Date published: August 1, 2010
THERE IS SOMETHING AFFECTINGLY BITTERSWEET about Alfred Hitchcock's final cameo, a silhouette arguing animatedly behind a frosted window bearing the legend "Registrar Of Births And Deaths". Did he know something? Certainly by the advent of the 70s Hitchcock appeared to be in decline, personally and professionally. His previous three movies had been boxoffice disappointments, his health was declining and time was waging its war of attrition against his friends. But if the man was a shadow of his former self, his films were anything but. Before retiring from the stage he had a coupie of (now neglected) belters still to deliver which represent the dual facets of his genius.
Frenzy (1972) revisits the London of his childhood and places in it a rapist and murderer, 'The Necktie Killer'. The violence is more explicit but still tightly controlled, and the wit typically mordant - look out for an extended scene in which the killer searches a corpse stiff with rigor mortis in a potato truck.
Family Plot, made in 1976 (in which we see that shadow), is a Hitchcock as delightfully playful as its double entendre of a title. In it a flaky fake psychic (Barbara Harris) and her cabdriver boyfriend (Bruce Dern) try to track a lost heir and a high-end kidnapper/jewel thief who turns out to be that heir. It's a symphony of effortlessly judged tona! shifts, a deadly race down a mountainside in a car with no brakes played for laughs, a bit of comic business in a garage turning deadly in seconds: a perfectly risen soufflé of a comedy and thriller that wouldn't be approached again until the Coens came on the scene.
At the end, the flaky psychic turns out to be not so flaky; discovering, appropriately, a hidden gem. In the final shot she turns to camera to express her joy. The Master's career ends with a wink.