Blu-ray Review: The Lodger – The Criterion Collection

Spine #885

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: June 27, 2017

Region: Region A

Length:

The Lodger – 01:30:24

Downhill – 01:50:59

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio:

The Lodger – 2.0 Linear PCM Audio (48 kHz, 2304 kbps, 24-bit)

Downhill – 2.0 Dolby Digital Audio (48 kHz, 192 kbps)

Ratio:

The Lodger – 1.33:1

Downhill – 1.33:1

Bitrate:

The Lodger – 29.36 Mbps

Downhill – 15.09 Mbps

Notes: This is the North American Blu-ray debut of “The Lodger,” but the film was given a DVD release by MGM. Unfortunately, the MGM edition is now out of print. The release also marks the Blu-ray debut of “Downhill.”

Title

The Master Finds His Voice

PART ONE: THE LODGER

The Lodger is the first picture possibly influence by my period in Germany. The whole approach to this film was instinctive with me. It was the first time I exercised my style. In truth, you might almost say that The Lodger was my first picture… I took a pure narrative and for the first time, presented ideas in purely visual terms.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

It is rather easy to understand why Alfred Hitchcock considers The Lodger his true film debut, and the most obvious reason for this was his choice of subject matter.

“I had seen a play called ‘Who Is He?’ based on Mrs. Belloc Lowndes’s novel ‘The Lodger.’ The action was set in a house that took in roomers and the landlady wondered whether her new boarder was Jack the Ripper or not…” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

Obviously, the property was ideal for a Hitchcock project and the director tackled every aspect of the production with unprecedented relish. He had already worked with Eliot Stannard on the scripts for both The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle and brought the writer on board to help with The Lodger as well.

 “With the director whispering in his ear, Eliot Stannard wrote the script over the first two months of 1926; then Hitchcock went back over it one last time, breaking it down into several hundred master scenes, making notes and little sketches to guide each camera setup, ‘each one specifying the exact grouping and action of the characters and the placing of the camera,’ in his words. The script was always written with the flow of pictures in mind, but storyboarding was the final revision. Stannard was encouraged to suggest visual ideas, but again the more important contributor was the expert in continuity and cutting: Alma.” Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Interestingly, Alfred Hitchcock’s first film to feature a man wrongly accused of a crime was considered a major compromise by the director.

“Of course, strictly speaking, he should have been the Ripper and gone on his way. That’s how Mrs. Belloc-Lowndes wrote the book. But Ivor Novello was the matinee idol of the period and could not be the murderer. The same thing was true of Cary Grant in Suspicion many years later. So, obviously, putting that kind of actor into this sort of film is a mistake because you just have to compromise.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Hitchcock claimed that he would have preferred to have the Lodger “go off in the night so that we would never really know for sure” if he is guilty of the murders or simply an eccentric innocent. This particular ending reminds one of Hitchcock’s ending for The Birds. It is impossible to guess how audiences of the time might have welcomed such an ending, but it is easy to imagine it having an extremely powerful effect on the viewer.

“The script satisfied the front office concerns that Novello’s character be proved innocent. But that left the second issue: Novello was a stiff, mannered actor, whose technique leaned heavily on his repertoire of tedious ‘handsome’ poses. That was a challenge to be addressed in the directing, but one Hitchcock had already anticipated, incorporating into the shooting script a brooding visual design to eclipse Novello’s flaws.” Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Ivor Novello

Ivor Novello was one of Britain’s biggest matinee idols when he starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger.

Vintage newspapers and trade articles suggest that the film entered production in the early months of 1926 (as early as February), although Patrick McGilligan suggests that principal photography didn’t begin until March. Unfortunately, there aren’t many surviving production documents from this period in Hitchcock’s career, so a specific date is impossible to pinpoint. However, one can say with some degree of authority that some of Hitchcock’s already established crew returned to bring The Lodger to the screen—and Alma’s work as his assistant director and editor is no doubt the most significant. Baron Ventimiglia also returned as the film’s primary cameraman and lavish sets were designed by C. Wilfred Arnold.

Of course, certain scenes were shot on location which could sometimes be a significant logistical challenge for a film crew even in the silent era. In fact, one particular scene was such an ordeal that it still haunted the director over a decade later when he related his experience to the News Chronicle.

“…The thing I wanted above all else was to do a night scene in London, preferably on the embankment. I wanted to silhouette the mass of Charing Cross Bridge against the sky. I wanted to get away from the (at the time) inevitable shot of Piccadilly Circus with hand-painted lights.

The story demanded the dragging of a body out of the river. Here, I thought was my chance. But Scotland Yard said, ‘No.’ We pulled strings. We used influence. We went from step to step until we were within shouting distance of the Home Secretary. Scotland Yard says ‘No.’ but we were told that, if we did shoot the scene, we should not be stopped. That’s how we always used to get our permission: told usually in a hint, that authorities would turn a blind eye on us.

So we went down to the Embankment. We took two sets of light vans—that does not mean vans for light work. It means vans to carry lights. We had ‘sun arcs’—huge, powerful lights to give a real background. Otherwise, the brilliantly lit close-up shots would seem to have been photographed against black velvet. We parked the vans in the middle of the roadway on Westminster Bridge. We massed the arcs on the parapet of the bridge. We went to the Embankment and started shooting.

We took our short shots. They were fine. But I was concentrating on the long shot. Every time a tram passed we had to disconnect the cables that lay across the lines. Work below had to be held up until the lights came on again. But finally, we shot the big scene. The sun arcs turned night to day. The artists did their stuff. The bridge stood out clear and sharp. The camera turned.

The number of the scene was 45. It should have been 13. For when we went to the projection room, to see the rushes—the first prints of the day’s takings—there was no scene 45. We looked through all the reels. We looked through all the prints. We looked through positive and negative. There was no scene 45. The cameraman forgot to put his lens in the camera. That has happened more than once: call it tragedy or farce.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 01-05, 1937)

Arrival

The influence of German Expressionism can be seen in nearly every frame of The Lodger and would be a large part of Alfred Hitchcock’s aesthetic throughout his entire career.

Of course, the studio work went much more smoothly, and the director was very much in his element. Hitchcock’s time in Germany had a profound impact on the director’s artistic sensibilities, and The Lodger perhaps the first time expressionism becomes a major part of his aesthetic.

 “You have to remember that a year before, I was working on the UFA lot. I worked there for many months—at the same time [that] Jannings was making The Last Laugh with Murnau—and I was able to absorb a lot of the methods and style.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Hitchcock’s actors took notice of his unusually meticulous attention to framing, sets, and lighting design as they met the challenges that this attention to detail sometimes created for them.

“‘Fresh from Berlin,’ recalled June [Tripp], ‘Hitch was so imbued with the value of unusual camera angles and lighting effects with which to create and sustain dramatic suspense that often a scene which would not run for more than three minutes on the screen would take an entire morning to shoot.’ ‘Once,’ she said, she was forced to carry ‘an iron tray of breakfast dishes up a long flight of stairs’ some twenty times before Hitchcock was ‘satisfied with the expression of fear on my face and the atmosphere established by light and shadows.’” Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Spending an entire morning on a scene is certainly not uncommon nowadays, but this was apparently less common in Britain during the mid-1920s. Alfred Hitchcock was a unique entity in the British film industry and went the extra mile to achieve his visual goals. This is more than obvious in the very first frames of The Lodger wherein what seems to be a simple shot of a woman screaming actually took quite a bit of creative ingenuity to achieve.

“We opened with the head of a blonde girl who is screaming. I remember the way I photographed it. I took a sheet of glass, placed the girl’s head on the glass and spread her hair around until it filled the frame. Then we lit the glass from behind so that one would be struck by her light hair. Then we cut to show an electric sign advertising a musical play, ‘Tonight, Golden Curls,’ with the reflection flickering in the water. The girl has drowned…” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

Of course, the director was always quick to point out that many of the film’s lauded visual flourishes were the product of the silent era. The limitations of the medium made it necessary for director’s to pictorialize sound in a clear and concise manner. A perfect example of this technique would be the celebrated invisible ceiling scene.

“In his room the man paces up and down. You must remember that we had no sound in those days, so I had a plate-glass floor made through which you could see the lodger moving back and forth, causing the chandelier in the room below to move with him. Naturally, many of these visual devices would be absolutely superfluous today because we would use sound effects instead. The sound of steps and so on… Today, I would simply use the swaying chandelier.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

Hitchcock’s one inch thick plate glass ceiling was only six square feet, but this was large enough to sell the sound of the footsteps in a visual manner. This makes it clear to viewers that the chandelier is swinging because the lodger is pacing back and forth in his room. There were other examples of visualizing sound throughout the film, but the best (and certainly the most famous) of these is probably the staircase shot showing the lodger’s hand going down a handrail. Shots of the lodger leaving his room and eventually the house is alternated with shots of Mrs. Bunting listening to his movements. It is quite clear that she hears him leaving and is becoming suspicious of her new tenant.

“Just as much as the set I had built for when the lodger went out late at night—almost to the ceiling of the studio, showing four flights of stairs and a handrail. And all you see is a hand going down. That was, of course, from the point of view of the mother listening. Today, we would substitute sound for that. Although, I think that the handrail shot would be worthy of today in addition to sound.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

The Lodger Leaving

After six weeks of shooting, principal photography wrapped on The Lodger—but all of Hitchcock’s hard work was very nearly in vain. Unfortunately, the director had a few enemies at the studio. One of his biggest foes was his old friend and mentor, Graham Cutts (who was once considered one of the greatest directors in Britain). Hitchcock had served as his screenwriter, art director, and assistant director on a number of his films.

In fact, Hitchcock began building sets so that they could only be shot in a certain way—Hitchcock’s way. People started to notice that the success of these films owed as much to Hitchcock’s work as to his mentor’s directorial abilities—and Cutts made his dissatisfaction about these things known by firing his protégé. Some scholars suggest that Cutts also resented that Michael Balcon assigned Ivor Novello to Hitchcock’s film after having directed the actor in his star-making turn in The Rat (1925) and The Triumph of the Rat (1926). Whatever the case may be, it is enough to understand that Graham Cutts was under the influence of the green-eyed-monster and this resulted in a bitter enemy for the future master of suspense.

“After seeing an early screening of The Lodger, [Cutts] told ‘anybody who would listen that we had a disaster on our hands,’ said Michael Balcon.

