Hitchcock-a-thon: Family Plot (1976)

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Well. Here we are. Hitchcock’s final film, made just four years before his death in 1980. After an astonishing career of over 50 years it’s hard not to feel a tad emotional now we’ve reached the end. Maybe that’s just me.

By 1976 Hitchcock was slowing down. In the last decade of his career he only directed two films, quite a step back for the man used to churn out three per year. His dwindling energy is, perhaps, reflected in the comedic thriller Family Plot. While it’s a perfectly entertaining flick, it feels slower and lighter than what we’re accustomed to from the Master of Suspense.

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Hitchcock’s final cameo

Family Plot presents us with two parallel story lines. Story one, a scam spiritual medium Blanche (Barbara Harris) and her boyfriend George (Bruce Dern) set out to help an elderly widow track down her long lost nephew for a hefty cash reward. Story two, a married pair of crooks, Arthur (William Devane) and Fran (Karen Black), kidnap various wealthy chaps and demand diamonds as ransom.

How are these two cases connected? And who is the enigmatic Eddie Shoebridge? It’s gonna take a whole lot of snooping around graveyards to find out.

Despite its central mystery, Family Plot is a fairly laid-back film. There are a handful of thrills along the way, such as a high-speed car chase across the Californian countryside or a jewel heist at the beginning executed by Fran dressed up like Lady Gaga, but these are rare exceptions.

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Wants your applause

Instead of thrills, the film’s enjoyment comes from Ernest Lehman’s witty screenplay, especially when it comes to the relationship between the two leads.

Their frank and open dialogue is fun to witness, whether they’re flat out insulting each or making plans about their evening sex (“Don’t start to fret, George, or our waterbed will be no fun at all tonight; as an actor, you should know that fretting will ruin a performance.”)

Family Plot is an enjoyable final flourish, but even at its best it never comes close to matching the flirty fun of To Catch a Thief or the unabashed cheesiness of North by Northwest, even with Barbara Harris’s fourth-wall-shattering wink right at the end.

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T-t-t-t-t-t-that’s all, folks!

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Hitchcock-a-thon: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

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In the sleepy town of  Santa Rosa CA, Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) is over the moon when her favourite uncle, also called Charlie (Joseph Cotten), comes to stay with her family. Everyone loves Uncle Charlie, y’see. He’s charming, fun and generous. And, best of all, he’s not secretly a serial killer.

Oh. Oh, wait.

Yes, it’s another Hitchcock tale of growing mistrust. Our heroine starts to suspect that one of the people closest to her harbours a dark, sinister secret: is her uncle the “Merry Widow murderer”? As the paranoia grows, it’s only a matter of time until it’s Charlie vs. Charlie.

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While the plot may sound like a retread of The Lodger or Suspicion, it’s executed better here than in either of them. For two main reasons. Firstly, the  idyllic suburban setting is brought to life magnificently by the Great American playwright Thornton Wilder (Our Town) who collaborated on the screenplay. With the setting imagined with such believability, it only adds to the threat when the dark presence of Uncle Charlie begins to creep in.

The second thing that makes Shadow of a Doubt a success is the spectacular performance by Cotten as Uncle Charlie. He’s acts Cary Grant’s performance in Suspicion out of the water. The strong twin-like bond he has Young Charlie at the beginning seems almost genuine, making it all the more ominous when her ideal of him begins to shatter. As Hitchcock villains go, he’s up there with Norman Bates in Psycho and Bruno in Strangers on a Train.

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When the two Charlies come head to head it plays out as an allegory of good and evil. The duality of Man: the Good Charlie and the Bad.

There are some baffling plot aspects, such as an absurdly shoehorned romance subplot that comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere, or when the detectives drop their investigation of Uncle Charlies after the other suspect meets an untimely death.

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Hitchcock ranks the film as one of his very best. While I personally wouldn’t go as far as that, it’s still an extremely strong thriller that shows off many of trademarks that make up the Master of Suspense.