In recent years, some critics, notably Dave Kehr and Peter Tonguette, have tried to reevaluate Alfred Hitchcock’s final movie, Family Plot, and elevate its status, but it will never be a major Hitchcock film. Slow pacing is a particular problem, especially in the scenes where Bruce Dern does some dawdling detective work. The film seems light, though it has the full weight of Hitchcock’s artistic authority behind it (if not his full-scale technical finesse). He indulges Dern and Barbara Harris, who are both likable as a loser couple out to find an heir to a fortune, and contrasts them with another pair of amoral jewel thieves (William Devane and Karen Black). These second-tier ‘70s actors aren’t his usual star players, but they suit the tone of the film.
It’s a movie that’s haunted by death, with lengthy sequences played out in cemeteries. Small details show Hitchcock’s dark-humored view of the world. A priest takes his Sunday school kids out for Cokes so he can meet his mistress, who’s dressed in bright red. A bishop is kidnapped in full view of his docile congregation; they’re so infantilized by the mass that they can’t move to help him. Most damningly, a group of teenagers run a man off the road to his death, and they just drive off to stay out of trouble (this is complicated by the fact that the man in question is a killer and all-around bad seed).
When Devane talks about how he’ll have to bump off Dern and Harris, Black says, “I don’t want to know about it.” Her squeamish attempts to keep her conscience clear seem just as bad as Devane’s outright villainy. In the film’s best moment, the camera zooms in to a guilty-looking Black as she watches Devane struggle with Harris; when he sticks a hypodermic in her arm, Harris looks heavenward for help (which links her to the bishop, who did the same thing when he was injected with drugs). This poignant scene, with its connection between the women and its passive cry to a higher power, is the real end of Hitchcock’s monumental career, not Harris’s wink at the camera, which ends the film. Hitchcock always wants to reassure us that “it’s all in fun,” but he’s really deadly serious.