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Film / Family Plot

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Family Plot is a 1976 Black Comedy Thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Barbara Harris, Bruce Dern, Karen Black, and William Devane. The score was composed by the legendary John Williams.

The film starts with a Spooky Séance contacted by Blanche Tyler (Harris). Her latest client is elderly Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt), who wants to locate her last living relative: the illegitimate son of her sister, given up for adoption decades ago. Now that boy is supposed to inherit the family fortune, and Julia offers Blanche $10,000 to find her heir. Blanche is actually a Phony Psychic. The facts she reports to her clients are the results of some detective work by her boyfriend, George Lumley (Dern), an unemployed actor and part-time cab driver. The two bumbling detectives now have proper motivation to find that heir.

The scene shifts to the heir Arthur Adamson (Devane) and his girlfriend Fran (Black). They are both Wicked Cultured. Arthur murdered his foster parents many years before and now works as a jeweler and has an upper-class house. He and Fran actually earn most of their money from a highly-successful career as kidnappers, their targets being millionaires and dignitaries. By the time the film starts, the thrill of the work has become part of their motivation. Danger turns them on and really helps their sexual activities. These two are dangerous people.

Naturally, seeking out the two master criminals turns out to be a more dangerous mission than Blanche and George expected.

Alfred Hitchcock's 54th and final film, capping a career that spanned more than 50 years. He died four years later.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Title Change: Family Plot was adapted from the novel The Rainbird Pattern.
  • All Women Are Lustful: A horny Blanche wants George to spend the night, but he's too tired.
  • Artistic License – Religion: The Shoebridges and the Maloneys are apparently supposed to be Mormon, with the stonemason referring to the Shoebridge burial as being done by the "First Church of Latter-day Saints" and a quotation from The Book of Mormon (2 Nephi, chapter 9) read at Joe Maloney's graveside service. But the church-related material in the film seems more reminiscent of Catholicism or Anglicanismnote 
  • Aside Glance: Blanche winks at the viewers as the movie ends.
  • City with No Name: Unlike most Hitchcock films which feature an iconic city or landmark, the location is kept vague except it's obviously in California. San Francisco and Los Angeles were both used for exterior shots, with San Francisco's famous black-on-white street name signs visible at several points.
  • Cold Reading: The "hot reading" inversion is used here. Blanche enlists George to pose as different characters to find out info about her clients, then uses what he tells her in her consultations with them to make them think she has genuine psychic powers.
  • Contrived Coincidence:
    • Julia Rainbird decides to look for her nephew Edward 40 years after he was abandoned, exactly at the time when Edward is carrying out a series of abductions and extortions.
    • Just after Julia Rainbird puts Blanche in charge of finding Edward, Blanche bumps into Edward's accomplice and lover, who was on her way collecting a ransom.
    • George hears that the bishop knows Edward, so he tries to meet him, but Arthur and Fran kidnap him just before he can talk to him.
  • Cozy Mystery: Probably the closest Hitchcock came to this genre, with an average couple who start investigating an elaborate web of crime, and no onscreen murders.note  It's easy to picture Blanche and George as the lead characters of a Murder, She Wrote-style TV series.
  • Creator Cameo: Alfred Hitchcock makes an appearance in silhouette behind the door marked Registrar of Births and Deaths.
  • Digital Destruction: The Blu-Ray has an uglier transfer than other Hitchcock movies do.
  • Double-Meaning Title: Family Plot refers to the Shoebridge family gravesite, Eddie murdering his adoptive parents, and Blanche's scheme to find the Rainbird heir so she can collect her money.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: While Fran readily goes along with Arthur's kidnapping schemes, she's reluctant to murder Blanche, as Arthur intends to. She doesn't even want to drug Blanche at first.
  • Every Car Is a Pinto: We don't see Joe Maloney's car blow up after he careens off a mountain road, but we do see the satisfying fire afterwards.
  • The Film of the Book: Adapted by screenwriter Ernest Lehman from Victor Canning's 1972 novel The Rainbird Pattern.
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: Arthur hides the diamonds from his kidnappings (the diamonds are the ransom payment) in the chandelier in the hallway of his house. Blanche is the one who discovers this at the end.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard:
