Thursday, November 4, 2021

Hitchcock takes his last bow with “Family Plot”

Family Plot (1976) is a thriller comedy directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Karen Black, Bruce Dern, Barbara Harris, and William Devane. The supporting cast features Cathleen Nesbitt, Ed Lauter, and Katherine Helmond. The screenplay was written by Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest, The Sound of Music), and the music was by John Williams.

The plot involves two couples: a fake psychic Blanch Tyler (Harris) and her cab-driver boyfriend George Lumley (Dern), the other couple are professional thieves and kidnappers (Devane and Black) and how their lives cross paths.

Blanch (Harris) is hired by Julia Rainbird to help find her nephew who was given up for adoption to avoid a family scandal. Little do Blanch and George realize that the man they are looking for, now known as Arthur Adamson (Devane), is a murderer, thief, and kidnapper! Arthur’s live-in girlfriend  Fran (Black) has cooperated with him on the kidnappings and thefts but is growing weary of their criminal lifestyle.

Will Arthur and Fran’s latest caper be successful or will Blanch and George get in the way?

Alfred Hitchcock (1899 – 1980) was an English film director, producer, and screenwriter. He is one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century. Hitchcock directed over 50 feature films, many are classics that have been honored and studied for years. Some of Hitchcock’s classic films include The 39 Steps (1939), Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960).

Karen Black (1939 - 2013) was an American actress, singer, and songwriter. Black was born in Park Ridge, IL, and studied theater at Northwestern University. She eventually dropped out and moved to New York. She appeared on Broadway in 1965 and made her film debut the next year in Francis Ford Coppola’s You’re a Big Boy Now. She had supporting roles in Easy Rider (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970) which earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She really hit her stride in the mid-1970s with starring roles in The Great Gatsby (1974), Airport 1975 (1974), Nashville (1975), and The Day of the Locust (1975). In Nashville, for her role as a country singer, Black wrote and sang her own songs. After her run in the 70s, Black concentrated on small, independent films and made a name for herself in science fiction and horror movies, starring in the remake of Invaders from Mars (1986) and House of 1000 Corpses (2003).

Bruce Dern (1936 - ) is an American film actor who often portrays characters who are either villainous, unstable, or both. He has twice been nominated for Academy Awards. Dern worked steadily in films from 1960 to the present. One of his early roles was that of a sailor in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) and as John Mayhew in Robert Aldrich’s horror classic Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). Dern was in high demand as a character actor, often making five movies a year. Some other movies that featured Dern include Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969), Silent Running (1972), The Great Gatsby (1974), Black Sunday (1977), and Coming Home (1978). He is the father of actress Laura Dern.

Barbara Harris (1935 - 2018) was an American actress. Harris starred on Broadway, television, and film. She created the role of Daisy Gamble in the musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1965). She had roles on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Naked City, and The Defenders. Harris’s first screen role was in A Thousand Clowns (1965) co-starring Jason Robards. Other films include Plaza Suite (1971), The War Between Men and Women (1972), Nashville (1975), and Freaky Friday (1976).

William Devane (1939 - ) is an American film, television, and stage actor. He is probably best known for portraying Greg Sumner on the primetime soap Knot’s Landing (1983 - 1993). Other television roles include 24 (2001 - 201), and 24: Live Another Day (2014). Devane also had film roles in Marathon Man (1976), Rolling Thunder (1977), Yanks (1979), and Space Cowboys (2000).

Bruce Dern

To watch the film on YouTube, click the link below.

Family Plot trivia:

  • Hitchcock wanted to cast Al Pacino as George, but he was too expensive. Jack Nicholson was also considered for the role of George but was unavailable due to filming One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest (1975).
  • Roy thinnes was originally cast as Arthur Adamson but was fired when William Devane (Hitchcock’s first choice) became available. Burt Reynolds and Roy Scheider were also considered for the role of Arthur Adamson.
  • Cathleen Nesbitt’s character says she’s 78, but she was almost 88 at the time of filming. 
  • Lillian Gish wanted to play the role of Julia Rainbird.
  • Liza Minnelli and Goldie Hawn were considered for the role of Blanche.

Publicity shot with Roy Thinnes (top right) who was eventually replaced with William Devane

Final cast publicity shot with William Devane replacing Roy Thinnes (first row left).

Why watch this movie?

  • It’s Hitchcock’s final film.
  • It showcases the talents of Karen Black, Barbara Harris, Bruce Dern, and William Devane.
  • Even though Hitchcock was in his late-70s when he directed this film, it shows he was still in control of his craft.
  • It reunited Hitchcock with screenwriter Ernest Lehman.

To join the discussion on November 8 at 6:30 p.m. Central Time, click here. Once you RSVP, you will receive an invitation and link to join the discussion on Zoom.

Discussion questions:

  1. This was Hitchcock’s last movie. How do you think it ranks among his films?
  2. What did you think of the performances? Did any one performance stand out to you?
  3. Did you have a favorite scene or piece of dialogue?
  4. Were there any scenes in this film that reminded you of other Hitchcock movies?
  5. How would you classify this movie? Comedy? Drama? Something else?

William Devane and Karen Black

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