A Hitchcock Mystery
Article by Bill Krohn
THE BRIEF CHAPTER ON Family Plot in my book ‘Hitchcock au travail’1 concerns the divergences between the storyboards for a particular scene and the scene itself. Although the book makes the same point about other Hitchcock storyboards, the case of Family Plot, Hitchcock's last film, is special. The idea that a good film could be made ‘against’ its screenplay became a commonplace among critics for whom mise-en-scène is an art in its own right after Eric Rohmer argued in his 1948 review of Notorious that Hitchcock had turned a routine spy thriller into a film about Ingrid Bergman's face, but on the evidence of surviving production sketches, Family Plot may be the first film in history to be made ‘against’ its storyboards.
The style that resulted diverges considerably from Hitchcock's habitual practice as a director: few closeups and even fewer inserts, scenes covered in 2-shots and long shots, pans and zooms replacing the meticulously planned camera moves in the storyboards drawn by Tom Wright, which closely follow the scene descriptions Hitchcock and Ernest Lehman wrote into the shooting script. Late films of great directors have often been surprising, but none ever reversed the premises of his oeuvre as drastically as Hitchcock did in Family Plot. It is as if this filmmaker known for planning every detail before the start of shooting had decided, because he was working with a generation of younger actors accustomed to improvisation, to free himself and his characters once and for all from the determinism of his own storyboards.
According to the production reports, Hitchcock began filming in the new style - which involved improvising the blocking of a scene with the actors on the set and picking his shots based on how they moved2 - while shooting the scene discussed in my book, where Lumley, the sad-sack amateur detective played by Bruce Dern, pursues the widow of a man who died accidentally while trying to murder him through a cemetery in the middle of her husband's funeral. Hoping she will lead him to Eddie Shoebridge, the mystery man he is looking for, Lumley is still unaware that Shoebridge, who doesn't want to be found, was behind the failed murder attempt.
At the beginning of the scene the camera moves to a high angle that shows Lumley pursuing the frightened widow through the maze of paths in the cemetery. Even though biographer John Russell Taylor says that this shot, which Hitchcock called a ‘living Mondrian,’ was planned months before,3 according to the production report for the day it was filmed - Friday of the first week of shooting - the first business of the day was to ‘Rehearse and take Polaroids of actors and plan layout,’ resulting in the actors taking different paths than those shown in the storyboard.
Then Hitchcock, ignoring the camera moves plotted in the boards for the pursuit and the ensuing dialogue, covered the rest of the scene very economically, letting all the dialogue between Lumley and the widow after he catches up with her play in a single shot while the camera panned to follow them. (This one rather ragged shot replaces three tracking shots in the storyboards, the last of which would have required a fair amount of choreography involving both the camera and the actors to bring Lumley and the widow into a tight two-shot at the end of the scene.) He thus covered a complex exterior scene in half the time allotted for it, and half the time it had taken him to film the picture's first scene, between Barbara Harris and Kathleen Nesbitt, on Monday and Tuesday. That weekend he viewed the footage with a group of close advisors that included his wife Alma, and afterward continued shooting in the same style till the picture wrapped.
Production reports can't tell us what was on the director's mind while he was dismantling one of the screen's most recognizable styles, but another change he made in the ‘living Mondrian’ may give us a clue. Although he had planned that the funeral service would break up after the widow's hasty departure, Hitchcock decided to keep it going when he filmed the high-angle shot and brought back the actor playing the pastor months later to record a longer speech to be heard over the rest of the scene.
The first part of the speech is audible over the ‘Mondrian’: ‘Oh how great the holiness of our God! For he knoweth all things.’ (At this point the camera has moved up into the all-seeing perspective Hitchcock always referred to as ‘God's point of view.’) The voice continues during Lumley's pursuit of the widow, telling how Christ ‘suffereth the pains of every living creature’ (present tense: the actor might still be talking about the camera's relation to the tiny characters below) ‘...who belong to the family of Adam. And he does this that the Resurrection may pass on all men, that all may stand before him at the great and judgement day.’ (Pursuer and pursued have stopped near the fake grave of Eddie Shoebridge, who has been resurrected, we will soon learn, as ‘Arthur Adamson.’)
Up to this point the pastor's speech is in ironic counterpoint to what we know about the dear departed, who is not going to come off well ‘at the great and judgement day,’ and about his ‘resurrected’ boss, Adamson, a member of the ‘family of Adam’ whose joyful pursuit of a criminal career stems from sins others committed before he was born. Yet the words spoken over the ‘Mondrian’ also stir feelings of sublimity with their references to Last Things: Hitchcock's dubbing notes indicate that ‘the sound of the pastor's voice should continue very faintly in the background’ as Lumley questions his quarry, and though only snatches are audible, those same notes tell us what the voice is saying: ‘There cometh ... a first resurrection ... the resurrection of the prophets, and all those who believed in their words, or all that have kept the commandments of God ... Those that died before Christ came, in their ignorance, not having salvation declared unto them ... have a part in the first resurrection, and have eternal life, being redeemed by the Lord. And the little child shall have eternal life ...’ This passage draws on a particularly obscure part of the Book of Revelations: John the Apostle's description of a ‘first’ and ‘second’ resurrection. Church fathers who believed that the former would begin an earthly Millennium before the Last Judgement tended to limit participation in it to martyrs4 - I can find no patristic or modern source that comes close to the liberality of Hitchcock's pastor, who is reciting a millennial ‘A-list’ that includes the Hebrew prophets, virtuous pagans and unbaptised children.
