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The Story of Alfred H 

2: Hitchcock's Family Plot 

In a certain way, the final years of Hitchcock's career parallel those of George Cukor during approximately the same period. Following the triumph of My Fair Lady (1964), Cukor went through an extended fallow period in which he had difficulty finding viable projects. One film he took over after the studio dismissed the original director (Justine; 1969); another suffered from various production problems including the last minute replacement of the leading lady (Travels with My Aunt; 1972); still another turned out to be a nightmarish shoot and a disaster financially and critically (The Bluebird; 1976); his most important work during those years was probably the exquisite Love Among the Ruins (1975), made for television. Like Hitchcock's Family Plot, Rich and Famous (1981), Cukor's last picture, is a respectable rather than exciting conclusion to a distinguished career, a picture which received an undeservedly merciless treatment by the critics--most notoriously Pauline Kael.

However, the fluctuations in Cukor's later work resulted mainly from the breakup of traditional methods of film production in Hollywood. Not so in the case of Hitchcock, whose decline was prompted in part by the collapse of his health but much more so by the eruption of long-festering emotional problems triggered off by his unhappy infatuation with Tippi Hedren, as Spoto recounts in his biography. Not that the changes the industry was undergoing in the '60's failed to have an impact on the director. While Hitchcock attempted in vain to keep up with these changes, often resulting in painful encounters with Universal executives, spy thrillers such as Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969) seemed quaintly anachronistic in the era of the James Bond films or Arthur Penn's Bonny and Clyde (1967). Nevertheless, the demise of traditional studio production should have counted for far less in Hitchcock's case than in Cukor's. The latter director who had always flourished within a studio environment, particularly at RKO and MGM in the '30's, admittedly depended upon the work of gifted collaborators like Donald Ogden Stewart and William Daniels at Metro for his best films. If Cukor made some less than satisfying movies in his later years, he was often in the unenviable position of a great chef asked to turn out masterpieces of haute cuisine using the resources of a roadside diner.

Hitchcock, to the contrary, had been the prototypic auteur long before that term was bandied about in English-speaking countries. Rightly or wrongly, he claimed--and took--total responsibility for the success of his pictures. The films of the period 1964-72 must therefore be compared not just with previous, better works, but with Hitchcock's own expectations; it is necessary to compare Topaz not just with The 39 Steps (1935) or North by Northwest (1959) but with what might be called the "ideal type" of the Hitchcock spy picture, an "ideal type" that could be constructed by a careful analysis of earlier films. Judged by that standard, Hitchcock's decline after 1963 is a dramatic one indeed, as if the director, like Icarus, had been punished for flying too close to the sun with the trio of films that conclude the preceeding period: Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963).

To be sure, Hitchcock had had his up's and down's before, often in an almost cyclical pattern, as a cursory glance at his career suggests. Provisionally, it would be possible to periodize his work in the following way: an initial period of activity in England, marked by two real successes--The Lodger (1927) and Blackmail (1929)--which then burns out in a string of failures, serves to usher in Hitchcock's first period of true recognition as a director, starting with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1935); his growing fame as a director leads to a contract in the United States, inaugurating his first American period which comes to an end in the late '40's, when he returns to England to make Under Capricorn (1949) and Stage Fright (1950). In 1951, a new period--characterized by an increasingly deep exploration of American life that goes back to Shadow of a Doubt (1943)--begins with Strangers on a Train in 1951. This period, probably the most important artistically and financially in Hitchcock's career, is followed by the final one of creative uncertainty and commercial failure whose warning signs can already be detected in The Birds. Schematically, this periodization could be depicted in a table like the one below:







The Pleasure Garden--Waltzes from Vienna




The Man Who Knew Too Much--Jamaica Inn

United States



Rebecca--Stage Fright




Strangers on a Train--The Birds






Within these periods two high points stand out: the second English and American periods, respectively. The first English period contains two important films but comes to an end in what Hitchcock called the "lowest ebb" of his career. Similarly, the first American period includes two real masterpieces--Shadow of a Doubt and Notorious (1946)--but also some rather slick pieces such as Saboteur (1942) and Spellbound (1945) as well as one indubitable fiasco--The Paradine Case (1947)--and closes with some interesting although erratic experiments: Rope (1948), Under Capricorn, and Stage Fright. In both cases, a period that finished weakly was followed by one that began with a spectacular recovery and continued strongly until its end. Setting aside the director's physical and emotional afflictions, could Family Plot have served as the prelude to another revival in Hitchcock's career? Was it only the final cadence of his artistic life or a sign of the commencement of what could have been a new period of creativity? Certainly, no one will ever know the answer to this question but two points should be taken into consideration. First, the film is the first since The Birds to have the feel of a Hitchcock picture: the opening scene of a seance in an elegantly designed setting, with its intercutting from the troubled, elderly Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt) to the obviously duplicitous medium, Madame Blanche (Barbara Harris), establishes an atmosphere of mystery that persists unabated into the next sequence in which a strikingly disguised young woman receives a fabulous jewel from police officials as ransom for a kidnap victim. In contrast to the leaden Marnie or Torn Curtain or Topaz, the film is effectively paced and holds the viewer's interest until the end. More importantly, Family Plot never descends to the mechanical imitation of Hitchcock by himself that disfigures even the best episodes of Frenzy (1972); although the film's success reestablished Hitchcock's standing in the industry, only someone who had a grudge against Hitchcock or lacked a knowledge of his previous work could think Frenzy a good movie.

