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FAMILY PLOT (director: Alfred Hitchcock; screenwriter: Ernest Lehman/from the novel “The Rainbird Pattern” by Victor Canning; cinematographer: Leonard J. South; editor: J. Terry Williams; music: John Williams; cast: Karen Black (Fran), Bruce Dern (George Lumley), Barbara Harris (Blanche), William Devane (Arthur Adamson), Ed Lauter (Joe Maloney), Cathleen Nesbitt (Julia Rainbird), William Prince (Bishop Wood), Nicholas Colasanto (Greek Shipping Magnate), Edith Atwater (Mrs. Clay); Runtime: 121; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Alfred Hitchcock; Universal Home Video; 1976)
It’s the perfect crime picture.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This was the 53rd and last feature film directed by Alfred Hitchcock (“Vertigo”/”Frenzy“/”Psycho”). The Master died in 1980 at the age of 80. Family Plot is adapted from the middling novel“The Rainbird Pattern” by Brit novelist Victor Canning and written with great wit by Ernest Lehman (“North by Northwest”). Hitchcock does wonders with this tongue-in-cheek suspense yarn. It’s the perfect crime picture.

Phony medium Madame Blanche (Barbara Harris) has been hired by Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt), a dowager of 78, to find her long-lost nephew, the illegitimate son of her deceased sister Harriet in order to leave her only heir her entire fortune of millions. The guilt-ridden Rainbird put him up for adoption forty years ago to avoid a family scandal as Harriet was not married, and knows neither his name nor whereabouts nor who adopted him. Blanche has no ability to communicate with the dead or in any way be psychic, but gets help in the search from her quarrelsome cabbie (an out of work actor) boyfriend George (Bruce Dern). The amiable zany couple plan to rip off Rainbird for the $10,000 she promised to just locate her nephew, as the conniving small-time con artist couple plan on leading the impressionable dowager on that they located her nephew. But, surprisingly, through vigorous leather shoe investigating, the dim couple locate the nephew as a crooked wealthy Los Angeles jeweler going under the phony name Arthur Adamson (William Devane). What they don’t know is that he’s a kidnapper capable of murder, who holds his captives (first a Greek shipping magnate and then the local bishop) for a ransom of valuable king-size diamonds and is aided by his master of the disguise girlfriend, donning a blonde wig, Fran (Karen Black).

The link that connects these two couples, one ruthless and one benign, is the illegitimate child, his adopted family that all burned to death in an arson crime he schemed many years ago, an empty grave, a car whose brakes are tampered with and is speeding down a steep mountain road, and some very bizarre and funny circumstances that put the fake psychic on the trail of the dangerous psychopathic criminal.

Hitchcock shows that both couples might be greedy and dishonest, but only the more sophisticated couple is willing to cross the line of hardened criminal and be willing to take lives.

The cast all give grand performances, which includes fine support by Ed Lauter as Devane’s mad-dog killer friend and William Prince as the pampered bishop who was artfully snatched while conducting mass in a crowded church.

It’s top-notch Hitchcock but without his usual type of suspense, that’s a real treat because of how it mixes mayhem and comedy into an entertaining movie and how the Master’s eagle eye for attention to detail makes for such a well-crafted film. It shows the Master never lost his touch, not even in his last film when his health was failing him.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”