Another diehard was C.M. Woolf, who still held Hitchcock partially responsible for the fiasco of The White Shadow. He had opposed Hitchcock’s promotion to director; now, paranoid that an ‘artistic’ picture could not be easily launched into the maximum number of English theaters, Woolf convened a high-level screening…” Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

This screening was very nearly the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s career and the director would retell the terrible story in interviews for the rest of his life:

“It was first shown to the staff of the distribution company and the head of their publicity department. They saw the film and then made their report to the boss: ‘Impossible to show it. Too bad. The film is terrible.’ Two days later the big boss [C.M. Woolf] came down to the studio to look at it. He arrived at two-thirty. Mrs. Hitchcock and I couldn’t bear to wait in the studio to know the results and we walked the streets of London for an hour and a half. Finally, we took a cab and went back. We were hoping out promenade would have a happy ending and that everyone in the studio would be beaming. What they said was: ‘The boss says it’s terrible.’ And they put the film on the shelf, canceled the bookings that had been made on the basis of Novello’s reputation.

A few months later, they decided to take another look at the picture and to make some changes. I agreed to make about two. As soon as the picture was shown, it was acclaimed as the greatest British film made up to that date.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Actually, there is a bit more to the film’s resurrection than Hitchcock’s retelling would suggest. The truth is that Michael Balcon believed in both Hitchcock and the film. What’s more, the studio had quite a bit of money invested. It seemed worthwhile to give the film another chance, so the producer held another private screening—this time for an impartial party.

“Hitchcock—a shadowy figure at that time, whom I vaguely knew by name—had just finished a picture and [Michael Balcon] could not get the distributor to show it. He had taken a risk in promoting Hitch from floor assistant actually to direct. (Mick, all his life, loved recruiting fresh talent to direction, and this was not the least of his blessings to British film production.) But this was now not Hitch’s first picture for the company but his third, and the distributor would have none of any of them. The mounting unused investment was becoming impossible for Balcon to defend…

…They ran the film, with which at once I fell enthusiastically in love. Now, the hackneyed treatment of the plot and a weakness in characterization makes it look primitive. Then, by contrast with the work of his seniors and contemporaries, all Hitch’s special qualities stood out raw: the narrative skill, the ability to tell the story and create the tension in graphic combination, and the feeling for London scenes and characters.” —Ivor Montagu (Working with Hitchcock, Sight and Sound, 1980)

Graham Cutts
Graham Cutts was once Hitchcock’s friend and mentor, but he soon became one of his strongest adversaries: “I suspect that the director who had me fired as his assistant was still being political against me. I know he told someone, ‘I don’t know what he’s shooting. I can’t make head nor tail of it.’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

The result of this showing should be obvious considering that Hitchcock is now considered one of the cinema’s greatest auteurs—but first there was quite a bit of work to do on The Lodger before it could be granted a release.

“[Montagu] was in something of a quandary, since he could hardly say that he didn’t think the film needed anything done to it. Finally, his solution was to get together with Hitch and suggest a couple of points in the film where something might be clarified by re-editing, plus some re-shooting of the final chase sequence where it was originally too dark to see details (Hitch willingly complied with this, since apart from anything else it meant an effective addition to his budget and shooting time for the film). The only radical modification Montagu suggested was to make the film more extreme in one area where Hitch had experimented cautiously. British films at this time were very heavy on titles, and British filmmakers knew little or nothing of the movement abroad in favor of telling the story as completely as possible in visual terms. Hitch had seen this done in Germany, but he knew how conservative his employers were, and so had left little to chance in verbal explanations of what was happening. Montagu told them that they should go all the way, reduce the titles to an absolute minimum and make those that were left as punchy and to the point as possible. Since he qualified as an outside expert whom they were paying good money (if not very much of it) to advise them, they took his word for it. He went ahead eliminating and tightening the titles, and brought in E. McKnight Kauffer, the painter and poster designer who was at the time considered very advanced, to design the credits and the title backgrounds.” John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

All of this additional work seems to have paid off because the film was a commercial and critical success. Nearly every critic focused largely on Hitchcock’s adept direction. An excellent example of such praise can be found in a review published in the Daily Mail.

“Here is a British film which grips the imagination… The very angles at which these scenes are photographed create terror, and the exquisite homeliness of the settings piles up apprehension. Mr. Novello has never appeared to such advantage, Miss June is natural and pretty as the heroine, and Miss Marie Ault [is] magnificent as the motherly but frightened landlady. The Lodger [is] the second fine British film this week and can more than hold its own against any foreign production. It is arresting without being in any way gruesome.” –Daily Mail (September 15, 1926)

Meanwhile, a similar review was published in the Nottingham Evening Post that very same day.

“There is further satisfactory proof of the fact that British films are on the upgrade in The Lodger… The story is adapted from the novel by Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, and is a first-class attraction of the mystery order, with a series of sensational murders of fair-haired girls, committed by some individual who apparently does not prefer blondes

The direction of this theme by Alfred Hitchcock, a young Englishman who has little to learn from Hollywood in the technique of his craft, judging from some very original and clever devices in this picture, ensures its effectiveness. Ivor Novello gives a striking and arresting performance as the Lodger, against whom suspicion is pointed, and there is a charming heroine in the pretty musical-comedy actress popular with playgoers as ‘June.’” –Nottingham Evening Post (September 15, 1926)

The Sydney Morning Herald was especially enthusiastic about the film.

The Lodger is a film of a distinctly unusual type. When one looks back on its plot, to be sure, there seems to be nothing remarkable about it as a whole: but in the working out of the details there is much to absorb the spectator’s interest. Such originality can be easily explained, for the picture was made in England, and on this account escaped that contagion of methods and ideas which tends to standardize the output of Hollywood. The whole of the actors are English; also the director (Alfred Hitchcock). As a matter of fact, the acting throughout is very fine. Ivor Novello, who heads the cast, is every whit as handsome as the best-looking of the American leading men; and he is fortunate in having a face that photographs well from every angle. But In addition to being handsome, he has dramatic depth and fire. Some may object to his first entrance, and his actions in general during the earlier part of the play as being too theatrical, too artificial, slowed down as they are to a portentous languor; yet they form part of a deeply considered conception of the character, and fit exactly into their place in the light of subsequent revelations. For The Lodger is a mystery play. Not a thing of shrieks, and haunted houses, and grisly corpses, however. No. It is much more subtle than that. In fact, at the end the real motive for the series of murders, and the real perpetrator of them, are never revealed at all. They do not matter — they have served their purpose in the plot, and can be left freely to the imagination of the spectators to fill in at will. To presume the murderer merely a homicidal lunatic will provide an explanation as good as any. Surely this policy of vagueness is better than the plan usually followed by playwrights, of pitching on one of the characters at random and crying, ‘Behold the man!’ By methods too detailed to be explained here at length, the director has made some of the episodes remarkably gripping in their suggestion of the sinister. Indeed, for those interested in the technical side of motion picture production the whole film will repay close study. Besides Mr. Novello the cast includes Marie Ault, Arthur Chesney, Malcolm Keen, and ‘June.’” -Sydney Morning Herald (February 20, 1928)

The First Hitchcock Cameo

The first Hitchcock cameo: “It was strictly utilitarian; we had to fill the screen. Later on it became a superstition and eventually a gag. But now it’s a rather troublesome gag, and I’m very careful to show up in the first five minutes so as to let the people look at the rest of the movie with no further distraction.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

It is interesting to note that special mention is always made as to the film’s British origins and that the actors re discussed in a manner that betrays a public familiarity with their names. It might be easy for modern viewers to forget that these performers were both popular and well regarded at the time of the film’s release. In other words, the film was presented as a prestige project. Unfortunately, even prestige productions aren’t immune to critical condescension as this review in The Times adequately illustrates.

 “‘To-night… Golden Curls… To-night… Golden Curls.

Mr. Hitchcock has used the electric sky-sign, advertising a revue, as a symbol that appears again and again throughout his narrative. After its first appearance we see a murdered girl lying on the ground; she is the Avenger’s sixth victim and, in common with all the others, she has light hair. The news spreads. The tape-machine ticks it out; the printers print it; the newspaper vans distribute it; the chorus of Golden Curls read it in their dressing-room and the mannequins at a dressmaking establishment read it in theirs. There is, it seems, not a fair-haired woman in London that does not tremble in her decorative underclothes and go in terror of her life. Yet, though we see them tremble, we do not participate in their fear. The dark atmosphere of terror and the steady regard for character which were the making of Mrs. Belloc Lowndes’s book are dissipated by the sky-signs, the tape-machine, the frocks, and the absence of frocks. It is Jack-the-Ripper or the Avenger who should be brooding over London; instead it is ‘Golden Curls… To-night… Golden Curls.

And when a stranger knocks at the door of Daisy Bunting’s parents and asks for a lodging in their house; when we should all be wondering whether this dark young man, with a mysterious handbag and his face muffled in accordance with the police reports, is indeed the Avenger; when, observing that Daisy has fair hair, we should be in exquisite anxiety for her fate, there is no escaping the fact that Daisy is June Tripp and the lodger Mr. Ivor Novello, to whom, and through whom, no harm, in the films, can come. It takes the sting out of excitement. It might, indeed, have been possible to forget that June was June and Mr. Novello Mr. Novello, if Mr. Hitchcock had concentrated on any other aspect of Daisy and the lodger than their insipid charm. But that on the screen would never have done; the spirit of a good tale must perish so that the camera be not denied its close-up kisses, its soft yearnings over breakfast trays, and its whisperings through bathroom doors. The Lodger becomes, in consequence, a story, not primarily of mystery, but of the landlady’s daughter (who, of course, being a mannequin, is becomingly dressed) and the young man upstairs. Mr. Malcolm Keen, the detective, is appropriately jealous, and Mr. Arthur Chesney and Miss Marie Ault come much nearer than anyone else to preserving the novel’s genuine atmosphere. One or two of Miss Ault’s scenes, when she hears her lodger go out at night and is terrified by her suspicions, are an indication of the manner which, if the book was to be justly interpreted, should have pervaded the film. They are quiet and unforced; they have that shrewd insistence upon the truth of ordinary life and character by which Mrs. Lowndes obtained a great part of her effect. But the film has nothing else that is their equivalent. It has frittered away terror in garish irrelevance.” The Times (January 18, 1927)

Apparently, “the book was better” is an extremely old complaint about film adaptations. Frankly, this argument is nearly always short-sighted (especially when it comes to Hitchcock’s filmography). Alfred Hitchcock usually took the basic concept from a novel or short story and constructed a new screen story based upon that concept. The Lodger is an extremely accomplished calling card from one of cinema’s greatest auteurs and to concentrate on the diversions from the original novel is to miss out on a rich and rewarding cinematic achievement.

