FAMILY PLOT, Alfred Hitchcock’s 54rd and final movie has the suspense master go out with a winner. While not up to the level of his classics, it’s clever and well-performed by an offbeat cast, leaving us with a smile rather the shrugs of Torn Curtain and Topaz and the grimace from Frenzy.
A bogus psychic and her struggling actor boyfriend seek a reward by doing some investigating for a wealthy elderly woman who wants to know the whereabouts of her nephew. At the same time a jeweler and his girlfriend run kidnapping schemes that pay off with valuable gemstones. The pairs paths cross, stakes are high, options include murder.
Screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who’d done North by Northwest for Hitch, took Victor Canning’s England-set thriller “The Rainbow Pattern, transplanted it to California and and turned it into a black comedy. Tongue-in-cheek funny with just enough peril to give it the edge required to have us care what happens to the characters.
Eschewing big stars for leads was a good call here. Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris are the needy actor and fake seeress; William Devane and Karen Black the suave diamond hustler and femme fatale. Though first-billed, Black has a smaller role than the others, blonde-bewigged and costumed to look like a spy from a Mad Magazine parody. Devane, who’d recently broken through in two made-for-TV dramas (as JFK in The Missiles of October and Judge John Henry Faulk in Fear On Trial) had another plum part that year in Marathon Man: a mustache with that toothy smile makes him look properly slick. Harris is a joy, every line reading and expression given a unique spin, perfectly done to be offbeat but not too obviously quirky. Dern had impressed Hitchcock 12 years earlier with a small part in Marnie and in two episodes of TVs The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: he gets the most to do, and is allowed more dimension than he was usually given.
Brought in for a thrifty $4,500,000, rewarded by $23,000,000, #30 in 1976. Scored with a light touch by John Williams. With Cathleen Nesbitt, Ed Lauter, Katherine Helmond, Nicholas Colasanto, Charles Tyner, William Prince and Marge Redmond. 120 minutes.