Second, there is little evidence, external or internal, to suggest that Hitchcock intended Family Plot to be his last picture, any more than Cukor intended Rich and Famous to his last. Certainly, Family Plot has nothing of the intentional gesture of Limelight; nevertheless, both Family Plot and Rich and Famous have autobiographical elements that give them the allure of a last will and testament. Cukor's film begins with a party scene in which a number of his old friends and acquaintances appear. More tellingly, the film's ironic title could have well served as his own epitaph: like the character played by Candice Bergen in the movie, he was conspicuously rich and famous, yet as does the other character, portrayed by Jacqueline Bisset, he had had to resort to casual or paid sexual encounters to fill an emotional void in his life. The scene in which Bisset picks up a hustler on the streets of Manhattan was the closest Cukor ever came to opening up the details of his private life on the screen; although it attracted the homophobic wrath of Pauline Kael, the scene alludes more strongly to prostitution in general than it does to homosexuality in particular.

Needless to say, Family Plot does not contain any such personal revelations; Hitchcock was even less given to the confessional mode than Cukor. Although Spoto finds tell-tale traces of Hitchcock's off-screen conflicts in his movies, especially in The Birds and Marnie, Hitchcock ordinarily covered these traces very well by transforming them into the fabric of his work; if his last movie contains relevant personal details, they are well camouflaged. Nevertheless, Family Plot holds a wealth of allusions to the director's artistic autobiography. The first scene, just as it establishes the tone that will prevail throughout the movie, also signals this aspect of Family Plot. On the one hand, the scene hints at an underlying pun referring to the film medium--as Hitchcock would have known, sťance in French means the showing of a motion picture, among other things. On the other, the situation itself makes implicit allusions to Vertigo: both through the title of the French novel on which the screenplay is based--D'Entre les morts--and through the supposed return of Carlotta Valdez and Madeleine Elster from the dead.

Interestingly, the film also shares the San Francisco setting with the earlier picture, a detail that emerges only slowly and rather tacitly as the story unfolds--by contrast, Vertigo opens with a panoramic vista of the city skyline as Scotty (James Stewart) pursues a criminal over the rooftops. In fact, Family Plot lacks any of the expansive lyricism that graces Vertigo, whether in exterior scenes of San Francisco or of the Monterey coast; Family Plot's use of tight compositions and the absence of digressions either in the images or the plot point up the difference in mood--the later film concentrates on closely following the progression of the action, like one of the English thrillers--as well as evident budgetary limitations. As in Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," a strong sense of "Time's winged chariot" rather than "world enough and time," hovers at the back of Hitchcock's farewell to the cinema.

Other reminiscences of the director's older films also haunt Family Plot. The villain, a jeweller and thief who kidnaps wealthy victims and demands valuable jewels as their ransom, recalls the cat burglar in To Catch a Thief (1955) while the emphasis on the fetishistic attraction of jewels indicates another link to it. In addition, unbeknownst to himself this man, Arthur Adamson (William Devane), is a foundling who as a child had conspired with a friend, J.J. Maloney (Ed Lauter), to burn the couple he believes to be his real parents, a collaboration that continues into their adult years. But in this way the partnership in crime between the two men resembles that between Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) and Guy Haines (Farley Grainger) in Strangers on a Train. Although the criminal relationship between Adamson and Maloney in Family Plot lacks the homosexual overtones of the one between Bruno and Guy, it just as effectually bonds the two men together.

Many of these allusions were no doubt worked into the film by Ernest Lehman, who gave Hitchcock a brilliant script for his last film. (Weak screenplays--partly the result of interference by the director--account in no small part for the inferiority of the pictures in Hitchcock's final period.) But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film originated neither with Lehman nor Hitchcock but with a studio employee. As Donald Spoto relates: "In mid-July there was still no final resolution to the problem of the film's title....Finally, on July 25 (just days before the final shot), someone from Universal's publicity department came up with a title that seemed to have the right ambiguity. The film, after all, was about a family scheme, a lost heir, kidnappers, jewel theft--and an empty grave. Not entirely pleased but unable to devise an alternative, Hitchcock agreed to call the film Family Plot." If the title of Rich and Famous could have served as Cukor's epitaph, how much more so the title Family Plot as Hitchcock's. Had the director himself scripted and directed his life story, how more appropriate a title could he have found to summarize his work ? Not only are the plots of numerous Hitchcock pictures--especially starting with the first American period--literally "family" plots, but the multiple meanings of "plot" perfectly condense within a single word the effect of a Hitchcock film, whose action, like that of Edgar Allan Poe's "Cask of Amontillado," conspires to bury the spectator within its labyrinth.

As the above quoted passage indicates, the title's primary reference is to a grave. This is the burial plot of the Shoebridge family, burned alive by Maloney with the aid of their adoptive step-son, Eddie; later Eddie, having become the prosperous jeweller Adamson, will have Maloney erect a headstone bearing his name alongside the Shoebridge's markers to create the impression that Eddie Shoebridge has died. However, the literal sense of the title is complemented by a no less significant figurative one. In reality, Eddie is the illegitimate son of the dead sister of the wealthy Julia Rainbird, who wants to make him her heir in order to atone for having forced her sister to give up the child. The literal family plot, the fake grave, thus serves as a nodal point through which the symbolic "family plot," the skeleton in the Rainbird family closet, communicates with the criminal plots of Adamson--which include, of course, the planting of the fake headstone. In this way, the empty grave plays the role of the fabled MacGuffin, the device employed by Hitchcock to facilitate the development of the action. In the words of Donald Spoto, "The point is that a MacGuffin is neither relevant, important, nor, finally, any of one's business. It simply gets the story going."

To put it somewhat differently, the title operates on three basic levels of meaning. First, there is the literal meaning, the empty grave which serves to tie together the various strands of the story and whose emptiness signals the presence of an unsolved mystery. Second, the title has a purely narrative meaning referring to the two "family" plots which make up the story: the hidden scandal in the Rainbird family and the kidnap schemes of the illegitimate son. Last but not least, the title has a thematic meaning implied by the stock phrase I used in the preceeding paragraph: the skeleton in the closet. In fact, Family Plot has at least three such skeletons: the illegitimate heir; the false grave; and Adamson's victims--whom he keeps in a small room built into the wall of his garage. While these various plot elements principally function as surrogates for the theme itself, that of a secret crime, they also modulate it in significant ways. On the one hand, the presence of the illegitimate offspring connects the theme of secret crime with that of sexual transgression--and more generally, with that of desire. On the other, the grave links the same theme with that of the past and with that of death. It takes only a moment's reflection, however, to realize that desire, the past, and death are major themes throughout Hitchcock's career.

Clearly, the thematic level of meaning would be the most profitable for a study of the director's work. Digging into Family Plot has opened up a host of useful possibilities for the interpretation of Hitchcock's previous films; it would only seem necessary to dig deeper in order to make use of these possibilities. Nevertheless, bearing in mind the fate of Lumley (Bruce Dern) in the film, who seeks Eddie only to discover that Eddie's grave is no grave and that Eddie is no Eddie, it might make more sense to excavate diligently than precipitately and to commence by returning to the literal level. Although Family Plot is the only Hitchcock film known to me in which a fake grave figures, several films employ the device of a missing or misplaced body. Yet the two devices stand in an evidently symmetrical relation to one another, since both implicitly refer to the same mediating element: the grave which contains a properly buried body. A body which lies in no grave is in the inverse position of a grave which holds no body.

The first example which comes to mind of a Hitchcock film whose plot revolves around a misplaced body is The Trouble with Harry (1955). Made in 1954 and released in the same year Hitchcock began his stint as host of his enormously popular television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the whimsically macabre film resembles one of the director's opening routines for the half-hour show expanded to a length of over ninety minutes. At the beginning of the film a variety of townspeople in rural Vermont stumble over a man's body lying in a field, one of whom, Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) believes he accidentally shot the victim while hunting. During the course of the film, various other candidates appear who also believe themselves to be the killer; at the end, the man, who is the ex-husband of one of the local residents, Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine in her screen debut) turns out to have died from a heart attack. The film's humor, which only partially offsets the rather thin plot, lies in the repeated attempts of the characters to lay to rest the mysteriously deceased Harry, whose body keeps popping above and below ground like some figure in a French bedroom farce flying in and out of a closet or from under a bed.

Look for the next installment soon. 

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