Friday, November 18, 2016

Don't Just Peck—Feast Your Eyes on the Birds of Hitchcock and Klee

Illustrations accompanying "Hitch Puts a Bird on It: Paul Klee’s Influence on the Master of Suspense," my upcoming chapter in Critical Insights: Alfred Hitchcock, edited by Doug Cunningham.

Figure 1. Hitch, perfectly at home with one of his Klee's Strange Hunt

Masks in Twilight, Klee, 1938.
Unfortunately, Hitch’s first Klee acquisition proved impossible to track down. However, assuming the painting Hitch bought in 1938 was a recent creation, it could have resembled Masks in Twilight.

Hitch was a lifelong theater-goer, and many of his films, Murder, Stage Fright, To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest, to name four, explore the boundary between face and mask—presentation, representation and reality. Like the director, Klee also loved the theater, and that passion found its way into numerous illustrations and paintings. In this artist's hands, a mask can either be a disguise or a theatrical prop—a standard metaphor for appearances vs. reality. 

Considering Klee's at-times morbid humor, it’s a safe bet that Mask and Scythe refers to the Grim Reaper. Without seeing the piece, however, we’re left to imagine what it might have looked like—and why Hitch might have wanted to bring the painting into his home.

Figure 2. Strange Hunt, Paul Klee, 1937.

Figure 6. Odyssey, Klee, 1924. Collection of the Hitchcock family; black and white scan from Fatal Coincidences: Hitchcock and Art

Screen capture from I Confess, Alfred Hitchcock, 1953. Watch the full title sequence: following Hitch's cameo at :39, be sure to notice the interplay of the horizontal street signs and the upward-pointing architecture. 
Screen capture from North by Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock, 1959. Watch the full title sequence

Mural from the Temple of Longing, Paul Klee, (1922).

Eros, Paul Klee, 1923

Screen capture from The Lodger, Alfred Hitchcock, 1927. The rhythmic triangles in the title cards link the character Daisy (played by “June”) to the murders and the love triangle she’s caught in. The shapes loom larger in each successive appearance, echoing the impending danger she’s in.

Twittering Machine, Paul Klee, 1922. Turn the handle slowly and you might hear Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ show theme Funeral March of the Marionettes. Crank it fast and you’ll hear Bernard Herrmann’s furious soundtrack to The Birds.

Screen capture from The Trouble with Harry, Alfred Hitchcock, 1954. Watch the full title sequence.

Birds Swooping Down and Arrows, Paul Klee (1919).

A Young Lady’s Adventure, Paul Klee, 1921

Sunday, August 21, 2016

How Hitchcock "Directed" an Episode of Mr. Robot.

From the 80s movie riffs in Stranger Things to the 90s sitcom metacomedy of Bojack Horseman, current television is mainlining a sophisticated form of nostalgia. These shows aren't just playing dress-up. At their best, they're a reflection on our history, our culture—pop and otherwise—pondering how we got here from there and what went wrong along the way. It's a complicated experience. Bojack is the first talking horse to move me to tears.

Achingly wistful, Mr. Robot plays with nostalgia too. Season two, running now on the USA Channel, ups the ante with each episode crafted in the style of a different film director. The choices aren't arbitrary. The directorial aesthetics spring from the story itself, tapping the unique perspective of these great filmmakers to shine more light on the characters. It's as if showrunner Sam Esmail, who wrote and directed every episode(!), is living out the fantasy of bringing Coppola, Hitchcock, Kubrick and others in to guest direct his show.

Naturally, Hitchcock got the season premiere episode spot: the psychological espionage thriller genre owes so much to him. The episode is suffused with all sorts of Hitchcockian business.

Since the end of season one, Elliott (Rami Malek) has moved back in with his stern, controlling mother with whom he's had a troubled relationship. As he explains to his therapist, it's "better to live with the devil you know than the one you don't." Hitchcock knew from mommy issues. Elliott's house and his as-yet unnamed mother, obviously inspired by Psycho, aren't just easter eggs planted for film fans' delight, they're an extension of the story itself. Without a word, the grave, interiors of his childhood home explain the barren architecture of Elliott's soul. Take a look at these shots from the opening credits.

In this riff on the Bates mansion, the wall sconces pull the eye to the door, which seems to promise, not escape, but greater terrors outside. 


