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Family Plot
File:Family plot movie poster.jpg
Original release poster
Directed byAlfred Hitchcock
Written byErnest Lehman
Produced byAlfred Hitchcock
StarringKaren Black
Bruce Dern
Barbara Harris
William Devane
CinematographyLeonard J. South
Edited byJ. Terry Williams
Music byJohn Williams
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • April 9, 1976 (1976-04-09)
Running time
121 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$4.5 million[1]
Box office$13.2 million[2]

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

The story involves two couples: a "fake" psychic and her cab driving husband, 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.


A fake psychic, Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris), and her boyfriend, George Lumley (Bruce Dern), attempt to locate the nephew of a wealthy and guilt-ridden elderly woman, 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 if the man, Edward Shoebridge, can be found. During his investigation, George Lumley 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, 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, returning 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 Maloney informs Adamson about George investigating him, he enlists Maloney, who had helped murder his adoptive parents, to kill Blanche and George. Maloney initially refuses to help, but then contacts Blanche and George, telling them to meet him at a café atop a mountain. He cuts the brake line of Blanche's car, but the couple manage to survive a dangerous high-speed descent. Maloney then tries to run them over, but dies in a fiery explosion when he swerves to avoid an oncoming car and tumbles down the mountain.

At Maloney's funeral, his wife (Katherine Helmond) tearfully confesses to George that Shoebridge's name is now Arthur Adamson. George has to go to work with 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 lies that she is a friend of Arthur and 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 looks at the camera and winks.


  • Karen Black as Fran
  • Bruce Dern as George Lumley
  • Barbara Harris as Blanche Tyler
  • William Devane as Arthur Adamson/Edward Shoebridge
  • Cathleen Nesbitt as Julia Rainbird
  • Ed Lauter as Joseph P. Maloney
  • Katherine Helmond as Mrs. Maloney
  • Nicholas Colasanto as Constantine
  • Edith Atwater as Mrs. Clay
  • William Prince as Bishop Wood
  • Marge Redmond as Vera Hannagan


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.


The film was the only Hitchcock production to be scored by John Williams, a rising staff composer at Universal who had recently won an Oscar for Steven Spielberg's Jaws. Williams has stated that Hitchcock wanted choir voices for Madame Blanche to make her seem psychic towards the beginning. Williams also stated 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 positive reviews from critics. The film holds a "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with the site reporting that 95% of critics have given the film a positive review, and an average rating of 7 out of 10.[6] Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars, saying of the film, "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] The film earned $6.5 million in rentals.[1]

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


  1. 1.0 1.1 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. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (|url-status= suggested) (help)
  4. "Composer of the Week: John Williams (1932-) 3 America's Composer". BBC Radio 3. Retrieved October 6, 2013. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)
  5. "Family Plot". Varèse Sarabande. Archived from the original on March 14, 2012. Retrieved October 19, 2012. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (|url-status= suggested) (help)
  6. "Family Plot (1979)". Retrieved January 31, 2014.
  7. "Family Plot". Retrieved January 31, 2014.

External links[]

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