Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Karen Black Film Festival continues. At last. It was on hiatus for some time, but since it is taking place in my apartment, it was re-scheduled for my convenience.

I just watched Family Plot, Alfred Hitchcock's last movie, made in 1976, when he was 76. It has a risible, inconsistent plot that veers from thriller to slapstick, sometimes within the same scene. Two sets of grifters intersect in landscape that is not quite Los Angeles and but not really San Francisco either. In fact, locations from both cities were used to create a dreamy placelessness. The film is beautifully shot, adding to the oneiric quality. John Williams' score leans heavily on the harpsichord, giving it a touch of whimsy and mid-70s cache. As you well know, I am a total sucker for a harpsichord. (Some of these tracks have been released on CD.)

We begin at a seance, in which a wealthy older woman is being blatantly manipulated by a psychic named Blanche, played by Barbara Harris. Blanche has been promised $10,000 if she can find the long lost nephew who is to inherit the old dame's millions. Thankfully Blanche has a cab-driving, out-of work actor boyfriend George (Bruce Dern) to do the leg work that her smokey-voiced spirit guide Henry (voiced by Blanche herself) cannot provide.

The two cross paths with Fran (Karen Black) and Arthur Adamson (William Devane) a kidnapper/jewel thief duo, who really don't seem to need the millions they are raking in in ransoms. Instead of fencing the jewels, they hang them from the chandelier in their entranceway, kept in plain view like The Purloined Letter. Devane has an uncanny resemblance to Jack Nicholson, at least in this film. He even has his sneering cadence of speech.

Ms. Black is especially gorgeous in this film. She is well served by the slick costumes designed by Edith Head. In the film's opening, she struts into a police station, toting a gun and wearing a blonde pageboy wig and sunglasses at night. Of course she's wearing a trench coat though it isn't raining as well. Without a word, she boards a helicopter to lead them to the kidnapped tycoon. After collecting an enormous diamond. It's such an exciting image that is has been repeated elsewhere, consciously or not. (I could swear that this opening scene was used as the entire premise for Brian DePalma's unwatchable 1980 Michael Caine vehicle Dressed to Kill.) Ms. Black's character is slowly shown to be the only one with a conscience. Though she doesn't have much to work with, she gives Fran warmth.

There are a couple of wonderful moments that are worth seeing, besides reveling in Ms. Black's charisma. There is a scene from the point of view of the windshield of a car with no brakes that has a nightmare's vividness and artificiality. And there is a kidnapping in a Cathedral that shares that same immediacy of a dream. Both seem bluntly Freudian. I think it's Hitchcock's ability to focus on the details: Fran's feet as she stands up in the Cathedral, the letter on blue paper, that give the film its intensity. Vertigo, this movie ain't. But in brief flashes, some of that feeling is there.

One of the oddest things is the casual vulgarity that pervades. (Kind of like Katherine Hepburn's last film where she curses.) Blanche and George have some ribald banter: what was hinted at in double entendre in previous Hitchcock films is said quite plainly. It seems to make the characters less neurotic, but not anymore well-adjusted. It felt tacked on, like trying to be 70's groovy, as did the slapstick scenes that were not at all funny.

There is a cameo for one of my favorite actresses, Katherine Helmond. I just adore her and have done a film festival for her in the past. I know that Soap is her magnum opus, but I love her in Brazil (Terry Gilliam seems to adore her as well). She appears here in a small role as the mechanic's wife, and brings all sorts of doomed gravitas in a simple look.

I thought I had written reviews of the two other films in the festival so far: Day of the Locust, and The Great Gatsby, but I now see that I have been remiss.

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