A Black Comedy sheds light on a grave mystery…
A psychic and her private eye boyfriend hunt down an old lady’s nephew who was given up for adoption. Little realising what secrets they will dig up.
The casting of the Alfred Hitchcock directed film, Family Plot (1976) unearths an interesting story. Hitchcock had considered reuniting this film’s leading lady, Karen Black with her two-time co-star Jack Nicholson in this cast. Jack Nicholson had previously starred with this actress in Five Easy Pieces (1970) and Easy Rider (1969). However, at the time, Jack Nicholson was preparing for the filming of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).
Other possible cast members also considered included Al Pacino, or as Hitchcock called him “Mr Packinow”. It’s reported that Hitchcock turned Pacino down after this actor asked for way too much money. Karen Black instead teamed up with William Devane – replacing the original actor, Roy Thinnes who still appears in some scenes – and Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern for the Family Plot movie.
These two actor and actress pairs play on-screen couples and share plotlines only with their on-screen partner for much of this film. It’s only forwards the end of this film that we watch these characters in joint scenes, which leads to a jewel of an ending. This film is a treat as everyone isn’t as they seem the film was originally named “Deceit”.
Spooky supernatural music is heard as a crystal ball reveals the neon green opening credits to this film. These set the scene for the supernatural and thriller themes of this story. The story is set in mid-1970s California, as an apparent spiritualist Madame Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris) conducts a seance for the rich, elderly Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt). Julia confides in Blanche and tells her of her family secret.
As Blanche changes her voice and moans and groans over theatrically, she claims she is “talking” to Julia’s deceased sister, Harriet. This is through a spirit guide called Henry. Julia tells Blanche that she hopes Blanche can discreetly trace Harriet’s illegitimate son. Julia had a role in giving this child up for adoption about forty years previously, to avoid a family scandal.
Julia now hopes to alleviate her guilt and readopt him into the Rainbird family. Then she will leave him the family fortune after she passes away. She feels that if she finds her long lost nephew, that she can die a happy woman. She asks Madame Blanche to find her nephew using her psychic powers, but she insists her story is not to be made public. But she doesn’t know who he is, and where to find him.
Julia believes Blanche is genuine but is unaware that Blanche really is a con woman. Blanche mentioning Julia’s sleeping difficulties convinces this old woman she’s for real, but Blanche learnt about this from the local pharmacist. The information Julia tells her Blanche about her nephew is repeated back to her but in a cold reading.
Blanche is now keen to obtain the 10,000 dollar award that Julia’s offering her to find him. Luckily, Blanche live-in boyfriend, George Lumley (Bruce Dern) is a private eye but currently a taxi driver (and wannabe actor). Blanche excitedly tells him about Julia’s offer as he picks her up from “work” in his taxi. George knows his girlfriend is as psychic as any “salami” and is just after her client’s money.
Then in a completely different plotline, we see Fran (Karen Black) – in disguise with a big black floppy hat, blonde wig and dark shades – as she walks in front of George’s taxi. We then follow this stylish woman as she goes to negotiate an Italian businessman’s ransom. This woman in black is revealed as Fran, one of a pair of serial kidnappers.
Fran and her constant accomplice in crime, her lover Arthur Adamson (William Devane) are hoping to procure a priceless diamond in exchange for a businessman, Constantine (Nicholas Colasanto). This couple is in the business of exchanging rich prominent dignitaries for precious jewels. They keep their victims in a hidden locked room accessed by their garage.
After these silent negotiations from Fran are completed, she obtains the diamond and Constantine is made a free man. Arthur and Fran meet up, and on their return home place their diamond in their crystal chandelier in the hallway of their family home.
Meanwhile, Blanche has more sessions with Julia and her friends, gaining more information from these old women about the Rainbird story. They tell her of the family chauffeur who was involved in the scandal. These new leads are given to George to investigate further.
George is now full-tilt detective mode, complete with Sherlock Holmes’ pipe. He goes undercover using his acting skills pretending to be a lawyer. He questions the Rainbird chauffeur’s daughter and discovers from her that the heir was adopted into the Shoebridge family, who all apparently died in a fire at the family home.
George finds the Shoebridge family graves. But there are two graves, one for the adoptive parents and a newer looking grave for their adopted son, Edward. It appears from the dates engraved on the graves that Edward Shoebridge died alongside his parents.
After speaking to a handy gravedigger, and the local stonemason, George learns Edward’s grave was made at a later time and his grave plot is empty. George learns that Joseph Maloney (Ed Lauter) paid in cash for Edward’s grave.
At the births, deaths and marriage registry George discovers the death certificate for the parents but not for Edward. Maloney had applied but was unsuccessful in obtaining a death certificate for Edward, as his body was not found.
George visits Maloney at his garage and asks him about these events and the whereabouts of Edward Shoebridge. But he does not mention Shoebridge’s true family and the Rainbird inheritance. Maloney takes down the details of George’s car’s number plate. Maloney and George are observed by Maloney’s wife, and he learns later that George borrowed his girlfriend’s Blanche’s car.
Maloney visits Arthur at his jeweller’s shop and tells him that a detective is rooting into the Edward Shoebridge story. It is then revealed that Arthur is the missing Rainbird heir, Edward Shoebridge. Edward – and his lifelong best friend – Maloney murdered his adoptive parents by setting fire to their home. These men both took part in their murder.
Edward Shoebridge faked his death in the fire, then reinvented himself as Arthur Adamson. After Adamson learns that George is investigating his past (as Shoebridge), he asks Joseph to kill Blanche and George, thinking they know their dark and murderous secret and are after a reward.. he is unaware that he is the Rainbird heir.
The story initially was an acclaimed Victor Canning thriller novel called The Rainbird Pattern. However, Hitchcock asked Ernest Lehman – one of his writers of North by Northwest (1959) – to adapt this successful more serious thriller into a black comic adaptation. John Williams provided the score for the film after his recent success with Jaws (1975).
The story is both a chilling seventies thriller – with a dark and murderous off-screen back story, a double identity, villains, kidnappings, police investigations and car chases – crossed with a crazy supernatural sitcom with those supernatural, seances and clairvoyance. This supernatural theme was very common in seventies movies.
There were some nice unique touches in the film’s execution. I adored the set up where the characters come close to meeting each other at the start of the film, but don’t. This is in the scene as Fran (and her connection with the Edward Shoebridge /Arthur Adamson) crossed the path of Blanche and George’s car literally, as well as figuratively.
This led to scenes showing more of Fran and Arthur’s story and was a more inventive way of changing the story direction. It caught and retained my interest. The couples cross paths several times during the story, at later points this is seen in some bizarre and not so crazy coincidences. These scenes were seen from their viewpoints and relating to their different plotlines. This adds to the tension, suspense and comedy.
There are some beautiful scene setups and interestingly filmed scenes within the story. I liked how the story played out with Blanche and George were intent on finding the missing heir. This pair only looking for him to tell him of his true family but their secrecy and the story of his parentage added to make a twist.
As the secrecy led to deadly misunderstandings with Arthur believing his past self was being investigated by this pair. Arthur acting on this belief thinking they would discover his adoptive parents were murdered by him asked Maloney to kill them (still with me?). Unknown to him, Blanche and George were both unaware of his participation in the murder of those adoptive parents or as a present-day kidnapper.
I found the filming of some scenes compelling and creative. One scene reminded me of a Pacman game with a Pacman in pursuit of the ghosts in this arcade game. In this scene, George is trying to question someone at a maze-like graveyard. This scene was filmed using an aerial view of him chasing this other character in the graveyard who was trying to avoid him. Both parties were unaware of where the paths ended and they would often have to return the way they came.
A thrilling scene car chase on a mountainside was filmed from the view of the car bumper. The viewer observes one couple lose control of their car and their reactions to this are seen from this precarious point of view. This scene started with moments of suspense and had me on the edge of my seat, but sadly the slapstick comedy in this scene became more and more silly.
The cast was fantastically chosen with both Harris and Dern giving fine comic over the top performances to match their characters. Comedy was seen in Harris garrulous performance during her “seances”. Harris providing both Blanche and her “spirit guide”‘s voice. Her dual role here felt unconvincing, particularly in these scenes showing her “talking” with the other side. Dern made his character zany with a crazy mop of hair, his pipe and his bizarre line of questioning.
Karen Black set up her character well as a mysterious and efficient kidnapper and as one who got a thrill from this life of crime. However, I noted that Fran appeared to develop a conscience in their kidnapping activities towards the end.
This change in Fran’s personality was unnoticed by the self-absorbed (and distracted) Arthur Adamson, her more cold-blooded lover. I felt Fran’s character arc was sadly underdeveloped by the movie’s end. I would have liked to have learned more about her character, her relationship with Arthur and possibly see more connections with those other characters.
Devane was a devilish delight as the more confident Adamson. He convinced me easily as the remorseless mastermind and executor of the kidnapping (and murderous) crimes. He appeared on every occasion as a nasty piece of work, complete with a Joker-like toothy grin and a villainous moustache.
He even excelled in being creepily charming in his charade as he gives professional advice to the police. As the police questioned him on the missing diamond he gave advice and not the game away. His back story as Shoebridge added an even darker side to this villainous character. It showed he was prepared to murder to keep his secret life safe using his old friend, Mahoney as a pawn.
The plot and these characters were reinforced with this quirky but well chosen cast, but it’s interesting to read the possible casting choices for a Hitchcock mid-1970s movie. Many familiar names were considered, these names including Liza Minnelli, Cybill Shepherd, Faye Dunaway, Burt Reynolds and Goldie Hawn. But sadly this was the Master of Suspense’s final film, and as for that Hitchcock and Jack Nicholson film collaboration, all I have to do is dream, dream, dream…
Weeper Rating: 0/10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂🙂🙂🙂🙂🙂🙂🙂🙂/10
Hulk Rating: /10
The 4th Alfred Hitchock Blogathon 2020 No 16
This was reviewed for Maddy Loves Her Classic Films Fourth Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon. Other films with this cast include Barbara Harris stars in Peggy Sue Got Married and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Karen Black in Burnt Offerings, Easy Rider, Murder She Wrote, The Great Gatsby and Airport 1975. Bruce Dern in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Django Unchained and The Great Gatsby. William Devane in Knots Landing and Interstellar. Cathleen Nesbitt stars in An Affair to Remember and The Parent Trap. Ed Lauter stars in Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Magic and The Cartier Affair. Nicholas Colasanto stars in The Return of the World’s Greatest Detective.