Column: Slicing Score: Family Plot (1976)

By Maria Mitchell

family_plotFamily Plot (soundtrack). Music composed and conducted by John Williams (1976).

There’s something magical about a harpsichord which allows its sound to elicit images of baroque intrigue from the imagination. As “Family Plot” is a film anchored in convoluted plans of deception and mystery, it’s only fitting that this wonderful instrument should be one of the most recognizable voices of the score’s orchestration. The film follows the wheels and deals of a phony medium named Blanche Tyler and her boyfriend, John McBride. They are set spiraling on a trail to find a missing heir who, unfortunately, turns out to be a psychopathic kidnapper, extortionist, and killer, superbly played by actor William Devine. Such an over-the-top role would have probably been unconvincing if played by less capable talent.

Blanche and John don’t know much about the tangle they are getting into and the music mirrors this confusion. At times slapstick, menacing, and always melodically infectious, Williams created an auditory roller coaster of thrills. While Bernard Herrmann was director Alfred Hitchcock’s most frequent collaborator in film composing, John Williams took the reign in Plot, which was Hitchcock’s final film. This switch in composers marked a decidedly different sound and aura of the film. While Hitch’s films often had a sardonic feel to their execution, they usually were heavier on the menace than on the comic irony. From The Lodger to Frenzy, his films, whether muted or flashy, almost never played with as much slapstick as Plot. Except for a few isolated scenes, the film plays almost entirely like a comedy you might have seen in vaudeville. Very Three Stooges-like. All of these factors contributed to the film needing a voice in film music that could capture comic irony but still evoke building suspense and menace to the audience. John Williams was just arriving at an apex of his career as a film scorer. With Jaws under his belt, he’d certainly proved he’d mastered the sound of suspense, but his grasp of comic irony was still to be proved. Plot is one of William’s lesser-known suspense scores but one that deserves just as much recognition for its wild inventiveness and musical competence.

The main theme, often executed with the harpsichord and a full-string section, distills all the flavours of decadence, desperation and deception that make this film feel outlandish, but the score succeeds in rooting the film in enough noir-satire to make it enjoyable, even if unbelievable.

Besides the main theme, a subtheme that plays regularly through the score is an ethereal, otherworldly chorus that chimes with ghostly female voices. This is, by-and-large, Blanche’s theme and it attempts to evoke the eerie presence of her “mediumistic powers”, but really ends up satirizing spiritualism rather than conjuring any genuine chills. This is likely intentional on Williams’ part, and most likely indicative of the fine-tuned collaborative relationship he maintained with Hitch during post-production. Hitch, like Houdini, had very skeptical views on spiritualism and the virtues of many “psychics”. It therefore shouldn’t be surprising that the music would reflect this skepticism and ring to a biting note.

Sardonic, ironic, lovely, and above all, intriguing, John William’s score to Family Plot is an outstanding achievement in his illustrious career as a film scorer and deserves its place beside the other works of great beauty by this gifted composer because it proves that not all menacing music need actually be menacing. Suspense music can have at its heart a playful cluster of notes which remind listeners that the irony engendered by evil is why evil often loses.

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