The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ve published one conversation per week, and this is the final edition.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: A phony psychic/con artist and her taxi driver/private investigator boyfriend encounter a pair of serial kidnappers while trailing a missing heir in California.
Jason: Ready to talk about Hitchcock’s final film?
James: To be honest, part of me didn’t want to watch Family Plot. It’s weird. I’d almost rather start over and go through all of Hitch’s films again, than be able to say, “I’m done.” I didn’t think I’d feel this way. It’s as if my grandfather is dying and if I go see him, it’ll be final.
Jason: I know exactly what you mean. But, looking back on Family Plot, I have to say that although it took me a while to get into its groove, once I did, I liked it as a fun lark, then even began to appreciate it more as a very funny comedy. Part of me does wish that Hitch had gone out on a high, classic note, but having Family Plot as a final effort is no disappointment. There’s some great trademark Hitch in this film, and it was a lot of fun to watch.
James: Like you, I wanted Hitch to go out on a high note, as with his more classic films. But once I was into this film and the story started picking up, I didn’t mind the fact that Family Plot is more of a humorous take on the genre.
Jason: But, man, this film’s opening 9 or 10 minutes . . . I was looking at my watch, waiting for something to start. I was afraid that Hitch was going to stumble badly. All we see in these opening minutes is a static scene of a fake séance—all red and moody. Just two people sitting there looking at each other. Of course, we come to find that one of these characters is Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbit), who’s looking for a long-lost heir to give her billions to, and the other is a fake medium, Madame Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris), to whom Mrs. Rainbird has promised $10,000 if she can use her supposed psychic abilities to find that lost heir. The entire story of the film is launched in this one scene, so even though it’s a fairly boring way to start a movie, you’ve got to pay attention.
James: Hmm, I wasn’t bored in the slightest. I wasn’t as riveted as I usually am at the start of a Hitch flick, perhaps, but once I understood that Blanche is conning this old lady, I could dig that. And Blanche’s interaction with that curly-haired freak George Lumley (Bruce Dern) in the cab is a lot of fun.
Jason: Now, don’t get me wrong, once the narrative actually starts moving, following that scene in Mrs. Rainbird’s parlor, I began really enjoying Family Plot. It’s just that I was surprised to see such a static, dialog-heavy opening to a Hitch flick. But yeah, once Blanche jumps into the cab with George, I was in for the ride. Man, Bruce Dern is so perfect in this film. “Curly-haired freak” is right. What a strange character, and what an interesting relationship these two seem to have. She’s a fake medium swindling old ladies out of their money, and he’s an aspiring actor whom Blanche relies on to uncover the details she needs in her séances. You also get the feeling that she’s sexually voracious and he can’t keep up with her. That running theme produces some truly funny scenes and dialog exchanges. “I’m sick and tired of you having me by the crystal balls.”
James: I think the first scene in the cab really sets up the tone of the movie as far as this couple goes. The way they flirt and throw sexual innuendos back and forth—good stuff. We see that this film is going to have a serious plot, but with some tongue-in-cheek dialog. I really enjoyed that aspect of Family Plot. There’s no silly humor, like people falling over stools or crashing into walls. Instead, the humor is all in the form of subtle dialog. That’s perfect, classic Hitchcock.
Jason: One of the more interesting aspects of this movie is the way the two central couples cross each others’ paths. Not long after we meet Blanche and George, as you say, we meet the mysterious blonde Fran (Karen Black), dressed all in black, crossing the road in front of George’s cab as he and Blanche speed away from Mrs. Rainbird’s mansion. Interestingly, as in Marnie, we see Fran only from behind, a woman in a wig involved in a crime. We’ll come to find out that she’s involved with diamond thief Arthur Adamson (William Devane). Adamson is also Mrs. Rainbird’s long-lost heir—except he has no idea.
James: What are your thoughts about this opening Fran scene? Something about her not talking really grated on me until I found out why she’s silent. I was almost mad at her for not talking. There was something unreal about it. I don’t know. But once she takes off the wig and tells us why—then it suddenly becomes a brilliant plot.
Jason: Your take on Fran’s lack of dialog is interesting. I sorta liked it. I liked the mystery of it. I knew something was going on that we would learn about eventually. I like the way we find out only gradually, and incrementally, that she’s involved in this elaborate kidnapping. She and Arthur have kidnapped Victor Constantine (Nicholas Colisanto) in an effort to steal a huge diamond as ransom. (Did you recognize Constantine as Coach from Cheers?)
James: That was funny to see Coach. I always enjoy seeing older films and recognizing certain actors.
Jason: Anyway, I like when Fran finally meets up with Arthur, and he talks suggestively about how much he likes her costume: “I need the tall blonde one more time.”
James: This whole Fran sequence, though—I was totally confused, but in a good way. I just couldn’t figure out how the two plots would come together. But I was into it the whole time. To me, the tone almost felt like Raising Arizona. I don’t know why, but that’s what I continually flashed on. But like you said, the way George almost hits her with the cab as she’s crossing the street toward her rendezvous for the Constantine ransom, the way the couples cross paths . . . I really enjoyed that, particularly since I had no idea what the connection was.
Jason: Yep, good stuff.
James: That’s one heck of a thought-out plot that Arthur and Fran have developed, by the way. It’s very precise, and it even uses Hitch’s “dumb cop” theme to some degree. And it piqued my interest throughout the sequence.
Jason: This is actually a well-written story in addition to being hilarious.
James: Something I found interesting is the differences between these couples who are, in certain ways, very similar. First you have Arthur and Fran, this rich, high-class couple that steals diamonds and devises elaborate criminal plots. They also enjoy the sex. On the other end of the spectrum, we have George and Blanche, the two who are broke, who can barely get $30 for Blanche’s fake séances, and who aren’t sexually compatible. It’s like pitting high-end crime against these small-time swindlers, and in the end, guess who wins? I like that.
Jason: That’s a fascinating point. Both couples have sex on the brain, and both couples are criminal. It’s the lower-class couple that wins in the end, but what makes them any better than the high-society thieves? Why are they our protagonists, and why are Arthur and Fran the antagonists? Is it because, at heart, George and Blanche are better people? Interesting question.
James: I don’t think the lower-class couple is any better than the other couple, necessarily. I just think it’s funnier this way. They’re more like good-natured, blundering fools, and seeing the underdog win is the American way.
Jason: The more I ponder it, the more I believe Hitch definitely painted Blanche and George as the morally “good” characters of the film, even though they’re criminals. But, hey, they’re petty criminals compared with Arthur and Fran, who are plain vicious (even though their escapades are funny, too). I mean, we’re talking two totally different levels of moral corruption here: sneaky petty theft versus high-stakes crime and murder.
James: Yeah, the petty thieves are the “better” of the two pairs, and the more I think about it, I like the fact that there’s really no one in the film who’s morally outstanding. Perhaps the only person we’re supposed to outright despise is Joe Maloney (Ed Lauter), the guy at the gas station. He really has no humor about him. And the fact that he’s a hired murderer, well, that sets him in a darker spot than any of the others.
Jason: Right, Maloney is essentially the assassin of the film. He’s the guy who Arthur had kill his stepparents way back in the day. He’s the guy who bought the fake headstone for Edward Shoebridge, whom we find out is actually Arthur. I guess you might call Maloney the villain of the film, but he’s just Arthur’s henchman. A hired hand. No, Arthur is the primary antagonist.
James: Oh, I completely agree that Arthur is the primary antagonist. What I’m saying is that Maloney is the only character with no humor. He’s the dark spot in the film. The others—even though they’re thieves or “bad guys” to some degree—at least have something welcoming about them. There’s humor. But not for Maloney.
Jason: So, let’s look at this Arthur dude. Through the scenes in which George poses as a lawyer—interviewing people involved in the case of Edward Shoebridge—we learn that Arthur actually is Shoebridge. We get that great scene in the cemetery, in which George stumbles onto the new-looking headstone standing next to the old-looking one for the Shoebridge family. Why would the headstones look so different if the people were killed (in a fire) on the same day? Well, we learn that Shoebridge had his adoptive family killed and assumed the identity of Arthur Adamson. This guy is a menace, an evil man. That history, combined with Arthur’s seething desire to murder George and Blanche, definitely make him the antagonist. But it’s interesting to think that there’s really no morally sound character in this film.
James: I think this is a wonderful little detective film. If you boil it down to just the plot and take out the humor, it totally could’ve been a more serious suspense picture. Watching George uncover the truth about the headstone, then find Maloney, the owner of the gas station—that’s good stuff in and of itself. But when you add those bits of comedy, it takes it to a new level.
Jason: Yeah, the detective elements, in which George is “acting” the part of the detective, are a lot of fun. Going back to the cemetery scene, I love the exchange he has with the caretaker there. George points out the differences in the stone and proposes some theories, and the caretaker says, “Smart fella, ain’t ya?”
Jason: One of the more interesting aspects of Family Plot is that Arthur goes through the entire film not realizing the agenda of George and Blanche. I mean, they just want to find him and ultimately direct him toward an inheritance of billions of dollars. They just want their $10,000 finders’ fee. And yet Arthur is ever-paranoid and thinks their motives are sinister. Arthur doesn’t realize that he’s worth far more than all the kidnapping targets and diamond heists he could muster up with Fran. If only he’d resist his evil impulses and just listen to Blanche and George. Nope, he just wants them dead. Ha!
