Family Plot (1976)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Bruce Dern, Barbara Harris, Karen Black, William Devane
Extras: ’Plotting Family Plot’ Documentary, Production Photos, Production Notes, Production Drawings, Storyboards, Filmographies, Theatrical Trailer
’Family Plot’ marks the end of one of the greatest film careers of all time. As Alfred Hitchcock’s 54th, and final, movie, the film serves as something of a fond farewell by the director and marks a return to the more lighthearted suspense thrillers he made famous. After his previous foray into the much darker and more explicitly violent subject matter of his previous work, ’Frenzy,’ this return to style is a most welcome and fitting way to bid adieu. While no one would rank this film very high on any "Best of Hitchcock" lists, the movie does contain a fair amount of humor and charm.
The story itself is told through two parallel narratives that eventually converge into one, comprehensive tale. The first story focuses on George Lumley (Bruce Dern), a hack actor turned taxi driver, and his girlfriend Blanche (Barbara Harris), a phony psychic on the look-out for easy money. Hired by wealthy widow Julia Rainbird (Catherine Nesbitt) to uncover the whereabouts of her only heir, an illegitimate nephew who was given up for adoption many years before, Blanche sends poor George on a fool’s errand to find the boy, now a grown man, and get the $10,000 reward.
The second story revolves around a kidnapper and jewel thief named Adamson (William Devane) who, with his girlfriend Frances (Karen Black), is first seen picking up the ransom from a previous successful kidnapping. Having established quite a lucrative little business for himself, Adamson is none too pleased when George’s little hunt starts to get uncomfortably close to some of his own interests.
As in many Hitchcock films, the dark subject matter is offset by a tongue in cheek attitude that lightens the overall tone of the movie. ’Family Plot’ also has an almost wistful feel about it as Hitchcock clearly knew he was nearing the end of his career and was saying goodbye thorough blatant homages to his previous, best-loved films. There’s a real feeling of sadness in watching ’Family Plot’ as the viewer knows that this was his final film and that there will never again be another filmmaker quite like Alfred Hitchcock.
’Family Plot’ is presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> preserving the 1.85:1 aspect ratio of the original theatrical release. As a product of the late 70s, the film shows many of the same kinds of problems that plague other works from that era due to the cheap, rapidly aging film stock and lousy archival methods. Colors are badly faded and fluctuate throughout the film as does the black level. The print is quite grainy as well and suffers from fairly constant physical imperfections such as nicks and white specks. In addition, a bit too much edge enhancement was been applied in an attempt to sharpen the soft image. I had hoped for better but, without a true restoration effort, this is likely as good as it gets.
As is the case with all of the Universal Hitchcock films, except those few for which brand new audio mixes were created, ’Family Plot’ is offered in a plain mono mix split between the two front speakers (a mono French dubbed track is available as well). That being said, the soundtrack is in surprisingly good shape. As is to be expected, dynamic range is severely lacking but I found the track to be well-balanced regardless. Dialogue is quite clear and John Williams’s score is nicely integrated. Some faint distortion is evident here and there but for the most part the soundtrack is more than adequate.
It’s a Universal Hitchcock DVD and that means another Laurent Bouzereau documentary. Clocking in at 50 minutes, ’Plotting Family Plot’ is yet another excellent effort. While ostensibly dealing with the making of the film, this documentary offers a very heartfelt and touching look at the great director’s final days plying his trade. In the case of ’Plotting Family Plot’ we get to hear from such Hitchcock regulars as Hilton Green as well as from people who were working with him for the first time such as John Williams and William Devane. There’s a great sense of sadness over the sun setting on Hitchcock’s career as well as a sense of awe from those who were fortunate enough to work with him on this final project.
Also included on the DVD are a number of photo galleries that highlight the production and feature the storyboards for the very funny car chase sequence. Rounding out the extras are a few pages of production notes, cast and crew bios and filmographies, and the theatrical trailer.
’Family Plot’ isn’t a great film by any stretch of the imagination and those just discovering the world of Alfred Hitchcock would be better served to start off his better films such as ’Vertigo’ or ’Rear Window’ to get a real taste for the director’s inimitable style and excellence. For long-time fans, ’Family Plot’ serves as a fond farewell to the great director and, issues with the video aside, Universal’s DVD release offers an adequate presentation of the film as well as an excellent documentary on this final work of art from the master himself.