Posted in: Alfred Hitchcock, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Guest Contributor

‘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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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

Death-wish mechanic Michael Winner first made his name as a director of comedies (You Must Be Joking, The Jokers, I’ll Never Forget Whats’isname)—a fact one remembers only with some straining, and without the assistance of his latest film. James Agee once suggested that really bad movies should go about tinkling a bell and crying “Unclean! Unclean!”; it’s getting so that the bell these days is the cutesypoo title (cf. The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday). Won Ton Ton, played engagingly but not brilliantly by Augustus Von Schumacher, is intended as a surrogate of Rin Tin Tin, no matter what the lawyers say, and his rise to superstardom is the pretext for a crassly comic view of the Film Capital in the Twenties. An index of Winner & co.’s sense of film history: at the world premiere of the new Rudy Montague (Rudolph Valentino by way of Ron Leibman) picture, the image on the screen is blocked-up, ultracontrasty, and scratchy (“Gee, didn’t old movies always look like that?”). Their notion of film comedy is scarcely more astute—as lowbrow as a dachshund and as funny as a dead rat. One of the better lines: landlady Joan Blondell to nude, sunbathing three-year-old after a talent scout has left: “All right, Norma Jean, you can put your clothes on again!”

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: The Driver

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

The Driver is a study in dogged auteurism in which screenwriter-become-director Walter Hill seeks to reclaim his own. Anyone who has seen the Hill-scripted The Thief Who Came to Dinner (directed by Bud Yorkin) and The Getaway (Sam Peckinpah) will be hard-pressed to ignore that the new picture doubles back over much the same ground. In itself this would not necessarily amount to a bad thing; variations on themes, characters, and situations are, after all, very much a part of the auteur bag, and echoes, even repetitions, are key evidence in tracing an artist’s signature. If the auteur in question reduplicates his previous efforts too closely, hallmark may become cliché. If, on the other hand, he shuffles the deck thoroughly, turns old options on their heads, tests the assumptions and conditions in previous works, he continues to be worth watching, has room in which to grow and the courage to make use of it.

The Driver doesn’t exemplify either of these possibilities, exactly. As a director, Hill is neither a transplanted TV traffic manager like Yorkin nor a first-rank cineaste like Peckinpah, but a unique and still-formative talent; it’s entirely appropriate that he should recycle those Hill materials we initially met at second hand, and see whether he can give them fresh life, the precise form of life he may have wanted them to have in the first place. Yet the material fails to gain in freshness—indeed, it is very nearly wrung dry—and one reason for this seems to be that there’s nothing, no intervening sensibility, for it to push against.

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Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: Coming Home

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

Like Bound for Glory, Hal Ashby’s latest attempt at chronicling the moods of an era is an honest if ham-handed effort. As in Shampoo, a love triangle becomes emblematic of the political and social polarities of a nation at the crossroads (an idea that was old before Doctor Zhivago). Coming Home also shares with Shampoo a self-deluding sense of its own importance and originality; it says nothing about Vietnam and the Sixties that hasn’t been said for the past ten years, and speaks only to those who already know, and feel, more than Ashby’s film ever manages to express. Nevertheless, the powerfully acted love story between officer’s wife Sally Hyde (Fonda) and wounded vet Luke Martin (Voight) is tenderly felt, a welling-up of joy tinged with the guilt of infidelity that reflects the larger, less overt guilt of rebellion against Uncle Sam and all that he stands for. There’s an important truth here: Sally changes her whole lifestyle, and her convictions, not out of a moral or political commitment, but because she falls in love—just as opposition to the Vietnam War was initially grounded in personal attachment to the people whose lives were wasted there, while the sense of moral outrage came later, an extension and justification of the more concrete personal resistance. It’s something Ashby and scenarists seem to recognize in making Luke Martin someone Sally knows from high school; and the Fellini-esque airport sequence of the dead and wounded coming home together (Haskell Wexler’s finest moment in an uncharacteristically pedestrian job of cinematography) recognizes the basis of American opposition to the war in the searing intimacy of the suffering of friends and neighbors, lovers, husbands, sons.

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