James: I love how Arthur thinks he’s being chased because of his kidnappings or for the death of his stepparents. And that’s a totally understandable fear. But it’s funny to think that all he has to do is listen, and he’d be a very rich man. That’s great.
Jason: What did you think of the scene in the church, in which Arthur and Fran stage one of their kidnappings? This time, they walk into a San Francisco cathedral in the middle of a service, grab an Episcopalian bishop, inject him with Pentathol, and drag him away right in front of a full congregation. You think, Yeah, it’s church, I bet nobody would really react strongly. At least, right away.
James: The church scene is nicely done, if for no other reason than the way it keeps the plot moving. Having George there to essentially trick Arthur into thinking he’s being followed for the wrong reasons . . . that’s great. And the whole idea of kidnapping a bishop is classic. It’s something Hitchcock had probably wanted to shoot for some time.
Jason: Now we get to the runaway car scene. Arthur has instructed Maloney to ensure that George and Blanche “meet with a fatal accident.” So Maloney calls up George and asks to meet the two at some out-of-the-way diner in the mountains, watches them go inside, then goes to the parking lot and messes with their car’s brakes and accelerator. I thought George and Blanche’s resulting careen down the mountain roads was absolutely hysterical, the way Blanche just crawls all over George as the car speeds out of control. The only thing marring this great scene is Hitch’s process shots. I read that Hitch’s crew wanted to shoot it on location, and even constructed a chair for Hitch to sit in on the back of the shooting car, but he said, “Nope. Too uncomfortable.” But ah well, that’s Hitch. I also thought Maloney driving his car over the cliff and exploding in a fireball was silly. But I could look at that from a humorous angle—as well as a bit of payback, considering he’s the one who killed Shoebridge’s stepparents in a fire. Anyway, as it is, this scene’s got good suspense and fantastic humor. I about bust a gut when George says, “I gotta get off this road.”
James: That car scene. You know, I hated the way Blanche crawled all over him. I hated it. But I still laughed my butt off. I couldn’t help it. It turned out to be pretty funny. But I certainly didn’t want it to be. And the explosion of Maloney’s car was funny, too, for the simple fact that the explosion is so huge and over the top.
Jason: You hated the way Blanche flailed around and yet you laughed your butt off? Interesting. I thought it was plain hysterical. She just keeps getting in his way. It’s totally illogical, but with every cut back to George steering the car, you see her leg draped over his shoulder or her arm thrown across his face. Oh man, funny stuff. And I guess I can see the car explosion from your point of view: over-the-top and almost satirical.
James: Going back a bit, what did you think of the sequence with the priest and the woman in the corner at the diner? I liked George’s reaction to seeing them.
Jason: This brings up an interesting thought. Is Hitch treating religion somewhat derisively in this film? Considering the scene with the kidnapped bishop, the way he’s just tossed about, and the way George scoffs at the priest at the diner, you can tell Hitch is saying something about the folly of religion. Which is interesting, because Hitch himself was a deeply religious man, as we saw in I Confess and The Wrong Man and others. But yeah, I laughed seeing the priest walk into the diner with all those kids, then get his own table with the woman. George’s expressions are great through this whole film.
James: Oh, Hitch is certainly saying something here with the bishop. Or perhaps he’s just having a bit of fun.
Jason: There’s a great moment toward the end of the film, when Blanche finally catches up with Arthur and Fran in their garage, and she’s so happy she’s found him, and he’s as ultra-paranoid as ever, and she starts gushing out the truth about everything that’s going on. Arthur comes to the shocking realization of all the missteps he’s made, but then the unconscious bishop falls out of the car. Poor evil Arthur just can’t catch a break.
James: Seeing that bishop’s head pop out of the car was so funny. Arthur, one step away from receiving this huge inheritance and making his last diamond deal, and wham, out pops the bishop. Hahahaha. Sucker.
Jason: What did you think of this final sequence at Arthur’s place?
James: First of all, what’s the deal with the white paint in the garage? White paint spills when Arthur knocks out Blanche with a shot of Pentathol. Later, when George arrives, he sees it leaking out from under the garage door.
Jason: Well, my first reaction is that the white paint is a substitution for blood, the lack of color symbolizing a kind of purity? That’s interesting.
James: Also, were you expecting another fire after seeing the gas cans in the garage?
Jason: Would have been nice, structurally. But I found this entire final sequence to be a lot of fun. We get George investigating again, and we get another “man coming to his woman’s rescue” scene. Shades of Notorious, played for laughs and light suspense. You expect George and Blanche to bungle their attempt to trap Arthur and Fran in that secret room in the basement, but they pull it off expertly, and then we don’t see or hear from Arthur and Fran again. Interesting.
