Quentin Tarantino loves saying that directing is a young man’s game. He’ll talk about not wanting to end up like Billy Wilder, as if the bum notes at the end of Wilder’s career make him a vaguely pathetic figure, instead of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time who happened to end on a bad run. Tarantino will compare filmmaking to boxing, an analogy that makes no sense if you think about it for ten seconds. “A boxer,” Abel Ferrara said, “—one split second of distraction and you could be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life… [W]hat’s gonna happen to you on a set, honey? Your assistant is going to spill hot coffee on your lap. How the fuck does that make you a boxer, Jack?”
But still, it’s easy to see where Tarantino is coming from, because even great directors do not generally make great films in their seventies. I love Billy Wilder dearly – The Apartment might be my actual favourite film – but by 1978 he was making Fedora, a film that’s bad in ways that make it seem almost doomed. It’s not fun enough to be an enjoyable piece of trash and way too dumb to be anything else, and is clearly written to have a legend go hog-wild in the lead but instead has, essentially, some lady, who is fine. I love Charlie Chaplin, and I can’t imagine ever watching A Countess from Hong Kong again. It has a creaky, slow quality, like it should be a 1930s screwball comedy but it was made in 1967 by a seventy-eight-year-old. Both feel like movies made by old men trying and failing to make films that you can’t really make anymore, in ways that make me miss what those men could do when they were younger. Martin Scorsese is seventy-seven and just made three of the best films of his decades-long career, not even counting the documentaries he made in the same period, but that feels more like an exception that proves the rule.
At least, that was my line of thinking going into Family Plot, Alfred Hitchcock’s fifty-third and last film. I expected it to be an interesting failure, or at best, hopelessly in the shadow of the great films Hitchcock made decades earlier.
But Family Plot is great. It is about as thoroughly enjoyable a way to spend two hours as has been committed to film.
Family Plot was well-reviewed when it was released in 1976 – Roger Ebert said it was a delight, Variety called it “a dazzling achievement” – but people don’t talk about it much anymore. They talk about Hitchcock all the time, but Family Plot is, I suppose, overshadowed by his many masterpieces. I understand that on one level – Vertigo is perfect and I also enjoy talking about it a lot – but it’s frustrating for great films to get obscured because they are, in the context of their director’s filmography, “minor” works. After Hours isn’t any less brilliant because Martin Scorsese also made Taxi Driver, and Family Plot isn’t any less brilliant because Hitchcock also made Psycho.
Family Plot opens on a fake psychic – Madame Blanche (Barbara Harris) – holding a séance with an old lady. The lady reveals that her late sister had a child outside of marriage, who was given up for adoption. The lady wants Blanche to use her psychic powers to locate her nephew, now a grown man, so she can make him her heir. Blanche tells her taxi driver boyfriend George (Bruce Dern), and you immediately assume that she’ll have George pose as the nephew and collect the inheritance. But Blanche actually gets him to… conduct an investigation to locate the nephew. Her big scam is to do exactly what the old lady asked for. It’s delightful.
So George goes investigating. He’s an aspiring actor, and his investigation is in no small part a series of acting jobs: “I’m Frank McBride of the law firm Ferguson and Ferguson and McBride, and I just wondered if you’d mind answering a couple questions…” These scenes play out like an episode of Columbo, with George’s simple, conversational questioning eking out unexpected revelations from everyone he talks to. And like an episode of Columbo, the audience is kept a step ahead.
The old lady’s nephew was adopted by the Shoebridges, who named him Eddie. As far as anyone knows, they all died in a fire in 1950, when Eddie was a teenager. George finds it odd that Eddie’s gravestone is clearly much newer than his parents’, even though they died at the same time, and he tracks down the man who paid for the gravestone: Joseph Maloney (Ed Lauter). And once George questions him, Maloney goes straight to Eddie to let him know.
With Maloney’s help, Eddie (William Devane) killed his adoptive parents and faked his own death all those years ago. He’s now a jeweller living under the name Arthur Adamson. He also runs elaborate ransom scams with his girlfriend, Fran (Karen Black): they kidnap millionaires and dignitaries and demand payment in gemstones. They kidnap a bishop in the middle of Mass. When Maloney tells Eddie that some guy is fishing around, he assumes that George must be investigating his many crimes. So, naturally, he wants to have George killed.
From there, Family Plot becomes a Coen Brothers-style dark comic farce. Like Burn After Reading or Blood Simple, everybody has very limited information and assumes that everyone else knows stuff they don’t. Eddie and Fran don’t know anything about the old lady’s inheritance, so they assume Blanche and George know about their evil schemes and are trying to bring them down. Blanche and George don’t know anything about all of that, and are just trying to deliver some good news.
Eddie sends Maloney to kill Blanche and George, and he cuts their brakes. They survive crashing, so Maloney tries to run them over, but he dies when he swerves out of the way of an oncoming car. From Blanche and George’s point of view, this guy just tried to murder them out of nowhere. From Eddie and Fran’s point of view, these investigator types killed the man sent to kill them, like some kind of super-genius ninja spies. That total incongruence is hilarious: it’s funny in the elemental way that great farce is funny, right in your gut. They think Blanche and George are three steps ahead, when really they’re in way over their heads while not even aware they’re standing in water.
Family Plot doesn’t feel like a film from decades prior erroneously made in the 1970s, the way Wilder’s Fedora does, and it doesn’t feel like Hitchcock making a 1970s-style film, either, the way that Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind does. It fits perfectly in its own time even if it doesn’t feel deeply rooted in it. Its driving scenes are filmed with rear projection, and it’s both an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it move from an old man and a lovely, conspicuous throwback. It’s like a missing link between the rear-projection driving from classic Hollywood and from Pulp Fiction, and it made me smile really hard. The whole film is like that: delightful.
An artist’s “major works” are usually considered major works for a reason, but it’s a mistake to think the opposite is also true: works usually get considered “minor” just through inaction. It’s barely a comment on their quality at all. Hamlet is the best play Shakespeare wrote, sure, but my second favourite is Cymbeline. And Vertigo is the best film Hitchcock made, but I would happily watch Family Plot over and over and over again.