Cinema: Grave Error

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Screenplay by ERNEST LEHMAN

Alfred Hitchcock is 76 now, and the bemused, nightmarish thrillers he has concocted over the years have accomplished more than the director ever intended, perhaps even imagined. Hitchcock will admit to no loftier ambition than entertainment. Nonetheless, his best movies—The Wrong Man, Strangers on a Train, Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds—reach into deep pockets of psychic guilt, creating not only a pleasant, fleeting rush of terror in an audience but also a lingering, fixed anxiety. He is a technical master. But the tense economy of his best scenes, the closely calibrated dynamics of his editing, have also shaped the way people look at films and the way they make them.

Out of respect for Hitchcock's stature, and his years, Family Plot should be considered as fleetingly as possible. It is a comedy thriller gone awry, vulgar, lifeless and maladroit. The script is by Ernest Lehman, who wrote the witty screenplay for Hitchcock's sumptuous self-parody, North by Northwest. Here the writing is less like satire than putdown. At one point, Bruce Dern, who plays a scuffling actor/cab driver named Lumley, grouses to his girl friend, a self-proclaimed medium: "You've really got me by the crystal balls."

There is, at least, the core of a good Hitchcock concept buried in the film. Two couples, one a little shady, the other downright criminal, pursue each other for purposes that are mutually misunderstood and increasingly scary. Lumley and his girl Blanche (Barbara Harris) divine a way to get rich through one of her clients, wealthy matron Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt). Miss Rainbird wants to find her dead sister's illegitimate child, who was turned out of the family years before, and make restitution. If Blanche can use her spiritual powers to track down the heir, there is a pretty piece of change in it for her As Blanche and Lumley pursue the loot they discover that the Rainbird heir is a prosperous young jeweler named Adamson (William Devane), who combines his passion for gems with a taste for kidnaping. Ransom for his victims is demanded—and delivered—in the form of precious stones. The profit margin is high, and Adamson's personal life flourishes too: criminality sharpens his carnal appetites, which are centered mostly around Fran (Karen Black), his partner in bed and crime.

Hitchcock connects the lines of this rather unwieldy parallelogram with cursory concern for symmetry and suspense. As Blanche and Lumley draw closer to Adamson and Fran, the latter two assume they are being followed for purposes of blackmail, and plot accordingly. This leads to two scenes of automotive terror—Blanche and Lumley trapped in a car hurtling out of control on a winding mountain road, then trying to outrun a pursuing sedan on foot—that are among the clumsiest sequences Hitchcock has ever put together.

Family Plot may be the only Hitchcock film about which it is fair to reveal the ending. At the fadeout one of the four principals turns and winks conspiratorially into the camera, a piece of business that is a certain sign of directorial desperation. In any case Hitchcock has announced that he will "definitely " make another movie. That is welcome news in every way.