James: Yes, I really liked how George and Blanche trap Arthur and Fran in that soundproofed room. I expected more blundering on their part, but they manage to get it done.
Jason: I guess my favorite aspect of the ending sequence is the final shot, in which Blanche fools George into believing she really has psychic powers by going straight to the diamond that’s hanging from the chandelier. (She had overheard Arthur talking about the diamond’s in-plain-sight hiding place earlier.)
James: You know, I didn’t catch that at all. I thought Blanche actually had some psychic ability since I didn’t catch Arthur announcing the location of the diamond. Nice catch. It makes much more sense now.
James: Of course, that ending is perfect for Hitch. It’s as if he’s saying goodbye with that wink. Nice touch indeed.
Jason: Even more interesting is that the film both begins and ends on Blanche’s face—at the beginning her eyes are closed, and at the end her eyes are closing in a wink. Which goes back to the circular structures we’ve always talked about throughout this project.
Jason: Did you notice that John Williams did the score for Family Plot? You can kind of tell.
James: I did notice the John Williams score. It sounded like him, but also a bit like Bernard Herrmann.
Jason: I enjoyed what Spoto said about this film: Even to the end, Hitch was exploring his favorite themes. You’ve got the whole combination of sex and theft (To Catch a Thief, Psycho, Marnie), the search for a missing person (The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Spellbound, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho), the influence of the dead on the living (Rebecca, The Trouble with Harry, Vertigo, Psycho), and, most obviously, role-playing (The 39 Steps, Stage Fright, North by Northwest). Everyone in Family Plot is playing a “part.” Blanche plays a fake medium, George plays a lawyer and a detective, Fran disguises herself for the kidnappings, and Arthur is role-playing his very identity. He’s actually Edward Shoebridge. Appropriately, both of the women in this film begin the movie role-playing.
James: You know, Family Plot is a fine way to cap off Hitch’s career. It certainly isn’t his best film, but it’s quite effective, just the same. Especially since it’s a film that hits on so many of his age-old themes, as you point out. That’s rather impressive.
Jason: As far as I’m concerned, Hitch did go out on a high note, at least with his final two films. And, goddamn, what a legacy, right?
James: Quite the legacy indeed. I was worried he’d go out on a low note, but his final two films actually worked for me. Was Hitch in bad shape at the end? Did he think he might make another film?
Jason: Hitch was in pretty bad shape at the end. He had a lot of trouble with his legs. He feared falling over in public settings, which would be too much for his pride to take. He did have another film in mind, but it stalled in preproduction. In fact, Family Plot was shot and set in California (as opposed to the European setting of Victor Canning’s original novel, The Rainbird Pattern) for Hitch’s health reasons. Interestingly, Alma suffered a stroke during the production of Family Plot, and the general feeling was that he would outlive her. But she rebounded, and he declined. She outlived him by 2 years. He died in April 1980, and she died in July 1982. But hey, man, ol’ Hitch made it to his 50th anniversary as a filmmaker. That’s pretty amazing. And look at this final film—you compared it to Raising Arizona earlier, and I agree, this is a wacky film with a fresh, youthful energy to it.
James: I’m so, so, so glad that Hitch went out on a high note. I think a lot of people wouldn’t consider Family Plot a good film, but our little study has proven to me that Hitch knew what he was doing right up to the end. I really liked this film, more than I thought I would. And I’m not sure why, exactly, but I’m glad that his last film was more humorous than an outright suspense film.
Jason: You’re right, there’s something strangely satisfying that Hitch’s last film was more of a lark than an intense thriller. It’s almost as if, like Blanche, he’s winking at us, poking us in the ribs on his way out of the room.
James: As far as the project goes, I’m actually a little sad that it’s over. There’s no question that I’ll go back and do it all over again with these films, eventually. I can’t really see myself not watching a Hitchcock flick. I learned so much about Hitchcock, but also about his major themes, and film in general, and storytelling. I think what we’ve done will help our writing. I can see that in mine already. I’m just looking at things a little differently. Man, it feels wrong to end this.
Jason: You’re right, it feels weird to end this project. We’ve been doing this for a year! I mean, a goddamn year! I definitely feel a little emptiness now that it’s over. I think about Sunday night, and I wonder, What the hell am I going to watch? But yes, I feel like my Hitch-ucation is complete.
James: Wouldn’t it be awesome to do a commentary of one of these films, with all our knowledge? I actually think we could write a book about Hitch. Or what would be even cooler would be to teach a class. That’d be fun.
Jason: Dude, we made it. I mean, holy crap.