He then concludes, inaudibly except for a few words after the music starts up following the widow's description of Adamson's ‘resurrection’: ‘The spirit and the body shall be reunited again in its perfect form, both limb and joint shall be restored to its proper frame, even as we now are at this time; and we shall be brought to stand before God, knowing even as we know now, and have a bright recollection of our guilt.’
The doctrine of physical resurrection - which is solidly rooted in Christian theological tradition - is only a virtual presence in the scene, but if, as would appear from its many archaisms, the pastor's speech is part of an actual text whose beginning is heard over the ‘Mondrian,’ it is present nonetheless, and Hitchcock wanted it to be. A practicing Catholic, he knew churchmen who could have supplied him with an historical text expressing ideas about the resurrection that resonated with his hopes and beliefs, to be murmured in the background of this scene which brings together so many mysteries: Predestination and Free Will, Original Sin, the Incarnation, the Resurrection and the Last Judgement.
The ‘Mondrian’ is also, of course, a metaphor for Family Plot itself, in which two seemingly unrelated stories pursue their course like Lumley and the widow - avoiding an early collison, then moving closer along parallel lines until, after a few more near misses, they finally connect. Which means that the design of the film, and the way it was realized through a new insistence on the physicality and the freedom of the actors, are also being commented on by those distant, murmured eschatological themes.
Raymond Bellour observes in an article on Family Plot5 that Hitchcock always had to struggle to keep the geometrical patterns of his films from reducing the people caught up in them to mere ‘figures’ - ‘the actual bodies of men and women being erased by the pressure of the story's logic and the abstract impulses it attempts to inscribe.’ Contrary to the legend Hitchcock nurtured about himself, his strategy for modulating the excessive abstraction of his storyboards depended on his actors and his on-set encounters with them. If he allowed that counter-tendency to have its fullest expression in this lighthearted last testament, the mise-en-scène of the funeral sequence can also be said to express his faith that the paths of destiny finally lead to what theologians call the resurrection of the body - which could also be a name for modern cinema in its most radical, and ‘un-Hitchcockian,’ forms (Cassavetes, Warhol, Pialat, Godard).
©2000, 2001, by Bill Krohn.
Except where noted, all information in this article comes from the shooting script and from the Hitchcock Collection of the Margaret Herrick Library, Los Angeles: Family Plot files 212 (dubbing notes), 215 (production reports) and 230-1 (storyboards).
2. This process is described by the script supervisor in the production report for a scene with Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern filmed the Monday of the second week: ‘Rehearse and pick camera sizes [i.e. shots].’ By the time ‘Variety’ reporter Joseph McBride visited the set near the end of shooting and observed Harris, William Devane and Karen Black working out the staging of a scene with Hitchcock, after which the director decided how to film it, the script supervisor was no longer bothering to describe a process that had become routine. Cf. Joseph McBride, “Nothing Will Ever Stop Hitch,” ‘Variety’ 42nd Anniversary Issue, October 1975, 24.
4. J. Webb Mealy, ‘After the Thousand Years: Resurrection and Judgement in Revelation 20’ (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992), p. 102, notes that the passage in question ‘is by common agreement one of the most difficult in the whole of Revelation.’ I have referred to Mealy's history of how theologians have interpreted this passage (Revelation 20: 4-6), and to Caroline Walker Bynum's 1992 study ‘The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity,’ pp. 200-336, for the history of the doctrine of physical resurrection.
5. Raymond Bellour, ‘Trafic’ #26 (Summer 1999), p. 100. Bellour goes on to argue that ‘The strength of Family Plot is to have stopped ... believing in the characters and to have chosen instead to believe and to make [us] believe in their schematism, giving in to the vertigo of an abstraction extracted directly from [their] bodies...’ (Ibid.) My interpretation, which is the opposite of Bellour's, takes seriously Hitchcock's comment to Ernest Lehman, who feared that the director might be giving in to his ‘obsession with structure,’ while they were working on the script: ‘This film is going to be made by its characters!’ Quoted from the transcript of a tape-recording of the November 5, 1973, meeting between Hitchcock and Lehman, in Donald Spoto, ‘The Dark Side of Genius’ (New York: Ballantine Books, 1983), p. 561. Hitchcock told Taylor (p. 304) that Barbara Harris had contributed more of her own ideas to the film than any actor he ever worked with.