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William Devane

‘Family Plot’: A Diamond in the Rough

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.

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Review: The Dark

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

The Dark looks for all the world as if it had started life as a detective murder-mystery and was recut and redubbed to cash in on the science fiction vogue. The film’s continuity stresses the methodical work of the police in tracking down a killer, even after we’ve been told both visually and verbally that it’s really an alien creature out there. If The Dark were more sure of itself, it might seem a reworking of the Fifties horror movie convention in which we squirmed and tried to warn the characters in the film that they were onto something far bigger and more dangerous than they thought. But as it is, in reminding us of the variety of unknown things we might have to deal with, the film is excusing not its farfetchedness but its ineptness.

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Review: Yanks

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

As the donkey regards the carrot, so John Schlesinger looks on his screenplays: he either follows or swallows them. A follow-my-leader under the deadly misapprehension that he is an auteur, Schlesinger is happiest when partnering writers who share his tendency to scream Look at me, I’m an artist! With a Frederic Raphael (Darling) or a William Goldman (Marathon Man), he’s in show-off’s heaven, and his inability to provide the real impetus, the backbone, the solid core of a movie, the way a real artist would, is snugly disguised amidst a great deal of visual and verbal shouting. The cheesy verbal wisecracks of Darling are fleshed out by Schlesinger’s no less cheesy imagistic ones (e.g., fat ladies wolfing down the eats at an Oxfam bash), just as the greasy, lapel-seizing prose of Marathon Man is aptly pictorialised via such characteristic Schlesinger conceits as the shot of Lord Olivier framed distortingly through a glass tray whilst he slavers hammily at its contents, assorted gems. In both these movies, writer and director are as one in pretentious mediocrity, and each butters up the other. But with Schlesinger’s new film, Yanks, the screenwriters are two gentlemen with reputations for low-key, understated work, who would furthermore seem to have no great keenness for Schlesingerian ego-tripping. Colin Welland (the actor who played the cleric in Straw Dogs, and one of Britain’s best TV playwrights) and Walter Bernstein (The Front) appear only too ready to put their faith in their director and let him be the boss, guiding their scenario where’er he would lead it. And Schlesinger has no idea at all of how to be the leader, with the result that everyone gets swiftly lost.

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Review: Yanks

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Yanks is probably John Schlesinger’s best movie since Sunday Bloody Sunday, and certainly one of the best of his career. But for me that’s not really saying much, since I continue to have serious problems with this director’s approach, a self-congratulatory mock-sensitivity that seems insincere at best and often downright wrong. Here, at least, for the first time in years, Schlesinger has foregone his irritating penchant for unproductive intercuts and flashbacks, opting instead for a straight, period-faithful, romantic storyline about the impact of American soldiers-without-women on a Britain without men. But no matter how polished and relatively controlled he gets, there is always something about Schlesinger’s work that strikes me as shallow and ultimately inconsequential.

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