Thursday, July 29, 2010

Family Plot

And here is how Hitchcock’s career would end: not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but with a nice satisfying thump, like that of a body hitting the ground. I’ve seen some people online complaining that this was a letdown of a final film for such a distinguished director, but really, it’s his best film since Psycho. If anything, this was him on the upswing after a series of misfires.
The film follows two couples: Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern are a psychic and her con artist cab driver boyfriend who are trying to collect a $10,000 reward for hunting down the heir to a fortune, while William Devane and Karen Black are the heir and his girlfriend, who are in no hurry to be found, what with their shady pasts involving kidnapping and murder. That’s essentially the entire plot of the film, as Hitchcock is more interested here in being whimsical and silly instead of making yet another overdone thriller for audiences to complain about. Indeed, the séance that opens the film, where the old woman reveals that she’s looking for the heir, is a combination quick exposition dump that pretty much gives us 90% of the film and a silly overwrought bit of con artistry designed more to make us laugh at what we’re seeing (and by connection what we’re going to be seeing elsewhere in the film) than to make us feel anything resembling suspense.

It’s a wise choice, and shows that Hitchcock learned from his mistakes with Frenzy, where he seemingly couldn’t decide on whether he wanted to make a straight horror movie or an outright comedy. Here we can’t look at scenes like the one where Dern and Harris are in an out-of-control car and do anything but laugh, as Harris seemingly decides that when the brakes fail there’s no reasonable response other than to start crawling all over the driver and start choking him. Because that will help.

The over-the-top nature of the film infuses every scene, taking his old thrillers and effectively poking fun at their faux-seriousness. Some of the best parts are scenes at a graveyard that would not have been out of place in an old Universal horror movie, where we get caretakers looming up out of the background to deliver ominous exposition, and grieving mothers deal with their grief by kicking over tombstones. The only real over-the-top bit that I’m not particularly a fan of is at the very end, when one character breaks the fourth wall and winks at the camera right before the end credits roll. It’s silly, yes, but not in the good way that most of the film manages. Of course, going by IMDB I seem to be in the minority on this one, but screw them. This is my blog, not theirs.

While again, this is not a great film by any means -- the humor works better here than in any of his other attempts at comedy, but still isn’t what I would call anything particularly amazing -- it was the best Hitchcock had made in the past fifteen years, and provides a solid ending to his career. There’s solid acting from all four leads, a nice musical score by a young John Williams, and a tighter script than he’s managed to pull off in years. Hitchcock Month isn’t completely finished with this, but Hitchcock’s own involvement is. We’ll get some further closure at the end of the week, when I discuss two more movies that bear a wee bit of a Hitchcock influence. Feel free to guess now as to what they are.

Rating: ***

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