    • Joe Maloney tries to kill George and Blanche by having them lose control of their car on a steep mountain road. Instead that's how he ends up dying.
    • At the climax Arthur and Fran get locked up in the hidden chamber where they kept their kidnapping victims.
  • Instant Sedation: The modus operandi of Fran and Arthur to kidnap people: they inject their victims with a sedative drug.
  • In the Style of: The John Williams score sounds a lot like Bernard Herrmann at times.
  • Internal Reveal: We find out that Arthur Adamson=Eddie Shoebridge long before George and Blanche learn that fact.
  • ISO-Standard Urban Groceries: Blanche carries the standard brown paper bag with lettuce sticking out. Used for a bit of comedy when she plops the bag down on the hood of the car and George has to carry it in.
  • Linked List Clue Methodology: George and Blanche's investigation: the chauffeur's daughter → the cemetery → the stonemason → the Registrar of Births and Deaths → meeting with Joe Maloney → the funeral of Joe Maloney → Arthur's jewelry store → Arthur's private house.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident:
    • To kill Arthur's adoptive parents, Arthur and Joe burned down their house, to make it look like an accident.
    • Joe Maloney sabotages Blanche's car, so that the deaths of Blanche and George will look like an accident.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The final scene leaves it ambiguous whether Blanche might actually have psychic powers.
  • Never Found the Body: Turns out there's nobody in Edward Shoebridge's grave, as the police never found his body after the house fire. That's because Eddie assumed the identity of Arthur Adamson.
  • Never Suicide: Arthur plans to kill Blanche and stage the scene to look like a suicide.
  • Outlaw Couple: Two different couples—The "good" couple is a Phony Psychic and her boyfriend who assumes different identities to gather intelligence to help her in her cons. The evil couple practices kidnapping for ransom and jewel heists.
  • Phony Psychic: Blanche Tyler, complete with Large Ham voices supposedly channeling dead spirits. Possibly subverted in the very last scene.
  • Poor Communication Kills: All the problems would have been avoided if George had made clear that he was looking for Edward because his aunt wanted him to be her heir.
  • Porn Stache: Arthur's unappealing mustache establishes him as slimy and venal.
  • Precision F-Strike: Some swearing (mainly from George), which is a bit jarring for a Hitchcock film (Family Plot is PG but there's actually more swearing here than in the R-rated Frenzy).
  • Samus Is a Girl: When the mysterious black-clad woman goes into the police station with a ransom payment, the cops are surprised to find that she's a woman. ("You called yourself 'The Trader', so we thought you were a man.")
  • Self-Made Orphan: Arthur/Eddie murdered both his adoptive parents in a house fire.
  • Setting Update: The original novel The Rainbird Pattern is set in England, while the film is set in California.
  • Shout-Out: Blanche lives at the corner of Castle Heights and Bates. While "Castle Heights" was a fake sign (the scene was actually filmed on Lexington Avenue in the Silver Lake section of Los Angeles), the adjoining street really was called Bates Avenue. Hitchcock and his crew obviously recognized the connection to Psycho and left the sign untouched.
  • Slobs Versus Snobs: Blanche/George are the Slobs (low-level con artists), Fran/Arthur are the Snobs (high-class jewel thieves).
  • Smug Snake: Arthur clearly has a high opinion of himself and his criminal exploits, and is constantly grinning.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The daughter of the undertaker is listening to cheerful music while she is engraving a tombstone.
  • Spoiler Cover: The tagline on the poster in the original release flat-out gives away a crucial part of the main plot twist: "There's no body in the family plot".
  • Spooky Séance: Several are showed: Blanche speaks in a deep voice and pretends to speak to a spirit, "Henry".
  • Too Dumb to Live: Joe Maloney's decision to turn around and try to run over Blanche and George after the Vehicular Sabotage fails ends up costing him his own life.
  • Unexpected Inheritance: Subverted. Arthur turns out to be the sole heir to a vast fortune—which he never gets, as he's going to prison.
  • Vehicular Sabotage: The brakes on Blanche's car are tampered with, sending him and Blanche hysterically careening down a winding mountain road.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Arthur Adamson is a respected jeweler, but behind the scenes he's a successful kidnapper and jewel thief.
  • Waiting for a Break: George is a would-be actor. He works as a cab driver.