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Family Plot

#280 - Family Plot
Alfred Hitchcock, 1976

Two couples - one a pair of low-rent scam artists, the other a pair of professional extortionists - are forced into a game of cat-and-mouse together when a rich old woman searches for the heir to her fortune.

It's always interesting to watch a director's final film, regardless of whether or not it was intended to be their swansong. Hitchcock's Family Plot ends up being a somewhat mediocre note for the legendary director to go out on, though it's not exactly a bad film in its own right. It does promise some moral ambiguity by having its heroes be a medium (Barbara Harris) whose powers can be credited to her sleuthing boyfriend (Bruce Dern) digging up dirt on her clients to use. When they luck into a rich client offering a large finder's fee for whoever finds the illegitimate heir to a massive fortune, their search makes them cross paths with a pair of romantically involved career criminals (William Devane and Karen Black) whose deeds range from jewel thievery to kidnapping.

For a film that flirts with the two-hour mark, there isn't a hell of a lot going on with Family Plot. It's a fairly bog-standard gumshoe film that mainly follows Dern's attempts to uncover the truth behind the case (with Harris frequently in tow) while also playing a cat-and-mouse game with Devane (who gives the best performance in the film) and Black, whose scheming frequently outpaces his detecting. Despite Hitchcock building a reputation on being able to fill two hours with suspense, this particular affair is a rather dull one where an audience's sympathy for (or even interest in) the heroes is extremely debatable. The aforementioned promise of moral ambiguity isn't even remotely fleshed out - though our heroes do tend to scam people with their spiritualistic business, the film still treats them as being of obviously superior moral fibre to the frequently cold and violent villains and, though it does shake up whether or not our heroes will make it through this thing alive, it does sucks a little of the wind out of an overly long mystery. Not even the occasional grab at cheap thrills (such as Dern and Harris speeding down a twisting mountain trail in a car that has had its brake line cut) is enough to make this a genuinely good film. As a result, Family Plot ends up becoming indistinguishable from other run-of-the-mill thrillers from the 1970s, many of which ironically take inspiration from Hitchcock himself. It may not be the worst way to draw the curtain on a long and tumultuous career, but it does come a little close.