Title

PART TWO: DOWNHILL

After The Lodger found success, Alfred Hitchcock would take a short break in order to marry Alma Reville on December 02, 1926, but it wasn’t long before the director found himself tackling another project.

“When the boy wonder returned from his honeymoon in January, it wasn’t hard to convince him that, rather than stagnating, it made sense to follow The Lodger with another picture capitalizing on the rage for Ivor Novello—who, along with Constance Collier (under their pen name, David L’Estrange)—had written the hit play from which Downhill would be adapted.” Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville on their wedding day. Alfred's older brother William is stood behind him.

Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville on their wedding day (December 02, 1926). William John Hitchcock (Alfred’s older brother) can be seen standing behind him.

Unfortunately, the original play didn’t particularly interest Hitchcock and had less to do with the adaptation than was his usual practice. His particular contribution was the visualization of the scenes that were discussed in the script meetings with Angus MacPhail and Eliot Stannard (who remained relatively faithful to the original play). Luckily, the director tackled the direction of the film with the same creative fervency that distinguished his work on The Lodger. In fact, the director betrayed a genuine affection for a few of the ideas in the film during his interview with François Truffaut (even as he insisted that they werenaïve touches”).

“I experimented a bit. I showed a woman seducing a younger man, She is a lady of a certain age, but quite elegant, and he finds her very attractive until daybreak. Then he opens the window and the sun comes in, lighting up the woman’s face. In that moment she looks dreadful. And through the open window, we show people passing by carrying a coffin.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

Descending

Shots of Roddy descending became a motif in the film. The above three screen captures illustrate three examples as the protagonist descends the stairs, the escalator, and the elevator.

Another touch that Hitchcock insisted wouldn’t work today is a motif throughout the film where Novello’s character is shown descending. The most famous of these shots involves an escalator heading into the Underground. “That’s when the boy is thrown out of the house by his father,” the director remembered later. “To show the beginning of his downhill journey, I put him on an escalator going down.” Apparently, this scene was shot on location after midnight so as not to disrupt the commuters.

“For more than three hours a British film company took possession of the Maida Vale tube station [in] London recently for a special scene in the Piccadilly Picture, Ltd.’s production of Downhill, directed by that most promising of the new school of English producers, Mr. Alfred J. Hitchcock. Late travelers arriving at the station were puzzled by the huge sunlight arc lamps installed along the escalator and vestibule until the familiar face of Mr. Ivor Novello—in yellow grease paint and a camera on trestles—explained the situation. In the street were loudly purring generators on lorries… Scenes were made by Mr. Novello entering the station and booking a ticket, but the real interest lay in a wonderful ‘shot’ on the moving escalator—the first of its kind made in England. The bore of the escalator gave some surprising lighting effects, and Mr. Hitchcock is making the ‘slow’ descent of the character something half symbolic…” –The Canberra Times (Film Making in a Tube, May 06, 1927)

Interestingly, Hitchcock directed the scene in an eloquent formal suit complete with white tie and top hat because he had gone to the theatre earlier that night! By most accounts, principal photography was otherwise uneventful, but there was one particularly unfortunate disagreement that led to the temporary loss of one of his most important colleagues.

 “Hitch had a quarrel over a rather strange matter of principal with Ivor Montagu, who had helped him change the apparent disaster of The Lodger into a triumph and was now working on the scripting and editing of Downhill. Montagu, as befitted a young intellectual invader of the cinema, had all sorts of principles about what could and couldn’t, or should and shouldn’t be done in films. He objected particularly to shots which seemed to contain a built-in impossibility or to be cheating in some way. He himself admits to a measure of inconsistency… but a shot Hitch was determined to include in Downhill stuck in Montagu’s gullet. It was a scene in a taxi with the knees of the hero, his new love, and her old protector all touching in a rather equivocal manner, photographed from directly above. Montagu complained that the shot was an impossible viewpoint—not even a fly on the ceiling of the taxi could see things that way unless the taxi was ten feet tall. Hitch, characteristically, didn’t care: the shot showed what he wanted it to show, and that was that. Montagu was irritated at his inability to put over his point, and though he remained quite friendly with Hitch he departed after preliminary work on Easy Virtue, and he and Hitch did not work together again until seven years later when fate and Michael Balcon reunited them on the first Man Who Knew Too Much.” John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Taylor’s mention of Montagu’s preliminary work on Easy Virtue brings up an interesting point. Alfred Hitchcock was actually working on that film throughout a good portion of Downhill’s production and the shooting of these two films overlapped a bit.

 “When the rest of Downhill was completed they still had a couple of necessary close-up shots left to do of [Ivor] Novello staggering through the east End of London on his return to England. Hitch had already begun work on his next film, Easy Virtue, and was on location on the Riviera. Novello came down very grandly, checked into the Hotel de Paris in Nice for one night, gave a lot of interviews there in his suite, and then, having got that out of the way, vanished to a very humble pension for the rest of his time on location. The shots were done on the flat roof of the pension, with a couple of men holding a painted backdrop of the London docks while Novello walked on the spot in front of it in the bright Mediterranean sunlight and the natives looked on incredulously, speculating as to what on earth these crazy Englishmen could be doing.” John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Once the film was finished and then released (in relatively rapid succession), it seems to have received some modest critical and commercial success with the overall critical opinion being extremely mixed. As a matter of fact, Iris Barry captured the overall critical response to the film in a single sentence when she wrote that Hitchcock “made a clever picture out of poor and indeed unsuitable and undramatic material.” Nearly every review reiterated these same sentiments. Alfred Hitchcock’s direction was always met with praise even as the scenario was torn to shreds as in this review published by the Yorkshire Post:

Downhill is the latest Ivor Novello picture, directed by Alfred Hitchcock… Mr. Novello has already had success in the stage play of the same name from which the film is taken, and I have no doubt that he will succeed in the film, for Mr. Hitchcock is remarkably skillful at combining clever photography with sound ‘entertainment value.’ But this story of an innocent school boy’s road to ruin is childish nonsense. We are asked to believe that the head master of a public school accepts without question the unsupported word of an obvious little minx from a tea shop, accusing his head prefect of having seduced her. Without inquiry the head master insinuates to Roddie that he must instantly pack his bags. Roddie arrives in London, where his father, not to be outdone by the head master, violently disowns him. The door slams mid we see Roddie starting down a tube escalator—symbolism—on the downward career that is to take him through chorus work to sudden wealth, to marriage with an expensive actress, poverty, cabaret dancing, and so at last happily home again.

Mr. Novello acts very competently throughout the picture, and Miss Annette Benson, as the minx who gets him expelled, displays the greatest promise. She will soon be well known. The direction and photography are consistently vivid, ingenious, and effective, but it is pretty plain that Mr. Hitchcock does not take this sort of stuff seriously. I am glad to see that he is now to direct a story of his own, called The Ring, for British International…” –Yorkshire Post (May 31, 1927)

A review published in The Guardian was just as critical and perhaps even more pointed than similar reviews that were being written at the time.

The Lodger was the best film made in England up to the end of last year. It had power, point, imagination, and an entirely new angle—new, that is to say, in an English studio of visual expression. Downhill carries out every promise of its predecessor without being at all a good film. It is interesting. It is shrewd. It is brilliant to the point of the camera. But the danger of a man possessing an individual and startling style is that he is apt not to be particular about the occasions on which he uses it. The material of The Lodger was slight and sensational, but the material of Downhill is down-right bad… I have never seen such an interesting production of rubbish nor [such] a clever film which deserved quite so little praise…

When Hitchcock sets to work on real film material… there will not be more than half a dozen producers in the world who will be able to beat him. There are none in England now.” -C.A.L. (The Guardian, June 11, 1927)

Critics rightly chastised the British Film Industry for their backwards attempts at improving their productions by focusing on the technical qualities rather than seeking out mature dramatic material and claimed that “no policy could be worse for the British film industry than an attempt to out-do Hollywood in mechanism to the neglect of human dramatic quality. To out-do Hollywood in technique is extremely difficult and not necessarily worth doing. To out-do Hollywood in dramatic value is immensely worth doing, and should be singularly easy.

A review published in The Times followed suit, but the most interesting aspect of their review is the mention of a short interlude that allowed Ivor Novello to perform a scene in person!

Downhill… shows more than anything else, the extraordinary way in which British film technique has advanced during the last few years. Many people will remember the play on which the film is based… This threadbare story has been taken over by Mr. Alfred Hitchcock… and by sheer technique, he has managed to breathe some life into it. He has not made it credible—that would be expecting too much—but he has at least made it seem far less ridiculous than one could possibly have expected.

The thesis is such an inverted one that it is difficult to know how he could have done better… That Mr. Hitchcock, with the improbable material to his hand, has succeeded so well is an achievement… Mr. Ivor Novello is excellent as himself, but he is never so much like a schoolboy as when he appears in person in an interpolated scene. This scene, on Monday night, seemed to interest the audience, but the advisability of mingling the two forms of entertainment seems very doubtful…” -The Times (October 12, 1927)

Not everyone disliked the film’s premise. A review in the Dundee Evening Telegraph betrays a genuine affection for Hitchcock’s direction and the scenario alike (even if they do describe it as being an “old theme”).

 “In the list of British films released last year which really can be classified as good the name of Alfred Hitchcock appears as producer opposite two…

…Hitchcock has taken a very old theme and dished it up anew, like cold mutton which is much more appetizing in rissoles form. He has given us the prodigal son in a new garb, and the hero shines more gloriously than the original, because his fall was due to his kindness of heart when he screened a fellow-student.

Thus the climax, when he returns broken and weary to his father’s house and all the things that can be summed up as ‘fatted calf,’ is just what is expected, but in various ways the picture has been cleverly thought out along fresh lines.

Several well-known British stars of the legitimate stage — Ivor Novello, Isabel Jeans, Norman McKinnell, Lilian Braithwaite, and Violet Fairbrother — are the featured players, the whole cast combining to give an impression of careful and clever direction.” -Dundee Evening Telegraph (January 10, 1928)

Modern scholars tend to agree with the majority of these old reviews and praise the director’s experimentation even as they condemn the plot—which is extremely dated and not particularly interesting. However, the film itself is a genuinely enjoyable experience and later scholarly assessments have been nothing if not grudgingly commendatory. An excellent example would be a mostly flattering paragraph published in Donald Spoto’s The Art of Alfred Hitchcock.

“Technically, the picture is superior to just about anything that was made in England that year: there are perfectly matched dissolves to relate characters and themes; a fine dream sequence; and astonishingly stable follow shots with a hand-held camera along the docks of Marseilles. The sets, to be frank, are more convincing than some of the acting.” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

John Russell Taylor was even more admiring in his 1978 biography about the director.

“It is not, one would gather, among the films Hitch feels particularly proud of nowadays… But seen today, Downhill comes over as one of his liveliest and most joyously inventive silent films—possibly a lack of any great sympathy with the material (‘a poor play,’ Hitch says) made it easier to regard the film as an exercise in technique… And at the time Downhill was made, absolutely no one else in the British cinema was working with this kind of cinematic imagination, telling a story with this mind-grabbing command of the medium’s possibilities—which, one senses, Hitch was incapable of not doing, even with a subject not at all to his taste.” John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Taylor captures the thoughts and feelings of this reviewer quite admirably. Downhill isn’t one of his better films, but it does give the Hitchcock fan an opportunity to watch a raw cinematic talent as he is discovering his voice.

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The Presentation:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Blu-ray disc is housed in the clear case that has become the standard for The Criterion Collection. Criterion is known for their brilliant tailor-made cover designs and Geoff Grandfield has designed a cover for The Lodger that mirrors the style of poster art used the silent era.

As is their habit, Criterion also includes an attractive fold-out pamphlet that features two interesting essays by Philip Kemp. The first of these is titled “The First True Hitchcock Movie” and focuses its attention on The Lodger. The second essay focuses on Downhill and is titled, “Playing for the Old Boys.” Both essays are worth reading as they should add to the viewer’s appreciation of both films despite the unfortunate fact that Kemp seems to be a blind devotee from the Spoto school of Hitchcock scholarship (if you can call it “scholarship”).

Menu

The disc’s menu utilizes a still image of the film’s title art, which actually works quite beautifully. This artwork is coupled with Neil Brand’s new score for the film, and the result is elegant in its simplicity.

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

As is Criterion’s usual practice, they provide information about their restoration work in the included pamphlet:

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. On widescreen televisions, black bars will appear on the left and right of the image to maintain the proper screen format. The digital transfer was made from the 2012 restoration undertaken by the BFI National Archive in association with ITV Studios Global Entertainment and Park Circus Films. A 35mm duplicate negative was scanned in 2K resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner at Deluxe 142 in London, where restoration also took place. The tint and tones of the original nitrate print have been reproduced in the digital intermediate grade. Principal restoration funding was provided by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and The Film Foundation, along with Simon W. Hessel…” –Liner Notes

The restoration was originally released by Network in the United Kingdom, but Criterion’s release is its North American debut. This is a very different restoration than the one included on MGM’s 2009 DVD release of the film as is indicated by the shorter duration and the fact that this particular transfer showcases less (and very different) tinting. This makes one wonder about the reason (or reasons) behind these differences. Was the film tinted differently in different territories? Was the MGM release artificially tinted by the restoration team? So many questions come to mind.

Luckily, this transfer is the superior of the two and North American Hitchcock fans now have reason to celebrate! When one considers the film’s age, this transfer seems almost like a minor miracle. The image exhibits a surprising level of detail, and the grain pattern appears natural and well resolved throughout the duration of the film. Depth is strong for such an old feature, and contrast is about as good as anyone should expect considering the film’s origins. The restoration team has eliminated most signs of aging, although a few small and insignificant blemishes such as scratches, debris, damage marks, and lines do occasionally appear. Compression never becomes problematic either.

Our only small criticism concerns Criterion’s choice of putting both The Lodger and Downhill on the same disc. This particular release probably warrants a 2-disc treatment. Each film could have probably benefited from the maximized bitrate that this would have allowed—although The Lodger is reasonably well represented at 29.36 Mbps.

Criterion also includes information about their transfer for Downhill:

 “Downhill is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. On widescreen televisions, black bars will appear on the left and right of the image to maintain the proper screen format. The digital transfer was made from 2012 restoration undertaken by the BFI National Archive in association with ITV Studios Global Entertainment and Park Circus Films. 35mm nitrate print reels were scanned in 2K resolution on an Oxberry wetgate film scanner at Haghefilm Digital in Amsterdam. Digital restoration of the picture and intertitles took place at Deluxe142 in London. The tints and tones of the original nitrate prints have been reproduced in the digital intermediate grade. Principal restoration funding was provided by Simon W. Hessel” –Liner Notes

The result is an extremely solid image transfer (even at the relatively low bitrate of 15.09 Mbps) of the film. It seems every bit as strong as The Lodger and some aspects of the image might very well be marginally superior. Depth, for example, is extremely solid and detail often impresses the realistic viewer. Density can occasionally be less than perfect, but one suspects that this is due to the irreversible ravages of time. Like their restoration of The Lodger, the team has cleaned the image of distracting anomalies and only the occasional scratch and speck of dust remains here. This is an extremely satisfying image transfer.

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Sound Quality:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Since original sound elements for silent films are usually nonexistent (as is the case with both The Lodger and Downhill), it has become the common practice to have new music written especially for these films. Whatever opinions one might have about this practice, it is admittedly the better of the two options available under the circumstances (the other being to simply release it without any sound track). This option at least allows the viewer a choice in the matter as one can simply mute their television sets if they don’t want outside sources to influence their viewing experience.

Criterion includes information about the included score for both films in their liner notes:

“Neil Brand’s score for The Lodger is presented in stereo sound. It was performed by Brand and the Orchestra of Saint Paul’s and conducted by Ben Palmer, with score preparation by Thomas Hewitt Jones. The performance was recorded at Eastcote Studios in London by producer Brand and engineer George Murphy…

…[His] piano score for Downhill is presented in stereo sound. It was performed by Brand and recorded at Eastcote Studios in London by engineer George Murphy.” –Liner Notes

The score for The Lodger is presented in a 2.0 Linear PCM audio transfer and is the more robust of the two tracks (and the only one presented in an uncompressed format. Since it is an orchestral score, the lossless environment gives the music more room to breathe and sounds fantastic.

Downhill is presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital and is therefore compressed, but it still sounds great. It is a simple piano score and requires less room to breathe than his orchestral score for The Lodger. This is another area that might have benefited from a two-disc Blu-ray release, but one shouldn’t be as critical about the standard definition soundtrack for this film as they might be if this were a talking picture with original sound design. After all, these scores are in all actuality third-party supplemental features that have nothing to do with the original film.

SS04

Special Features:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Downhill (1927)

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A 2K digital restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 follow-up to The Lodger is included on the disc as one of the film’s “special features,” and it adds an inordinate amount of value to the disk.

In addition to this bonus feature, Criterion includes over 2 hours and 51 minutes of additional video and audio based material that should fascinate fans of Alfred Hitchcock.

William Rothman: Hitchcock’s Visual Signatures – (32:54)

William Rothman discusses the visual signatures in The Lodger and how they can be found in many of the director’s later films. Scenes are dissected and analyzed in a scholarly manner, and even those who disagree with some of Rothman’s rhetoric will find something here to enhance their appreciation of the master’s work.

Interestingly, it seems that Rothman subscribes to the opinion that it is indeed Alfred Hitchcock who is seen in the angry mob at the film’s climax. This is certainly questionable and this fact calls some of his interpretations of this particular scene into question (which is unfortunate).

The Bunting House: Space and Structure in ‘The Lodger’(17:42)

Steven Jacobs (author of The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock) offers a rather comprehensive examination of Alfred Hitchcock’s use of architecture in The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog and offers comparisons to some of the master’s later work. The German influence is discussed and a diagram of the bunting home is even offered as Jacobs discusses the dream-like inconsistencies some of the film’s geography. It probably won’t appeal to all viewers as Steven Jacobs speaks with a rather unusual and distracting accent that only exacerbates what might be seen as an overly dry and academic tone. However, those who enjoy theoretical analysis will no doubt find their appreciation of the film enhanced.

François Truffaut Interviews Alfred Hitchcock – (26:23)

Interview1

Those who have been collecting Hitchcock films on Blu-ray will know exactly what to expect from this excellent excerpt from François Truffaut’s legendary book length interview with the master of suspense. This portion of the interview predictably concentrates on The Lodger, and it is an extremely interesting discussion that betrays Hitchcock’s genuine affection for the film.

Criterion presents the interview over a sepia-tinted silent film styled title card that says “François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock.” This allows Criterion to utilize less disc space, but these interviews often play better when they are illustrated with photos and film footage. However, this is merely a small complaint. The important thing is that they have included what has become an essential part of any Hitchcock release.

Peter Bogdanovich Interviews Alfred Hitchcock

Interview2

Criterion includes excerpts from two separate interviews and presents them over blue-tinted silent film styled title cards that say “Peter Bogdanovich and Alfred Hitchcock.” This is essentially the same style of presentation given to the Truffaut interview. Each interview is presented over a blue-tinted title card that says “François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock.”

It is surprising to discover that these two interviews are more comprehensive discussions about Alfred Hitchcock’s early life and career. In fact, there is very little overlap with Truffaut’s interview. Frankly, the information discussed in these interviews is richer and more revealing than the excerpt from Truffaut’s interview with the director (and the opposite is usually true).

1963 Interview(19:42)

1972 Interview(20:58)

Radio Adaptation of The Lodger (1940) – (30:48)

Alfred Hitchcock directs this radio adaptation of Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger for the July 22, 1940 pilot episode of Suspense—which would become a CBS Radio series. Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent was set for release and the radio program would serve as a promotion for the film (which explains the presence of Herbert Marshall as Mr. Sleuth and Edmund Gwenn as Robert Bunting). Interestingly, Gwen was cast in the same role given to his brother, Arthur Chesney, in Hitchcock’s original film version.

It is an interesting radio drama and has the added interest of being directed by Hitchcock himself (who rarely worked in radio). It adds an enormous amount of value to the disc.

