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Saturday September 23rd 2023

Family Plot | 1976

Family Plot filming location: Sacramento Street, San Francisco
Family Plot location: the kidnappers' home on 'Franklin Street': Sacramento Street, San Francisco

This lightweight comedy caper comes burdened with the knowledge that it was to be Alfred Hitchcock's final film. Although it’s no late masterpiece it’s an engaging entertainment, even if some of the heavy-handed humour hasn’t aged well.

And it does seem fitting that the last shot of Hitch’s last movie is a sly wink to the audience.

Hitchcock seems to have been intrigued by the twin plotline structure which smalltime hucksters Blanche (Barbara Harris) and George (Bruce Dern – in a role intended for Al Pacino, who turned out to be too expensive for the ever-thrifty Hitchcock) crossing paths with a pair of ruthless kidnappers, Arthur Adamson (William Devane) and Fran (Karen Black) in a series of outrageous coincidences.

Unusually for Hitchcock, who liked to set his stories in recognisably specific locations, Family Plot’s setting is left deliberately vague. It looks like West Coast California, but the characters drive comfortably to 'New York' and back.

The practical locations are of course around San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Family Plot location: Lexington Avenue, Silverlake, Los Angeles
Family Plot location: Blanche's modest home: Lexington Avenue, Silverlake, Los Angeles

Blanche’s modest little home is 4254 Lexington Avenue, east of Hollywood toward Silverlake, Los Angeles. It’s supposed to be ’17 Castle Heights Road’, so it would be reasonable to assume that the fake Castle Heights Road sign at the junction with Bates Avenue is a little joke by the Art Department. In fact, the Bates Avenue sign is real.

Blanche and George’s (almost) entirely innocent attempt the track down the mysterious heir to the Rainbird family fortune uncovers long-buried and sinister secrets.

According to the contemporary press release, the mock-Tudor mansion of Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt), where the plot kicks off with fake medium Blanche offering to find the estranged nephew, was in South Pasadena, however the reliable Movie Tourist blogspot points out that it was actually 10451 Bellagio Road, in swanky Bel-Air (Hitchcock himself lived at 10957 Bellagio Road, though almost a mile to the west). It’s now hard to verify since the Bel-Air mansion has recently been demolished.

Family Plot location: Buchanan Street, San Francisco
Family Plot location: the kidnappers' garage entrance: Buchanan Street, San Francisco

The kidnappers’ home, with its secret basement chamber in which victims are held, is supposedly ‘1001 Franklin Street’. It’s 2240 Sacramento Street at Buchanan Street, San Francisco.

Family Plot location: Southwestern Law School, Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles
Family Plot location: George quizzes the salesperson in the department store: Southwestern Law School, Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles

The department store in which George quizzes the Rainbird family chauffeur's daughter was Bullock's, the 1928 art deco gem in midtown Los Angeles. Although the store has closed, the building lives on as the Southwestern Law School, 3050 Wilshire Boulevard. You can see its exterior in 1937 comedy Topper and in Martin Scorsese’s 2004 The Aviator.

Family Plot filming location: Pioneer Cemetery, Sierra Vista Park, Sierra Madre Boulevard, Sierra Madre
Family Plot location: George discovers the Shoebridge graves: Pioneer Cemetery, Sierra Vista Park, Sierra Madre Boulevard, Sierra Madre

This lead takes George to 'Barlow Creek Cemetery', where he discovers the graves of the Shoebridge family and their son, Eddie, who all supposedly perished years ago in a house fire.

The scruffy little graveyard is Pioneer Cemetery in Sierra Vista Park, 553 East Sierra Madre Boulevard, Sierra Madre, just northeast of Pasadena. It’s not really so neglected, of course. The tiny cemetery was booked for filming months in advance and allowed to become wild and overgrown. The same graveyard became 'Haddonfield Cemetery' in John Carpenter's original 1978 Halloween.

A search of the births and deaths registry (where Hitchcock's unmistakable shadow on a frosted glass window provides his cameo appearance) reveals that a man called Maloney, who also paid for the headstone of Eddie Shoebridge, has recently applied for Eddie’s death certificate.

Family Plot filming location: Sierra Highway, Sylmar
Family Plot location: George questions the owner of 'Maloney's garage': Sierra Highway, Sylmar | Photograph: Google Maps

‘Maloney’s garage’, where George questions the surly, tight-lipped owner (Ed Lauter) is one of the out-of-the-way service stations dotted around the outskirts of LA that occasionally pop up on screen. This one is 22124 Sierra Highway at the junction of Antelope Valley Freeway (Route 14) with Hwy 5 up in Sylmar, northwest of Los Angeles. Currently closed, you might have seen it in Halloween III: Season Of The Witch.

Suspicions aroused, George determines to talk to the Shoebridge family priest, now elevated to the heights of archbishop. Unfortunately, the venerable cleric happens to be the next target of Arthur and Fran.

Family Plot filming location: Grace Cathedral, Taylor Street, San Francisco
Family Plot location: kidnapping the bishop from ‘St Anselm’s Cathedral’: Grace Cathedral, Taylor Street, San Francisco

‘St Anselm’s Cathedral’, at which George arrives just in time to witness the abduction of Archbishop Wood (William Prince) in full view of his congregation, is Grace Cathedral, 1051 Taylor Street, San Francisco.

You might have seen the cathedral on-screen previously in the classic 1968 San Francisco actioner Bullitt and more recently in Gus Van Sant's Milk.

Their enquiries have inadvertently put George and Blanche in peril. Lured out to a remote café (‘Abe and Mabel’s’ was built on the studio backlot), the couple find the brakes of their car have been tampered with as they career wildly out of control around the treacherous curves of Angeles Crest Highway, winding through the mountains of the Angeles National Forest, north of Los Angeles.

When Blanche’s investigations finally reveal that Eddie Shoebridge and Arthur Adamson are one and the same person, she takes off to give Adamson what she believes is the good news.

Family Plot location: Fairmont Hotel, Mason Street, San Francisco
Family Plot location: Blanche leaves a message: Fairmont Hotel, Mason Street, San Francisco

Fortunately, she leaves a message for cab-driver George with the doorman at the Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason Street. The San Francisco landmark has also been seen Michael Bay’s The Rock and in Richard Lester’s little-seen 1968 Petulia, with Julie Christie and George C Scott. It stands alongside the Brocklebank Apartments, from which Scottie (James Stewart) tails Madeleine (Kim Novak) in Hitchcock's masterpiece, Vertigo.

For the final confrontation between the two couples, the stretch of Buchanan Street alongside Sacramento Street, with the kidnappers’ garage entrance, was recreated back in the studio after Hitchcock supposedly complained that the real location was “the coldest place in San Francisco”.