I'm a believer in letting the audience know everything then they'll worry.
Family Plot is the fifty-third film directed by this master of suspense. We go to his thrillers knowing that he will manipulate our senses, stretch our fantasies, and capitalize on our emotions. But most of all we hope that Hitchcock will make us squirm. And do it in an aesthetically pleasing way.
Family Plot adapted by Ernst Lehman from Victor Canning's novel is not a very gripping suspense story. It is built upon a traditional thriller construct two innocents getting themselves involved in a situation over their heads. Blanche is, as one character notes, "a sex starved spiritualist." Her boyfriend Lumley is an actor who drives a cab. They are offered $10,000 by Julia Rainbird, a wealthy old lady, to find the heir to her millions.
While Blanche and Lumley are driving home with sugarplum visions of the future, they almost run over a pedestrian. Oddly enough, she happens to be the girlfriend of the man they will soon be looking for. Hitchcock enjoys playing such games with us and this is one of the film's first. A less subtle exercise in all the director's films is spotting the old master himself in a quick scene (here he's silhouetted in a window pane at the office of the Registrar of Births and Deaths). What Blanche and Lumley do not know is that Adamson the heir and his accomplice Fran are kidnappers making a fortune of ransoms. They are not about to be discovered or given good news by anybody! Hitchcock's challenge in Family Plot: how is he going to maintain our interest in what essentially is a boring story acted quite poorly by Barbara Harris as Blanche, Bruce Dern as Lumley (the best of the lot), William DeVane as Adamson, and Karen Black as Fran?
With small stuff. The way, for example, that Blanche reacts to a terrifying situation. Their car being tampered with and zooming out of control down a treacherous mountain road. Blanche grabs for Lumley's arms, holds onto his tie (almost strangling him), and blocks his vision of the road. This brief study in the mannerisms of hysteria is just one indication of Hitchcock's genius.
Critics have noted the absence of any commentary on religion in the director's previous films. Family Plot breaks that pattern with two brief sequences of note. Adamson and Fran whisk away a bishop right in front of a worshipping congregation. When Fran asks whether he was frightened doing the job, Adamson explains that there was really nothing to worry about since religious people are too inhibited and polite to do anything! A second scene with a similar satirical edge features Blanche and Lumley in a roadside diner. A minister enters with four small children. They are being treated for good behavior in Sunday School. Then a pretty young lady comes in and its down with the minister at another table. Lumley laughs at what he realizes is a well-planned tryst.
Go to Family Plot expecting a big, scary movie with thrills in dark places and you will be disappointed. Go to Family Plot with hopes of seeing interesting things happening in the movie's small places and you will be delighted.