Friday, December 06, 2019

Sir Alfred Falls Down- Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s “Family Plot” (1976)-A Film Review

Sir Alfred Falls Down- Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s “Family Plot” (1976)-A Film Review

DVD Review

By Senior Film Critic Sandy Salmon

Family Plot, starring Barbara Hershey, Bruce Dern, William Devane, Karen Black, directed by Sir Alfred Hitchcock before he was a Sir, 1976 

[When I first decided on the title for this piece (or rather the beginning of the title) I was not trying to be ironic but merely pointing out that the film under review Family Plot had been far from one of Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s bests efforts, a crude and predictable attempt at some cranky footloose humor involving a couple of scam operations which go awry as they cross paths. Since choosing the title I have come by information via an NPR segment on another aspect of the fall of Sir Alfred, a less savory one, concerning a recent revelation (at least to me) from Tippi Hendron who starred in one of his best films, The Birds, in the 1960s that he sexually harassed her almost beyond endurance. Advances which she repeatedly rebuffed. As we are becoming almost daily aware many years later in 2017 in a slew of other cases involving powerful men in positions to do something gross and get away with it because of Hitchcock’s powerful position as famous and profitable film director he was able essentially ruined Ms. Hendron’s career by bad-mouthing her to others who might be interested in her for a role in some production.

Of course since apparently this whole subject of predatory sexual activity (epitomized by the slightly more than vaguely suggestive term ‘casting couch” the gauntlet that many young actors of both sexes on occasion were confronted with if they expected to go farther up the food chain) “was an “open secret” in Hollywood at the time perhaps she would have had no recourse at all once the big man put the whammy on her when she didn’t respond to his sexual advances. (Apparently even his every-loving wife of many years had no influence when Tippi tried to get him to back off and asked her to intercede to no avail. Jesus.)      

This whole sordid episode (among an escalating number of such revelations about men in powerful positions acting boorishly and worse) brings up a problem which has until now remained unspoken when apparently a great many public men have assumed that given their positions, young women, or for that matter any women, were fair game for their sexual advances, harassment or criminal behavior. The problem exemplified in the Hitchcock case is how much film reviewers, scholars, fans should weigh that outrageous human behavior of any creative person against whatever cinematic or cultural values the works they have produced have. Not an easy question to answer but I would have to think as in the review below knowledge of that rotten behavior will seep into this piece. In any case there is no reason to change the title if anything it is more appropriate than ever. Sandy Salmon]        

Sir Alfred Hitchcock went all fall down in the late production under review Family Plot. A man whose long career gave us such black and white classics as Saboteur and The 39 Steps and all-time modern suspense classics like Psycho, Vertigo and The Birds seemed to have run out of energy when it came time to bring this one to the screen. Not a horrible film by any means but shockingly a rather lame attempt at a humorous look at star-crossed con artists working different sides of the street whose paths cross unconvincingly. The real problem was by the time this film reached its climax this reviewer didn’t care which pair of con artists won the day. Not a good sign, not at all.   

Here is the subtext, what my old friend Sam Lowell who used to do this job and still is in emeritus status calls “the skinny.” A pair of low-end con artists, played by Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern, working the old Madame LaRue crystal ball fortune-telling con have landed a big fish in a wealthy old maid woman who is looking to find her wayward sister’s illegimate son and make amends for shuttling him off to another poorer family to avoid the shame of what that bastardy meant for her family’s good name in order to give him his rightful inheritance. So this pair is hired at a serious for them amount of money to find that heir, to do the leg-work to find a guy who seemingly does not want to be found for his own reasons. That is one thread. The other thread is that another pair of con artists, played by Karen Black and William Devane, are working a high-end kidnapping of wealthy private citizens for ransom racket with the payoff in serious diamonds. The twain shall meet as the storyline evolves because the subject of the first pair of cons search is that male part of the high-end kidnapping duo.               

That is the so-called drama tension of the piece, the unwinding of the plot, the family plot I guess, where the work of each pair eventually cross each other and not for the benefit of what either set is trying to do. The capers each go through on the one hand for the “detective” cons and the other the pursued kidnapping cons are prankish and result in a comedy of errors which however will lead one set to prevail and the other to wind up doing Edgar Allan Poe time. Hey I won’t give away the ending any more than that but if you have a Hitchcock film you really need to watch then try Saboteur or Vertigo to see where Hitchcock was before the wheels came off, before he got cranky.           

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