Alfred Hitchcock's 53rd and final film before his retirement due to ill-health seems a disappointingly slight vehicle in retrospect; in view of the full-stop it puts on the career of a director who had been instrumental in shaping the codes and conventions of the mystery thriller, from its earliest silent origins in the '20s, right through to the blockbuster Spielberg dominated years of the mid-Seventies, one understandably hopes for some definitive statement of the director's art. In fact, the closest we get to anything like this is Barbara Harris's final wink to camera as the end credits start to roll. Bruce Dern apparently suggested to 'Hitch' that he should emerge from the top of the stairs in the final shot and perform this last act himself — which certainly would've provided future cineastes with the kind of amusingly arch signing-off that would have most assuredly tickled the master himself had he been able to predict its future significance!
The film has the disappointing feel of a '70s TV movie, and there is definitely the sense that the Hithcockian sensibilities — which were formed in the late-30s, and '40s — are struggling to make sense of the freer, laid-back conventions then being asserted by the new breed of young American filmmakers who were coming up at the time. Bruce Dern — an unusually disheveled looking Hitchcock protagonist — looks like he'd much rather be sitting in front of the TV in his vest smoking a joint; and his fake psychic sidekick, played with endearing kookiness by Barbara Harris, is not the icy blonde of yore but a comic nymphomaniac who persistently badgers the unwilling, lanky hero for sex! Instead Hitchcock contents himself with a parody of his own past 'cool blonde' obsessions by having the sultry brunette, Karen Black, disguise herself with a blonde wig and dark glasses (ala "Marnie") which she later hides in the ice box of a fridge!
This is a very light comedy drama with little else behind it. It cannot even be called a black comedy because, although there is the threat of murder at various points, only one character actually dies, and that is by misadventure. The tone is light, characters cuss and swear like they do in other generic '70s movies only in a not very convincing fashion; and the film never seems to come to life in the way one feels it aims to. The anarchic spirit is there 'on paper' in the formal attempt to bring together two separate groups of characters and stories which appear on the surface to have nothing to do with each-other — but the film seems to move from set-piece to set-piece in a typically considered Hitchock pattern, with the results coming over more as an extended 'Hitchock Hour' episode, in which some nondescript TV director attempts to mimic the house style of the master, rather than the final ever Hitchock film.
The plot is an exercise in taking something very simple and trying to complicate it with enough side issues to make a story out of practically nothing. Beginning with a curiously Bava-esque shot of a crystal ball bathed in deep crimson and emerald lighting gels, the film introduces us to fake medium, Blanche (Barbara Harris) who is commissioned by one of her elderly clients, Mrs Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt) to seek out the long lost heir to the Rainbird fortune. Her sisters illegitimate baby was given away at birth and to atone for her puritanical acts at the time, Mrs. Rainbird wants to make sure that the grown-up heir is tracked down and provided with his rightful inheritance when she dies. She employs Blanche to use her psychic powers to find the grown-up heir, and offers her ten thousand pounds if she manages to complete the task. The only problem is that Blanche is a fake psychic who make use of the amateur sleuthing of her boyfriend George (Bruce Dern) to find the information on her clients that make her readings seem accurate. The two set out on an apparently impossible task of tracking down a person who has left no record of their existence.
Meanwhile suave jewel thief Adamson (William Devane) and his partner Fran (Karen Black) are running rings around the police after carrying out a series of daring kidnappings. While they plot their latest escapade — kidnapping as Catholic priest in the middle of Mass! - George discovers that although it seems that the heir probably died in a fire at his adoptive parents' home when he was a child, the head stone at the graveside is considerably newer than that of the parents'. Someone is trying to disguise the fact that the heir to the Rainbird fortune is still alive! It soon becomes clear to the viewer that Adamson is in fact that heir. But as George and Blanche get closer to tracking him down, and bringing him the good news, he misunderstands their interest in him and thinks they are trying to collect the reward for his capture! Soon a bewildered George and Blanche find their lives are in danger as Adamson's childhood partner Maloney (Ed Lauter) — who set the fire at Adamson's parents' home for him — is now set the task of bumping them off!
There are a number of well-handled set-pieces dotting the film: a careering car with no brakes flying down a mountain road (although how many times have we seen such a scene?); the kidnapping of a Catholic priest in front of a congregation too constrained by social convention to intervene; and the quintessentially Hitchcockian suspense sequence near the end when Blanche finally stumbles upon Adamson and Fran while failing to realise that they are in the midst of transporting the unconscious priest to a pickup spot. But, as a whole, this is Hitchcock at a low ebb. "Frenzy" had recaptured former glories by appealing to the more exploitative side of Hitchcock's nature, now allowed full vent in '70s cinema; but in trying to remold the lightness of touch of "North by North West" in a '70s style, "Family Plot" falls between two stools. Ironically, if Hitch had made a straight chase picture he might have had more success. It was a genre he had successfully returned to in the '30s, '40s and '50s, but he had not been quite so successful with it in the '60s in the Paul Newman and Julie Andrews vehicle, "Torn Curtain", and perhaps that's why the director preferred to bring in the quirky story elements that are only mildly diverting here. The film is by no means a write off but it doesn't have the re-watch value of a Hitchcock classic and feels like a pale imitation of the director's former works.
The Universal DVD features a typically interesting 45 minute documentary which features interviews with all the main cast and Hitchock's collaborators at the time.