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For his 53rd and final feature, director Alfred Hitchcock chose to adapt a suspense thriller by the British novelist Victor Canning called The Rainbird Pattern. The plot was structured around two stories that eventually come together. In the first, an elderly woman hires a phony medium to find her long-lost heir, and the medium sets off with her cabbie boyfriend to find him. In the second, a kidnapper is plotting a diamond heist. The stories come together at a cemetery, which is one reason the movie's title ultimately became Family Plot, a phrase which carries multiple meanings in the overall story. (The movie's working title was Deceit until the last week of shooting.)
Hitchcock liked this structure and the basic premise, but he decided to turn the book into a movie that was more overtly comedic, while still keeping the suspenseful elements. In a move that brought much publicity, he hired Ernest Lehman - the writer of North by Northwest - to pen the adaptation. But this collaboration was, by Lehman's account, almost non-existent: "I realized that our relationship was quite different. Many years had passed. We had both had successes and failures. We were different people now." The two would meet every day to hash out the script, with Lehman's prodding for more character development basically shrugged off by Hitch. By the end of their sessions, Hitchcock was no longer speaking to him, preferring instead to exchange written messages. "It's too difficult to get Ernie to agree with me," Hitchcock said.
The production itself was a difficult one for Hitchcock. In the months before filming, he was treated for gout and was stricken with the flu. He had a pacemaker inserted during the shoot and suffered from arthritis. He also worried about his wife, Alma, who was in decline herself. Still, his experience and expertise enabled him to pull off an entertaining film. While not one of his best, Family Plot is still enjoyable and full of Hitchcock trademarks, such as its theme of the search for a missing person and frequent doses of black humor.
Jack Nicholson was Hitchcock's first choice for George Lumley, the cabbie boyfriend character. Hitchcock had seen Easy Rider (1969) and the Nicholson movies that followed and was impressed. But as Nicholson was committed to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), Hitch turned to Bruce Dern, who had recently co-starred with Nicholson in The King of Marvin Gardens (1972). Dern had also appeared as the bludgeoned sailor in Marnie (1964), and Hitch remembered his offbeat personality fondly. For the part of the elderly Julia Rainbird, Hitchcock was pleased to get 88-year-old Cathleen Nesbitt, who rarely made movies. She was a grande dame of the British stage, and Hitch had admired her as early as the 1920s on London's West End. Karen Black and Barbara Harris rounded out the cast.
Everyone was obviously elated to be working with Alfred Hitchcock. Harris described him as "serene." Black said, "He's always thinking of his audience, of how they will respond to each detail." Bruce Dern said crew members were concerned about Hitchcock's health and alertness, but that actually "he noticed everything - a shadow on a performer's face, a few seconds too long on a take. Just when we thought he had no idea what was going on, he'd snap us all to attention with the most incredible awareness of some small but disastrous detail that nobody would have noticed until it got on screen. And then he'd be bored again."
Director of photography Leonard South was equally impressed: "He asks what lens you have on the camera, then he looks at the scene and he knows what will appear on the screen. He's rarely wrong. And he never moves the camera without a reason. When it moves, it's because the audience should be looking around with the actors. He's very specific about that."
Fittingly, the final shot of Hitchcock's final film is of a woman looking straight into the camera and winking. The wink was a major point of contention between Lehman and Hitchcock but in the end, as Patrick McGilligan has written in his biography Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, "Hitchcock couldn't be stopped from winking at the audience, just as he had been doing for fifty years." Hitchcock announced publicly that he was preparing yet another film, The Short Night, but he died in 1980 at the age of 80.
Producer/Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Ernest Lehman, Victor Canning (book)
Cinematography: Leonard J. South
Film Editing: J. Terry Williams
Art Direction: Henry Bumstead
Music: John Williams
Cast: Karen Black (Fran), Bruce Dern (Lumley), Barbara Harris (Blanche), William Devane (Adamson), Ed Lauter (Maloney), Cathleen Nesbitt (Julia Rainbird).
C-121m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold