Family Plot

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Family Plot
Family plot movie poster.jpg
Original theatrical release poster
Directed byAlfred Hitchcock
Produced byAlfred Hitchcock
Written byErnest Lehman
Based onThe Rainbird Pattern
1972 novel
by Victor Canning
StarringBruce Dern
Barbara Harris
William Devane
Karen Black
Music byJohn Williams
CinematographyLeonard J. South
Edited byJ. Terry Williams
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • April 9, 1976 (1976-04-09)
Running time
120 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$4.5 million[1]
Box office$13.2 million[2]

Family Plot is a 1976 American Technicolor comedy thriller, the final film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It was based on Victor Canning's 1972 novel The Rainbird Pattern, which Ernest Lehman adapted for the screen. The film stars Karen Black, Bruce Dern, Barbara Harris and William Devane; it was screened at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival, but was not entered into the main competition.[3]

The story involves two couples: one a "fake" psychic and her cab-driving boyfriend, the other a pair of professional thieves and kidnappers. Their lives come into conflict because of a search for a missing heir. The film's title is a pun: "family plot" can refer to an area in a cemetery that has been bought by one family for the burial of its various relatives; in this case it also means a dramatic plot line involving various family members.


Fake psychic Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris) and her boyfriend George Lumley (Bruce Dern) attempt to locate the nephew of wealthy, guilt-ridden, elderly Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt). Julia's recently-deceased sister gave the baby boy up for adoption, but Julia now wants to make him her heir and will pay Blanche $10,000 to find the man, Edward Shoebridge. During his investigation, George discovers that Shoebridge is thought to be dead, but he tracks down another criminal, Joseph Maloney (Ed Lauter), who paid for the tombstone over an empty grave.

Meanwhile, it is revealed to the viewers that Shoebridge murdered his adoptive parents and faked his own death, and is now a successful jeweler in San Francisco known as Arthur Adamson (William Devane). He and his live-in girlfriend Fran (Karen Black) kidnap millionaires and dignitaries and return them in exchange for ransoms in the form of valuable gemstones. The duo conceal an enormous diamond in plain sight in a crystal chandelier.

When Adamson learns that George is investigating him, he enlists Maloney (the two had murdered Adamson's adoptive parents long ago), to kill Blanche and George. Maloney initially refuses to help, then contacts Blanche and George, telling them to meet him at a café on a mountain road. He cuts the brakeline of Blanche's car while the couple are in the café, but they manage to survive their dangerous high-speed descent. Maloney tries to run them over, but dies in a fiery explosion when he swerves to avoid an oncoming car and tumbles down the cliff.

At Maloney's funeral, his wife (Katherine Helmond) tearfully confesses to George that Shoebridge's name is now Arthur Adamson. George must go to work driving his taxi for an evening shift, so Blanche tracks down various A. Adamsons in San Francisco, eventually reaching the jewelry store as it closes for the day. Arthur's assistant Mrs. Clay (Edith Atwater) offers to let Blanche leave a note. Blanche, lying that she is a friend of Arthur, convinces Mrs. Clay to give her his address instead.

Arthur and Fran are bundling a kidnapped Bishop Wood (William Prince) into their car when Blanche rings their doorbell. They attempt to drive out of their garage, but Blanche's car is blocking their way. She tells Arthur that his aunt wants to make him her heir. Blanche sees the unconscious bishop, and swears she will not tell, but Arthur drugs her, leaving her in the cellar while they drop the bishop off for ransom.

Searching for Blanche, George finds her car outside Arthur and Fran's house, but no one answers the door. He breaks in and searches for her. Arthur and Fran return home; George hides upstairs. He overhears Arthur's decision to kill Blanche and frame her death as a suicide. George manages to talk to Blanche, who is faking unconsciousness in the open cellar. Arthur and Fran enter to carry Blanche out to the car, but she darts out and George locks the kidnappers in.

Blanche then goes into a "trance", climbs the stairs into the house and halfway up the next stairs, where she points at the huge diamond hidden in the chandelier. Blanche then "wakes" and asks George what she is doing there. He excitedly tells her that she is indeed a real psychic. He calls the police to collect the reward for capturing the kidnappers and finding the jewels. A smiling Blanche winks at the camera.



The film was adapted for the screen by Ernest Lehman, based on Victor Canning's 1972 novel The Rainbird Pattern. Lehman wanted the film to be sweeping, dark and dramatic, but Hitchcock kept pushing him toward lightness and comedy. Lehman's screenplay earned him a 1977 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.

The novel on which the film is based had earlier been rejected by Lehman, to whom it had been submitted as a potential project for him to either produce or direct, or both. Hitchcock's other collaboration with the screenwriter, North by Northwest (1959), was followed by several aborted projects. Lehman had incurred the director's anger by declining an offer to write the screenplay for No Bail for the Judge, a thriller set in London intended to star Audrey Hepburn, Laurence Harvey and actor John Williams. Although Hitchcock eventually had a fine screenplay, and pre-production (location scouting and costumes) was at an advanced stage, the film was never made; Hepburn became pregnant and Hitchcock turned to another project, Psycho (1960), instead.

Hitchcock at work on location in San Francisco for Family Plot

Hitchcock, who often liked to specify the locales of his films by using on-screen titles or by using recognizable landmarks, deliberately left the story's location unspecific, using sites in both San Francisco and Los Angeles. The chase scene in the movie, which writer Donald Spoto called a spoof on car chases prevalent in films at the time, was filmed on the extensive Universal backlot. The restaurant used in the film was also built on the backlot and was shown on studio tours in 1975.

Hitchcock's signature cameo in Family Plot can be seen 40 minutes into the film. He appears in silhouette through the glass door of the Registrar of Births and Deaths.

Following Family Plot, Hitchcock worked on the script for a projected spy thriller, The Short Night. His declining health prevented the filming of the screenplay, which was published in a book during Hitchcock's last years. Universal chose not to film the script with another director, although it did authorize sequels to Hitchcock's Psycho.


Hitchcock considered such actors as Burt Reynolds and Roy Scheider (for Adamson), Al Pacino (for George), Faye Dunaway (for Fran), and Beverly Sills and Goldie Hawn (for Blanche) for the film. Cybill Shepherd wrote in her memoir that she had hoped to play the part of Fran, which eventually went to Karen Black. High salary demands were partly responsible for his turning to other actors. Although Liza Minnelli was among the stars recommended to Hitchcock, he was especially delighted to work with Barbara Harris as the medium. He had previously tried to hire her for other film projects.

Hitchcock had earlier worked with Bruce Dern on episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and on Marnie (1964), in which he had a brief role in a flashback playing a doomed sailor.


For the score, Universal's music executive, Harry Garfield recommended John Williams to Hitchcock, following the Oscar and critical acclaim of his music score for Jaws.

The film was the only Hitchcock production to be scored by Williams, who has stated that Hitchcock wanted choir voices for Madame Blanche to make her seem psychic towards the beginning, and that Hitchcock was at the scoring sessions most of the time and would often give him suggestions. For the scene in which Maloney suddenly disappears from Adamson's office, Hitchcock suggested that Williams stop the music when the camera cuts to the open window to indicate to the audience that Maloney has left through it.[4] Hitchcock then went on to say, "Mr. Williams, murder can be fun", when he suggested that he should conduct the music lightly for a darker scene of the film. Williams stated that it was a great privilege, and that he had a wonderful working experience with the director.[citation needed]

The complete soundtrack was not released upon the film's release date. Few themes from the film were released on John Williams and Alfred Hitchcock compilation albums. For years afterwards, the original soundtrack was not available, spawning many bootleg copies of the complete scoring sessions of the film over the internet. Finally in 2010, Varèse Sarabande officially released a limited edition of the complete Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, 34 years after the film's initial release.[5]

Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
1."The First Séance"5:29
2."Blanche's Challenge"2:09
3."The Mystery Woman"3:27
4."The Rescue of Constantine / The Diamond Chandelier"2:21
5."Kitchen Pranks"2:08
6."The Shoebridge Headstone"2:23
7."Maloney's Visit to the Jewelry Store / Maloney's Knife / The Stake Out"4:58
8."The Second Séance"2:20
9."Nothing Held Back"0:37
10."The White Mustang"1:19
11."Blanche and George"1:17
12."Maloney's Exit"2:03
13."Share and Share Alike"0:54
14."The Mondrian Shot / The Revealed Identity"1:47
15."The Search Montage"3:41
16."Blanche's Arrival / Blanche's Note"2:29
17."Blanche Gets the Needle"3:03
18."Breaking Into the House"5:16
19."The Secret Door / Blanche Wakes Up"1:39
20."End Cast"4:14
21."Family Plot Theme"2:38
22."The Stonecutter"6:35


Family Plot has received praise from critics. Vincent Canby of The New York Times called the film "a witty, relaxed lark", adding that it was "certainly Hitchcock's most cheerful film in a long time, but it's hardly innocent."[6] Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars, saying of it: "And it's a delight for two contradictory reasons: because it's pure Hitchcock, with its meticulous construction and attention to detail, and because it's something new for Hitchcock—a macabre comedy, essentially. He doesn't go for shock here, or for violent effects, but for the gradual tightening of a narrative noose."[7] Variety called the film "a dazzling achievement for Alfred Hitchcock. Masterfully controlling finely-tuned shifts from comedy to drama throughout a highly complex mystery-suspense plot, Hitchcock has created a film that has the involving detail work and teasing fascination of a novel to be read in front of a crackling fire on a rainy evening."[8] Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times praised the film as "atmospheric, characterful, precisely paced, intricately plotted, exciting and suspenseful, beautifully acted and, perhaps more than anything else, amusing."[9] Penelope Gilliatt of The New Yorker called the film "one of the saltiest and most endearing" films Hitchcock ever directed, adding, "Sometimes in his career, Hitchcock has seemed to manipulate the audience; in this, his fifty-third film, he is our accomplice, turning his sense of play to our benefit."[10] Richard Combs of The Monthly Film Bulletin praised "the compact allusiveness and crisp elegance of Ernest Lehman's writing, which so deftly builds its own tongue-in-cheek attitudes into the material," and found that Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris made "a delightfully nuanced comic duet."[11]

Not all reviews have been as approving. Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film two-and-a-half stars and called it a "disappointment", finding that it "descends into dull jokes, plastic characters, and a television sitcom conclusion."[12] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post called the film "a chore to sit through", adding, "Lehman and Hitchcock are trying to recapture the old magic, but they've lost their touch."[13]

The film holds a 92% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 36 reviews, and an average rating of 7 out of 10.[14] The film earned $6.5 million in rentals.[1]

Released in the year of the United States Bicentennial, Family Plot was chosen to open the 1976 Filmex (Los Angeles International Film Exposition) to honor American cinematography.[15]

Barbara Harris was nominated for Best Actress – Motion Picture Comedy or Musical at the 34th Golden Globe Awards.


  1. ^ a b Nat Segaloff, Final Cuts: The Last Films of 50 Great Directors, Bear Manor Media 2013 p132-135
  2. ^ "Family Plot, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved January 23, 2012.
  3. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Family Plot". Archived from the original on 2012-09-27. Retrieved 2009-05-10.
  4. ^ "Composer of the Week: John Williams (1932-) 3 America's Composer". BBC Radio 3. Retrieved October 6, 2013.
  5. ^ "Family Plot". Varèse Sarabande. Archived from the original on March 14, 2012. Retrieved October 19, 2012.
  6. ^ Canby, Vincent (April 10, 1976). "Screen: Hitchcock's 'Family Plot' Bubbles Over". The New York Times: 18.
  7. ^ "Family Plot". Retrieved January 31, 2014.
  8. ^ "Family Plot". Variety: 20. March 24, 1956.
  9. ^ Champlin, Charles (April 9, 1976). "The Hitchcock Spirit at 76". Los Angeles Times: Part IV, p1.
  10. ^ Gilliatt, Penelope (April 19, 1976). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker: 104.
  11. ^ Combs, Richard (July 1976). "Family Plot". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 43 (510): 146–147.
  12. ^ Siskel, Gene (April 13, 1976). "Hitchcock's old mastery runs cold in 'Family Plot'". Chicago Tribune. Section 3, p. 5.
  13. ^ Arnold, Gary (April 9, 1976). "'Family Plot': Hitchcock's Variations on a Theme". The Washington Post: 41.
  14. ^ "Family Plot (1976)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved October 9, 2018.
  15. ^ Kapsis, Robert E. (1992). Hitchcock: the Making of a Reputation. University of Chicago Press. p. 115.

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