Neil Brand: Scoring Hitchcock’s The Lodger(22:37)

The least interesting addition to the disc is this rather comprehensive interview with Neil Brand about the new score that he provided for The Lodger. Since this discussion is less about the film itself and more about Brand’s thought process while composing a new score for silent films, it is bound to disappoint those who are essentially looking for information or analysis about Hitchcock’s breakthrough film. However, anyone interested in a detailed account of the work that went into Brand’s score will no doubt be impressed.

SS05

Final Words:

The Lodger is Alfred Hitchcock’s best and most important silent film and Criterion’s release contains a strong transfer, instructive supplemental material, and Downhill (the director’s follow-up feature). This is an incredible release that has been a long time coming! We hope that cinephiles can expect Criterion releases of some of the master’s other British thrillers in the near future.

Review by: Devon Powell

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Source Material:

Staff Writer (Another Fine British Film: A Murder Novel Screened, Daily Mail, September 15, 1926)

Staff Writer (New British Film: Ivor Novello in ‘The Lodger,’ Nottingham Evening Post, September 15, 1926)

Staff Writer (The Times, January 18, 1927)

Iris Barry (Downhill: A Clever British Film, Daily Mail, May 25, 1927)

Staff Writer (The Cinema World: New German and British Pictures, Yorkshire Post, May 31, 1927)

C.A.L. (The Guardian, June 11, 1927)

Staff Writer (The Cinema World, Yorkshire Post, June 14, 1927)

Staff Writer (The Times, October 12, 1927)

Staff Writer (Downhill at the Elite Theatre, Hastings and St. Leonards Observer, October 22, 1927)

Staff Writer (Around Dundee Cinemas, Dundee Evening Telegraph, January 10, 1928)

Staff Writer (Sydney Morning Herald, February 20, 1928)

Staff Writer (Ivor Novello Superb, Australian River Record, August 17, 1928)

Staff Writer (Empire Theatre: Downhill, Queensland Morning Bulletin, October 23, 1928)

Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 01-05, 1937)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 1977)

John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks, 1999)

Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock, 1995)

Thomas Leitch (Hitchcock from Stage to Page, Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Barton Palmer and David Boyd (Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Blu-ray Review: Family Plot

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: December 03, 2013

Region: Region A

Length: 02:00:04

Video: 1080P (VC-1)

Main Audio: English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio: French Mono DTS

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

Notes: This title has had a number of DVD releases and is also available on Blu-ray as part of a boxed set entitled The Masterpiece Collection. The transfer used for the boxed set is the same one that is included here and the disc includes the same special features. The artwork on the actual disc is the only thing different about this release.

01 - Title

“I didn’t say, ‘I’d like to do a kidnapping film.’ What interested me about a story like Family Plot was that it was two sides of a triangle meeting at a certain point… That was the shape of the film, and the climax — the apex came when these two totally unrelated elements came together. And they came together just as the leading lady rings the front door bell of the house which contains a kidnapped bishop. And that’s what appealed to me was the structure of this story, and the kidnapping and all those elements were part of it but certainly no great inspiration to me.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Family Plot Press Conference, March 23rd, 1976)

It is interesting that Alfred Hitchcock would follow the dark and cynical Frenzy with the light and whimsical Family Plot. While it is true that there is a fair amount of cynicism in Family Plot, it is filtered through a rather optimistic lens. This is especially true when one compares it with Alfred Hitchcock’s source of inspiration for the film. The script was adapted from Victor Canning’s “The Rainbird Pattern,” but the differences between the novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s film go far beyond any changes that were made to the plot (and there were many). The tone of the novel was dark and pessimistic about much more than the characters and situations described in Canning’s story. Practically every character is met with a bitter end. It was much more in keeping with the tone of Frenzy. One can only speculate as to the director’s reasoning behind turning the film into a light entertainment, but I believe that it indicates a level of hope possessed by the 76 year old Hitchcock… or perhaps I merely hope that this is what it represents.

Considering that his intention was to create a much lighter entertainment, it seems somewhat unusual that he should ask his former Frenzy collaborator to help him turn his ideas for his new project into a screenplay.

“After deciding on The Rainbird Pattern, the director offered the script assignment to Anthony Shaffer, who read the book but balked at ‘the sort of version that Hitch was describing – a sort of light, Noel Coward – Madame Arcati thing with Margaret Rutherford.’ … Shaffer agreed to think about it, but he had flashed the wrong signals, and Hitchcock phoned him a week later to say that his agent had made excessive demands. Shaffer felt Hitchcock was dissembling in order to avoid later confrontation over his approach.” -Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Hitchcock rebounded from Shaffer with ease, and decided to contact a more appropriate collaborator: Ernest Lehman. It isn’t difficult to follow his train of thought. After all, Lehman had worked on North by Northwest with the director.

“I felt very comfortable being back with him. However, before long I realized that our relationship was quite different. Many years had passed. We had both had successes and failures. We were different people now.” –Ernest Lehman (as quoted by Patrick McGilligan in “Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light,” 2003)

Despite the changes in both men, Alfred Hitchcock’s working method was very much the same as it had been while the two men were writing North by Northwest.

“The first forty-five minutes… are always warm up time, during which neither of you would dare commit the gross unpardonable sin of mentioning the work at hand. There are more attractive matters to be discussed first… How much more pleasurable [was this conversation], than to have to sit there, sometimes in terribly long silences, trying to devise ‘Hitchcockian’ methods of extricating fictional characters from the corners into which you painted them the day before.’ –Ernest Lehman (as quoted by Patrick McGilligan in “Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light,” 2003)

It was usually Lehman that launched the conversation into writing-mode, and the men would trade ideas for whatever script problems that they were facing on that particular day (with Hitchcock having final say). When Lehman made suggestions of his own, it created a different kind of suspense for the writer.

“…You begin to talk, and he watches you, and he listens, and you watch him carefully, and you continue, and finally you’ve said it all. And then [Hitchcock] does one of several things. His face lights up with enthusiasm. Good sign. Or his face remains unchanged. Question mark. Or he says absolutely nothing about what you have just told him, and talks about another aspect of the picture. Pocket veto. Or he looks at you with great sympathy, and says, ‘But Ernie, that’s the way they do it in the movies.’” –Ernest Lehman (as quoted by Patrick McGilligan in “Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light,” 2003)

Both men had rather robust egos. Lehman really didn’t like being subordinate to Alfred Hitchcock, and preferred to write things the way that he wanted to write them. However, when one writes with Hitchcock it is understood that they are there to write what he tells them to write.

“‘I found myself refusing to accept Hitch’s ideas (if I thought they were wrong),’ Lehman recalled later, ‘merely because those ideas were coming from a legendary figure.’ The writer had grown weary of Hitchcock overanalysing everything, and he simply wanted the go-ahead to finish. The silences between them grew longer, the disagreements awkward…

…Privately Hitchcock had decided that Lehman was ‘a very nervous and edgy sort of man’ who was deliberately giving him ‘a rather difficult time,’ as he complained in a letter to Michael Balcon in England. When he suffered a heart attack in September, Hitchcock went do far as to blame the episode (only half kiddingly, it seems) on the constant ‘nervous state’ induced by his arguments with Lehman.” -Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Whether not the tense relationship between these two men actually had an impact on the final script is up for debate, but there it seems to have left its mark on the film’s infamous ending.

“…Again Lehman toyed from time to time with the idea of resigning, and was persuaded back, grumbling but still fascinated. He ended incredulous at all the agony which had gone into the creation of such a slight picture, and amazed that so little of it showed. Finally, his main difference of opinion with Hitchcock was over the ending, which Hitch eventually wrote himself and submitted to Lehman, listened to his objections (mainly that the medium is shown throughout to be a fake, so to suggest that maybe she has a touch of psychic power is disturbingly inconsistent), discussed his alternate solutions, and then went right ahead and used his own version.” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Although, Hitchcock used the ending that he had written without Lehman, the writer’s issues were addressed in post-production.

“… [This] led to some redubbing in the New Year when the Hitchcock’s returned from their annual pilgrimage to St. Moritz. On a shot of Adamson’s back as he carries the drugged Blanche to captivity after she has tumbled to his true identity was dubbed a line referring to the diamond in the chandelier (not in the shooting script), which could just possibly explain away Blanche’s final revelation – maybe she was not completely unconscious at the time or heard the remark unawares. When Ernest Lehman saw the film he was unhappy with the line, and suggested something less contrived–sounding, while admitting that any line at this point was necessary contrivance. The line was re-dubbed using one of Lehman’s suggestions…” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Of course, writing Alfred Hitchcock’s “53rd feature” was the easy part (regardless of what the director might say in publicity interviews). The seventies were a challenging decade for the director, and both he and Alma suffered quite a few health related scares. He was in the midst of several of these scares while preparing Family Plot (which was entitled Deceit during the film’s production).

“…Hitch had a succession of health problems that put him in and out of the hospital for most of the autumn –first, he had a heart pacer fitted, which he delights to show with some gruesome details of the surgical process involved. Then, as a result of a bad reaction to the antibiotics he was given, he got colitis, and once over that he had a kidney stone removed…

…By December 1974, when I saw him again, the production was moving toward its final stages of preparedness. The script was pretty well fixed, for the moment (the final production script bears evidence of some intensive final polishing around the end of March and the beginning of April 1975, but nearly all in matters of detail)…” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Hitchcock’s health would have a large impact on how the film would be shot. The director had originally planned quite a bit of location shooting, but it became obvious to everyone that the production would have to be tied to the studio. Of course, there were a few noteworthy exceptions.

“…The image of Grace Cathedral remained for the Bishop’s kidnapping, and with it some other unobtrusively San Francisco locations for the houses of various characters. At one time Hitch even considered doing the cathedral sequence in the studio, on the principal that all he really needed was one column and the rest could be matted in. But he discovered that in the studio the sequence would cost $200,000, so he decided he might as well go on location, and while he was there himself shoot the other San Francisco exteriors, which had formerly been assigned to the second unit.” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Special preparations were taken by the studio to ensure that Hitchcock could get around with relative ease. Thom Mount elaborated on some of the special measures that were taken to writer, Charlotte Chandler.

“…Mr. Hitchcock had a very hard time standing up for any lengthy period of time. Walking was not his strong suit by that time, so we took an old Cadillac convertible and a welding torch, and we cut the sides, and the back off of it, fitted a flat platform on the back of the Cadillac, and on that flat platform we put a chair for a cinematographer, as if it were a crane that was mounted on a hydraulic lift. Mr. Hitchcock would sit in the chair and move himself around in any direction and see in all directions. The Cadillac was moved all around the soundstage, even though they were interiors, just backing it into place, wherever it needed to be. And so Mr. Hitchcock could move around” –Thom Mount (as quoted by Charlotte Chandler in “It’s Only A Movie,” 2006)

"I never realized I would be working so hard at this age." –Alfred Hitchcock (Anniston Star, August 24, 1975)

“I never realized I would be working so hard at this age.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Anniston Star, August 24, 1975)

There were other issues to consider as well. Hitchcock took special care to go over his visual plans with his storyboard artist, Tom Wright. This was particularly true of the car “chase sequence,” because Hitchcock’s health issues would make it impossible to be present during some of the shooting of this particular sequence. It was necessary for the storyboards to be an exact replica of his vision, because the second unit would need them to follow Hitchcock’s design down to the last detail.

Even with these health issues as a handicap, the old master seemed sharp as a tack mentally. He even seemed maintain his equanimity while shooting the location footage at Grace Cathedral.

“The extras, as is the way with extras, want to act, to make the most of their few seconds [of] screen time with elaborate reactions, and dare to attempt discussion of motivation with the director… At one point, when the abduction of the Bishop is actually taking place, some extras at the back ask him to describe what is happening so that they will know how to react. ‘Can you see what’s happening?’ No. ‘Then there you are. You can’t see what’s happening, you just have a vague idea that something is. You don’t have to react beyond a slight show of curiosity.’” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Crowd scenes are always difficult, and to be able to direct a large number of people in a relatively short period of time takes more than just a small amount of mental stamina. This was always one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most accessible tools. Unfortunately, the production was not without a reasonable amount of stress, and there are certain problems that take more than mental prowess. Sometimes difficult decisions have to be made.

“Shortly after the successful location shooting in San Francisco some unexpected troubles arose with the shooting, acknowledged in a brief press announcement dated 13 June which stated that the character portrayed by Roy Thinnes had ‘undergone a conceptual change calling for a new character concept’ to be played by William Devane… Stories vary as to what lay behind this change, which necessitated reshooting and put the film, up to then a few days ahead of schedule, rather behind. (It was originally scheduled to take fifty-eight days to shoot, and the budget envisaged was a modest three and a half million, of which Hitch wryly remarked, about $550,000 would go on fringe benefits of various kinds that never show on the screen.)” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

One of the stories as to the reason that Thinnes had been re-cast with Devane was published on June 18, 1975 in Variety (a source that isn’t always particularly accurate). According to Variety, “Alfred Hitchcock and Roy Thinnes disagreed on the interpretation of the young actor’s role in Deceit after a scene in San Francisco… Actor’s don’t tell Hitch; he tells them.” However, the Athens News Courier would quote Hitchcock giving a less dramatic reason for the actor’s replacement in an article published on June 1, 1976: “That came from miscasting on my part. He didn’t have a sinister quality.”

“…Given Hitch’s absolute and abiding horror of scenes and confrontations, it seems very unlikely that [a confrontation with Thinnes about the character] occurred, but rather that Hitch put into practice his often stated principal that if he found he was not getting what he wanted from an actor his natural way of dealing with the situation would be to pay the actor off and start again with someone else. A spectator did describe to me the nearest thing to a confrontation when Roy Thinnes cornered Hitch at his regular table at Chasens’ during one of his regular Thursday dinners to ask him in some distress, ‘why?’ Hitch, equally distressed, just kept saying, ‘but you were too nice for the role, too nice.’” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Luckily, Hitchcock was particularly fond of both Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern. He allowed both actors a certain amount of freedom to interpret their characters, and his relationship with both of these actors was one of genuine affection based on mutual admiration and respect.

“I’ve made thirty films, and he’s the best director I’ve ever worked for. He’s also the most entertaining man, the best actor. He’s got style and personality, and he’s full of stories. Of course, people say he allows no freedom to actors. But there’s all the freedom in the world once you understand the ground rules. He explains what the shot is supposed to say and what you’re supposed to do. Then you give it! If you couldn’t do it, you wouldn’t be working for him in the first place. Nothing is left to chance except the actor’s improvisation. He’s concerned that the actor keep it fresh, alive, [and] new. He wants each shot to entertain him – then he knows the audience will be entertained.” – Bruce Dern (as quoted by Donald Spoto in “The Art of Alfred Hitchcock,” 1976)

Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed working with both Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern.

Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed working with both Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern.

When the picture wrapped on the 18th of August, the production was only thirteen days over schedule. Luckily, the title was changed from Deceit to Family Plot at some point during the film’s creation. The latter title was suggested by someone in Universal’s publicity department after Hitchcock had expressed his dissatisfaction with the original title. After making a market inquiry into the effectiveness of Deceit as a possible title, Hitchcock’s instinct was proven accurate. It didn’t seem to be an effective title for this particular film.

“I felt the word ‘Deceit’ suggested a bedroom farce. It suggested – It was rather a mild word. It didn’t carry any meaning with it. Pictorially, when one began to think about the word, ‘Deceit,’ there you had the woman in bed, the husband entering the bedroom, and the lover secreted behind the curtain… and that to me epitomized the word ‘Deceit.’ It wasn’t good, I didn’t think.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Family Plot Press Conference, March 23rd, 1976)

Alfred Hitchcock never really recovered from his falling out with Bernard Herrmann, and it was rather late in the post production process when John Williams was finally asked to provide a score for the film.

“Mr. Hitchcock had his office here at Universal Studios. And so he apparently needed a composer for this Family Plot, and the executive those years in charge of music was a gentleman called Harry Garfield. So, it was Harry Garfield who recommended me as a newcomer, just having done Jaws, a very successful film, to Mr. Hitchcock. And I went to see him at his office, and we had lunch and had a chat and I left not knowing if he would engage me to do this or not. Then I got a call from Mr. Garfield the next day. It said, Hitchcock, yes, he would like you to do the score.” –John Williams (Plotting Family Plot)

The composer found the experience of working with Alfred Hitchcock instructive, and is valuable as evidence against the insane claim that Alfred Hitchcock didn’t have an ear for music. He was in fact very aware of how different kinds of music altered a scene’s tone. He was also very aware of the effect that the absence of music could have upon the audience.

“I could tell you one little anecdote, also, about a scene in the film where we didn’t have a disagreement about where the music should play but a discussion. There was a room where the criminal had been, and the camera pans to the window, which is open. And the curtains blow in the breeze, and this reveal of the camera tells us the criminal has escaped.

But the orchestra was playing to drive the energy to people to go to discover where the criminal is. Driving, driving, driving… through the point where the camera goes through the door. And I continued the music when the camera panned to the window, playing it more. And he said, “You know, if you stop the music when the camera pans to the window, “the silence will tell us that it’s empty — he’s gone — more emphatically, more powerfully than any musical phrase.” And, of course, just the absence of music at that point… It was a wonderful lesson, really, in where to arrange the parts of the music in any film, which we call “spotting,” incidentally. That is to say, the spots are where the music is.” –John Williams (Plotting Family Plot)

Reporter: “What is the mandatory retirement age for a director in Hollywood?”  Hitchcock: “I would say, reel twelve.”  -Family Plot Press Conference, March 23rd, 1976)

Reporter: “What is the mandatory retirement age for a director in Hollywood?”
Hitchcock: “I would say, reel twelve.”
-Family Plot Press Conference (March 23rd, 1976)

When the film debuted on March 18, 1976 for a University of Sothern California preview audience, Hitchcock was quite happy with the student audience’s enthusiastic reaction. The director’s optimism cemented when Family Plot officially premièred opened at the benefit opening of ‘Filmex’ (Los Angeles International Film Festival) on March 21, 1976. The reaction here was also quite enthusiastic, and it looked like the director might have a hit on his hands.

Of course, an early review that was published in Variety on the December 31, 1975 had probably already spearheaded his optimum several months before the film was even released.

Family Plot is a dazzling achievement for Alfred Hitchcock masterfully controlling shifts from comedy to drama throughout a highly complex plot. Witty screenplay, transplanting Victor Canning’s British novel, The Rainbird Pattern, to a California setting, is a model of construction, and the cast is uniformly superb.

Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris are the couple who receive primary attention, a cabbie and a phony psychic trying to find the long-lost heir to the Rainbird fortune.

Dern is a more than slightly absurd figure, oddly appealing; Harris is sensational.

William Devane takes a high place in the roster of Hitchcockian rogues, while Karen Black, gives a deep resonance to her relationship with the mercurial Devane.” –Variety (December 31, 1975)

Vincent Canby also wrote an affectionate review for the New York Times, following the film’s release to the public.

“Not since To Catch a Thief and The Trouble with Harry has Alfred Hitchcock been in such benign good humor as he is in Family Plot, the old master’s 56th feature since he began directing films in 1922.

Family Plot, which opened at theaters all over town yesterday, is a witty, relaxed lark. It’s a movie to raise your spirits even as it dabbles in phony ones, especially those called forth by Blanche (Barbara Harris), a sweet, pretty, totally fraudulent Los Angeles medium, who nearly wrecks her vocal cords when possessed by a control whose voice sounds like Sidney Greenstreet’s.

But Family Plot isn’t about anything as esoteric as spiritualism and its sometimes wayward votaries. It’s about good, old-fashioned greed, or, how to work very, very hard in order to make your fortune illegally. It’s one of the many invigorating ironies of Family Plot that its con people are so obsessed by their criminal pursuits they never realize the easier way would probably be the lawful one. Then, of course, there would be no plot, and a high regard for plot is one of the distinguishing joys of both Hitchcock and this new film…

…Blanche and Lumley, merged, make a single bird-brain, but one whom heaven protects and fortune smiles on. As performed by Miss Harris and Mr. Dern, they are two of the most appealing would-be rascals that Hitchcock had even given us. For that matter so are Adamson and Fran (she has no last name, which leaves her matrimonial state in Old World, gentlemanly doubt). Though Adamson is portrayed as being perfectly willing to murder, when cornered, he never succeeds, and Fran is the kind of kidnapper who prepares gourmet meals for her involuntary guests. The four are extremely good company, like Hitchcock himself when, in an expansive, genial, storytelling mood, even his digressions have digressions, but always to the point of some higher entertainment truth.

