d been in on the joke all along.

Copyright © 2013 Evan Morgan

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