Hitchcock aficionados may well miss signs of the director’s often overanalyzed pessimism. Family Plot is certainly Hitchcock’s most cheerful film in a long time, but it’s hardly innocent. One of the things that figure prominently in the plot, though it happens long before the film starts, is the story of a young man who, finding his stepparents boring, pours gasoline all over the house and incinerates the offending pair. It’s a small thing, perhaps, but it continues the master’s franchise on the macabre.” –Vincent Canby (New York Times, April 10, 1976)

Roger Ebert was also positive in his statements about the film, giving it three out of four stars.

“Alfred Hitchcock has always preferred visuals to dialog, yet Family Plot opens on a talkative note. A medium, the slightly spaced-out Madame Blanche, is holding a séance with an eccentric old lady. They’re in the old lady’s parlor, surrounded by antiques and heirlooms and an abundance of deep shadows, and the old lady is involved in this incredibly complicated tale about events of years ago.

It appears that her late sister had an illegitimate child and, times being what they were, the child was given up for adoption. Then the sister died, and the child was lost track of, and now the old lady is afraid of dying and wants to make amends by willing her vast fortune to the child. Madame Blanche’s assignment: Find the missing nephew. He’d be almost 40 now.

If this were to be a routine story, the medium no doubt would recruit someone to play the missing nephew, and they’d share the vast fortune. But, no, this is a Hitchcock, so that would be far too simple. Madame Blanche does the unexpected thing: She sets out to find the nephew. And, as wonderfully played by Barbara Harris, she has such a sweet and simple faith in the possibility of everything that we almost think she’s right. She enlists the aid of her rather slow-witted boyfriend (Bruce Dern), a cabdriver and sometime actor. He’ll do the detective work, she’ll keep the old lady happy and they’ll share a $10,000 reward.

Now comes a nice touch. As Blanche and her boyfriend drive home in a cab, they almost run down a woman. They miss and drive on, but the camera follows the woman. She is, inevitably, the wife of none other than the missing nephew. And the two of them are involved in a series of kidnappings with precious jewels as the ransom.

The way Hitchcock cuts, just like that, from one pair to the other — cheerfully flaunting the coincidence – reminds me a little of Luis Bunuel’s recent The Phantom of Liberty. It’s as if both directors, now in their 70s and in total command of their styles, have decided to dispense with explanations from time to time: Why waste time making things tiresomely plausible when you can simply present them as accomplished?

Family Plot opens, as I’ve suggested, with a rather large amount of talking, but it’s necessary to lay out the elements of the story. Hitchcock has a deviously complicated tale to tell, and he’s going to tell it with labyrinthine detail, and he’s not going to cheat — so he wants to be sure we’re following him. It wouldn’t be playing fair with his meticulously constructed plot to describe very much of what happens, but there’s a real delight in watching him draw his two sets of characters closer and closer, until they meet in a conclusion that’s typical Hitchcock: simultaneously unexpected and inevitable.

But I can, I suppose, admire a scene or two. There’s a moment in a graveyard, for example, when a gravedigger appears almost from out of Hamlet to regard a suspicious tombstone with the investigating cabdriver. Another moment in the same cemetery, as the cabdriver and a newly made widow stalk each other on grass paths, with Hitchcock shooting from above to make them seem captives of a maze. And a scene in a cathedral that’s Hitchcock at his best: A bishop is kidnapped, and no one moves to interfere because… well, this is a church, after all.

As his kidnappers and jewel thieves, Hitchcock casts Karen Black and William Devane. She does a good job in a role that doesn’t give her much to do, but Devane, whom I hadn’t seen before, is inspired as the criminal mastermind and missing nephew. He has a kind of quiet, pleasant, sinister charm; he’s oily and smooth and ready to pounce. And his aura of evil contrasts nicely with Miss Harris and Dern, who have no idea what sorts of trouble they’re in.

Family Plot is, incredibly, Hitchcock’s 53rd film in a career that reaches back almost 50 years. 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.

Everything’s laid out for us and made clear, we understand the situation we can see where events are leading… and then, in the last 30 minutes, he springs one concealed trap after another, allowing his story to fold in upon itself, to twist and turn, and scare and amuse us with its clockwork irony.” –Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun Times, April 12, 1976)

Other reviews, such as the one published in the Independent Film Journal were also enthusiastic.

“For his 53rd film, Alfred Hitchcock has toned down the shock value and accentuated the humor in a deliciously complex comedy-suspense drama that will have audiences happily perched in the palm of its hand nearly every step of the way. Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern sparkle as two innocent tricksters whose search for a missing heir suddenly parallels the path of a pair of professional kidnappers. Great fun and bound to be a great hit.

Don’t be too surprised if this year’s Easter Bunny is portlier than usual, complete with multiple chins, a proudly out-jutting belly and only a few wisps of grey hair remaining on his scalp. Chances are he’s shown up in the trademarked form of Alfred Hitchcock, beckoning audiences to Family Plot, a beautifully constructed, literately witty and thoroughly involving comedy suspense-drama crafted with the sure hands of a an impudent genius. Moving even further away from the shuddery sensibilities of his best-known films, Hitchcock seems to have approached his 53rd feature in a mellow and benign mood, spinning his complex web of suspense with a far greater accent on rich humor than on shock value, as if he didn’t want his audiences to feel even vaguely threatened or uncomfortable en route to their final catharsis. Stated simply, Family Plot promises those audiences one hell of a good time and should prove a rousing success at the box-office. The discomforting sense of menace may be missing, but in most respects Family Plot is still quintessential Hitchcock, a complex plot that begins as a tantalizing mystery, allows itself to be solved for the viewer relatively early on, and then shifts to pure suspense as its convoluted threads inexorably weave themselves together.

Beautifully scripted by Ernest Lehman from Victor Canning’s novel, The Rainbird Pattern, the film again taps that steady thematic vein that continually resurfaces in Hitchcock’s work: what happens when relatively innocent bystanders find themselves unwittingly—and dangerously—enmeshed in someone else’s criminal goings-on. In this case, the action cuts back and forth between two sets of protagonists, one of them greedy but basically innocent, the other coldly criminal, with both combinations destined to clash trajectories. The heroes of the piece, superbly played by Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris, are a beguiling pair of lower-echelon con artists contriving to track down the missing heir to a dowager’s fortune and hoping to earn a $10,000 finder’s fee for their trouble…

…More often than not, the intricate plot turns and quirks of character are far wittier and deliciously entertaining than they are tension-provoking, a fact that may momentarily disappoint serious Hitchophiles expecting artfully visualized set pieces like the shower stabbing in Psycho or the potato truck scene in Frenzy. But the story is definitely the thing, and even if a key scene in which Dern and Harris are pursued down the highway by a murderous car doesn’t sustain itself long enough to muster any great emotional payoff, there are more than enough ingenious twists and a firm enough overlay of suspense to keep viewers raptly entertained from beginning to end.

Brightening things considerably, and providing two of the most engaging characters ever to fill Hitchcock’s viewfinder, are Dern and Harris as a pair of good-hearted bumblers whose liveliness and emotional range firmly counters the kind of cool, cipher-like performances the director is noted for wanting from his actors. As their destined nemesis Devane checks in effectively as another suave but despicable Hitchcock villain, while Black, as his suddenly rebellious partner, conforms more closely to the cipher quality mentioned above. Strong support comes from Ed Lauter as Devane’s psychotically traditional henchman.

Technical credits, barring some of those curiously sloppy process shots Hitchcock seems to relish so much, are excellent, highlighted by a deliciously taunting score by John Williams. Piece by piece and in overall effect, Family Plot is as solid an entertainment as any audience—at any level—could ever hope for.” -S.K. (The Independent Film Journal, April 14, 1976)

Even Penelope Gilliatt’s review for The New Yorker was generous in its kindness towards Family Plot.

“With a kick on a cemetery headstone that has no body below (‘Fake! Fake!’ shouts the kicker), and a gentle, lethal plopping of brake fluid, the sound track of Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot firmly plants us in a world in which the hallowed is a hoax and the mechanically sophisticated is dangerous to treat as a plaything. Hitchcock has never made a strategically wittier film, or a fonder; and this in his seventy-seventh year.

The beginning reminds us that the Master has always wanted to direct, of all things, J. M. Barrie’s Mary Rose; and, though he once cheerfully informed me that he has it in his studio agreement that he is not allowed to film the play, the wily old jackdaw has managed to smuggle a whit of Barrie’s fantasy into his new comedy-mystery. Mary Rose hears voices calling her from another world; at the beginning of Family Plot, when Barbara Harris, as a ravishingly pretty and constantly famished con-woman spiritualist named Blanche, is conducting a séance with a loaded old biddy named Miss Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt), Blanche speaks in the voices of a woman and a man from the Great Beyond. The voices confirm Miss Rainbird’s guilt about having long ago covered up the illegitimate birth of an heir to the Rainbird fortune. Then Blanche, exhausted by her bogus insights, returns from the Other Side and gratefully accepts a drink. ‘A double shot of anything.’

Blanche works hard to make her wide-eyed living out of the dead. The offer of a reward of ten thousand dollars if she can find the missing heir is an amazing windfall. She generally manages frugally. Her boyfriend (Bruce Dern) drives a taxi. They exist on hamburger-munching and sex, both of which are perpetually being interrupted by twists in the Rainbird-heir mystery and by shift-work for the taxi company. The Bruce Dern character, called Lumley, puts up with deprivation better than his girl, whose temperament endearingly refutes generalities about women being too finely bred to have appetites. Blanche is a girl of simple longings whom fate keeps calorically and erotically ravenous.

Hitchcock has always thrived on making stories about couples. In Family Plot — written by Ernest Lehman, from an English novel by Victor Canning which has been transplanted to California — we see how his attitude toward casting has changed. Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern occupy the places that would once have been held by Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, or Kim Novak and James Stewart. The part of the glossy blonde (Karen Black) is now villainous, and the glossy blondness is a matter of a wig. Called Fran, she is in murderous collusion with a smooth diamond thief named Adamson (William Devane). Another couple. The two pairs are piercingly different. Blanche and Lumley adore each other, though they often seem about to throw lamps at each other; Fran and Adamson are partners in crime who cherish little love for each other and talk to each other with a formality that is eerily violent. There being no chivalry among thieves, Adamson unblinkingly sends Fran on dangerous missions by herself, for which she wears six-inch heels, black clothes, and the blond wig: at one’s first glimpse of her in this disguise she looks as if she might well be a man in drag. The music-hall sight is funnily linked to the way Blanche’s voice suddenly hits an air pocket and comes out as a baritone’s at the opening séance…

…[Hitchcock] often has a wryly amused view of women’s scares. I remember that he was once showing me his kitchen in Bel Air. Everything was spick-and-span. Not a cornflake visible. A desert for cockroaches. He opened a door, and icy air steamed out. The freezer locker: a whole room. I saw hams and sides of beef hanging from hooks like rich women’s fur coats in summer storage. Hitchcock courteously bowed me in first. I hesitated and looked back, imagining the door clanging shut behind me. He knew what I was thinking, and I knew that he knew. A Hitchcock scene was in our imaginations, and an equally Hitchcock flash of irrational fear had come to pass.

Each of his films has been full of moments of red-herring disquiet, but he has never laid such a bland set of ambushes as in Family Plot. The Master makes unsettling use of an oaken-looking woman in a jeweller’s shop, whom Blanche cheerfully asks if her sign is Leo; of a brick wall that comes open and then closes hermetically, causing steep claustrophobia; of a remote-control garage-door gadget; of a fragment of bishop’s red robe shut in the bottom of a car door in a garage, making one think of the gaudy socks of the unlosable corpse in The Trouble with Harry (1955); of an overhead shot of a weeping woman hurrying through a maze of paths in a cemetery, pursued by Bruce Dern; of a woman physician, a disgruntled old man in shirtsleeves, and identical-twin mechanics, who are successive false trails in Blanche’s chase; of a genteel chiming doorbell on the front door of the thieves’ house. Hitchcock’s ominous mechanical devices and his dark clues leading nowhere build up in us a farcical discomfiture. We are like oversensitive princesses troubled by peas under mattresses.

But Family Plot does not rest on the fostering of anxiety. Hitchcock allows himself a camaraderie with the audience which makes this film one of the saltiest and most endearing he has ever directed. It is typical of the picture that he should have the sagacity and technique to bring the terrifying car incident to such an un-troubling close. Only a very practiced poet of suspense could slacken the fear without seeming to cheat, and end the sequence without using calamity. With this picture, he shows us that he understands the secret of the arrow that leaves no wound and of the joke that leaves no scar. 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. There is something particularly true-pitched in his use of the talent of Barbara Harris. She has never before seemed so fully used. The film finishes on her, as it begins. She goes mistily upstairs in pursuit of the enormous diamond that the villains have stolen. Lumley watches her. She seems to be in a trance. Maybe she has got supernatural powers, after all. She brings off a clairvoyant’s coup, though we know more than her lover, does. He is purely delighted by her. A Hitchcock film has seldom had a more pacific ending. –Penelope Gilliatt (The New Yorker, April 19, 1976)

Critics in Alfred Hitchcock’s native home seemed to also enjoy the film. One such example would be this rave review from The Times:

“Seventy-seven last Friday, Alfred Hitchcock has yielded to age none of his mastery as storyteller. He still possesses the supreme gift of suspense, in the sense of sustaining, at every moment, curiosity about what comes next. Because it’s played for light comedy going on farce, Family Plot risks being pigeon-holed as a frolic, a minor work in the old master’s canon. Time, I guess, may well accord it a central place. It has the geometric ingenuity of the later American work, along with the delight in quirky character that marked Hitchcock’s British period.

Derived from a novel by Victor Canning and scripted by Ernest Lehman, it maneuvers its plot into a symmetrical situation of two couples who are at once pursuing and pursued by each other. Barbara Harris (rather like a younger and funnier Shelley Winters) is a fake medium who with her accomplice (Bruce Dern), an out-of-work actor doing a little taxi-work, is after the reward for finding a long-lost heir. The heir (William Devane) has gone from bad to worse: having (as it emerges) incinerated his foster-parents, he is now leading a Jekyll-and-Hyde existence, with his accomplice (Karen Black), and a kidnapper who trades his victims for desirable items of stock for his smart jewelry store. Naturally he mistrusts the intentions of the couple whom he discovers to be tailing him.

This plot is speedily established, with, elegant artifice. Driving away from the seance which has put them on the track of their quarry, Harris and Dern almost run down a sinister figure clad (by the veteran Hollywood designer and loyal Hitchcock collaborator Edith Head) all in black. The figure — Karen Black in a blonde wig — hurries on to the pick-up and then back to her accomplice, a villainous young man with a menacing glint in his teeth. The whole stage is set.

There are Hitchcock set-pieces like the Bishop kidnapped while officiating at a Mass or a chase at a funeral, along the maze-like paths of a graveyard, shot from above; jokey moments of fright like the Bishop’s red cassock leaking like blood from a car trunk; a very familiar Hitchcock nightmare when the nice couple are stranded on a bleak and lonely road, and the killer’s car draws slowly into view around the corner; clues delightedly planted like messages in a treasure hunt.

Yet what is most characteristic and charming in the film is a show-off relaxation, an easy demonstration of how it all should be done. Hitchcock this time builds a thriller without ever showing a killing (the only violent death is an accident, out of sight of the spectator); he makes the relationship of the two couples vibrantly, sexy without so much as showing a bed or a naked elbow. He gives a merry coup de grace to the convention of the car chase by reducing it to slapstick, with Harris clinging inconveniently around Dern’s neck as he struggles to control a brake-less car careering downhill, and finishing up with her foot in his face. It’s all a very jolly affair.” –The Times (August 20, 1976)

Admittedly, praise wasn’t universal. There were a few negative reviews. However, they seemed to be buried in the overwhelming approval of the majority… Well, the critical majority. Audiences seem to have been less enthusiastic.

Hitchcock had always taken pride in his box-office numbers, yet Family Plot was his least successful picture since The Trouble with Harry, another bent comedy to which the fifty-third Hitchcock bore a fleeting resemblance. Its number twenty-six box office ranking was an embarrassment, and to go out on top – with an audience winner – was one reason behind his seeming iron resolve to make yet one more film.” -Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Actually, the director’s resolve to make another film had less to do with the box-office reception of Family Plot, and more to do with his nature. Alfred Hitchcock was a filmmaker. He was happiest when working on a new project. The next project would have been called, The Short Night. Unfortunately, Alfred Hitchcock’s debilitating health forced him to abandon his work on this new venture.

...and we are left with a wink.  The Independent Film Journal published on April 14, 1976.

…and we are left with a wink.
The Independent Film Journal published on April 14, 1976.

So in the end, we are left with the wink that so infuriated Ernest Lehman. It doesn’t seem at all inappropriate that Alfred Hitchcock’s swansong should have such a conclusion. After all, Hitchcock had been winking at his audiences for fifty years.

Screenshot 1

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

 This disc is available as part of The Masterpiece Collection boxed set and as an individual disc.

The Masterpiece Collection is given a tasteful book-style presentation with a page for each film that includes a folder for each disc. Some might prefer that each disc come in its own standard Blu-ray case. These folder style compartments do not always protect the discs and very often cause scratches. There have even been reports of glue adhering to the actual disc, and rendering them unplayable.

The individual release presents the disc in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork.

 The menu on the disc contains footage from the film accompanied by music in the same style as other Universal Blu-rays.

Screenshot 2

Picture Quality:

1.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal should be incredibly embarrassed with this ridiculously awful 1080P AVC encoded transfer. This goes beyond ineptitude. It shows an obvious disrespect for the film, and for the consumer. Family Plot has never looked particularly wonderful on home video, but one always hopes that a studio will improve the quality of each subsequent release. Most of these issues are not inherent in the source print either. There might be a slight improvement in detail from the previous DVD releases, but it is nowhere near what one expects from a Blu-ray transfer. Texture has been scrubbed from the image by an excessive use of digital noise reduction, and there are many occasions when haloing is a problem. Darker scenes have been crushed, while colors and contrast are uneven. There is always an incredibly noisy layer of grain. Grain can be a very beautiful thing, and is part of the film aesthetic. However, this transfer seems to be exhibiting something that is completely unnatural for film grain. (I am certain that it is a transfer issue.) Finally, there is a bit of film damage that could have been easily fixed if Universal actually put forth a minimal amount of effort to bring this film to high definition. This is Universal’s worst transfer of an Alfred Hitchcock film. The only good news is that the resolution is superior to their DVD editions of the film.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

It might not be nearly enough of a consolation to say that the sound transfer doesn’t suffer the same apathetic treatment by Universal. Their mono DTS-HD mix is perfectly acceptable, and exhibits clear dialogue, balanced effects, and a full score by John Williams. This is as good as anyone might expect from a mono mix.

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

One wonders why the excellent press conference for Family Plot wasn’t included in the supplements. This ninety minute Q & A would have made up for some of the discs less successful attributes. However, the excellent supplements that were available on previous DVD releases of the film can be found here as well.

Plotting Family Plot (2001) – (SD) – (00:48:22)

Laurent Bouzereau’s “Plotting Family Plot” isn’t the best of his Hitchcock related documentaries, but it isn’t the worst either. It is superior to the fluff that is produced for most recent home video releases, and does manage to give viewers an authentic glimpse into the production of Alfred Hitchcock’s final film. The program even utilizes actual ‘behind the scenes’ footage from the film’s production to illustrate the various interviews with the film’s cast and crew. Participants include Patricia Hitchcock, Howard G. Kazanjian, Bruce Dern, William Devane, Karen Black, Henry Bumstead, John Williams, and Hilton A. Green. It is essential viewing for fans.

Theatrical Trailers – (SD) – (00:03:18)

There are two theatrical trailers included, and both feature Alfred Hitchcock. The second of the two is probably the best, but it is nice to see both of them included on the disc (even if they are cropped to 4:3 ratio).

Storyboards: The Chase Scene – (SD)

This is basically a slide show of storyboards from the pre-visualization of the “chase sequence.” It is always nice to see storyboards included, but it would be preferable to see them here in high definition.

Production Photographs – (SD)

A slide show of production photographs are also included, and they round off the disc nicely.

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Final Words:

Family Plot is a pleasant farewell from one of cinema’s greatest auteurs. It isn’t one of his best efforts, but it is difficult not to have a great time. The disc itself is another issue entirely. Universal needs to put more effort into some of their Blu-ray releases. This might be an upgrade from the DVD editions of the film, but the quality simply isn’t what one expects from a Blu-ray.

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Review by: Devon Powell