Although we're given a fairly detailed tour of the inside of the house, we don't even glimpse its exterior. I'm guessing Esmail felt that a copy of the iconic façade of the Bates mansion would be going too far. But we do get a glimpse of his down-at-heels neighborhood, eclipsed by the modernity of an elevated train which is itself now a shabby relic. 

Although it does a better business than the Bates' enterprise, the Extreme Junction Diner (in real life, the Paphos Diner at 2501 Fulton Street in Brooklyn) has seen better days. Is the name a reference to extreme unction—last rites? One Redditor thinks so
The Bates Motel lost its stream of clientele when the Eisenhower-era superhighway was built, diverting traffic away. As I've written previously, the Bates mansion was modeled on Edward Hopper's 1925 painting House by the Railroad, which, like the Extreme Junction Diner, one day found itself on the wrong side of the tracks. 

While we're at it, could the framing of Elliott's mother in the living room, above, be inspired by Hopper's 1932 Room in Brooklyn? (Yes, Brooklyn, see above.) (Even more intriguing for me: could Esmail be a fan of my blog?) 

It's pretty much impossible to set a violent event in a shower without hearkening back to Psycho. In a house-gone-berserk scene that also recalls Gaslight (not a Hitchcock film, though many assume it is), the Evil Corp attorney steps into a shower only to be assaulted by scalding-hot water (see also: Evil Dead and Pulse (1988)). Shot for shot, it's a Psycho moment. 

Norman Bates admitted it: "We all go a little crazy sometimes." In his case, his long-dead mother would occasionally take over his mind, to the detriment of his female guests. Likewise, when Mr. Robot, Elliot's father (Christian Slater), takes over, the global economy does a faceplant.

If there's one theme that dominates Mr. Robot, it's that one's past controls one's present. This, too, is one of of Hitchcock's greatest themes. You see it in Rebecca, Under Capricorn, Psycho, and many others. Its most poetic expression is in Vertigo, whose Scottie (James Stewart), is caught in the undertow of a woman with a seemingly ancient past and ends up driving around in circles seeking a truth that turns out to be a lie.

Elliott's father sneeringly says, "Round and round we go, you not knowing what you did or didn't do. Our infinite loop of insanity." And then he drops a twisted apple peel on the floor, which strongly resembles the spiral in the Hitchcock film's iconic poster. 

Alert  viewer Christy LaGuardia also pointed out that the shooting angles and modern architecture of the C-suite high atop the Evil Corp tower resemble those of Van Damme's Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired mountain aerie in North by Northwest.

In this floor-level shot, I, no doubt like many other film nerds, freeze-framed the show at this point to make sure no cameras or crewman could be seen reflected in the chrome lampshade. (They can't.) And I couldn't help wondering if it was a sort of nod-but-not-really to Van Damme's television, which aided the bad guys in the discovery of Roger Thornhill.

On the surface, this episode is about control. In a larger sense, it's about individual Will and whether such even exists. Elliott tries like hell to exorcise Mr. Robot from his mind and the pushback is fierce. Says the latter, "This control you think you have? It's an illusion." As Norman said, while dining on sandwiches with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh): "You know what I think? I think we're all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever climb out. We scratch and claw... but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch."

Elliott would have sympathized.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Hitchcock & Klee: The Triumph of Modern Art

“Klee could have made good storyboards, you know.” That's what Alfred Hitchcock once told his friend and biographer, Charlotte Chandler. Perhaps he felt that way because Klee, like him, was motivated by the desire to create a new, transcendent visual language. Hitchcock's own art directional style (remember, before he went into the movies, he was a graphic designer in advertising) overlapped with that painter's. Both of them often began with one simple graphic idea and then elaborated on it, developing a fugue of associations.

For example! The Lodger (1927) riffs on the idea of a triangle, both visually and in the love triangle of the story:

Top: The Avenger leaves his triangle "signature" on his murder victims. Middle: The rhythmic triangles title cards that link the character Daisy (played by "June") to the murders and the love triangle she's caught in loom larger in each successive appearance, echoing the approaching danger she's in. Bottom: The murders all take place within a triangular section of London and the crime scenes are also marked with triangles. 

Similarly, Klee often worked the same way. His painting below explores the triangle in a manner reminiscent of Daisy's title cardwhich was used several times throughout the movie—complete with similar rhythms and obvious, yet ambivalent, eroticism:

Eros, Paul Klee, 1923

E. McKnight Kauffer, a founding member of the left-leaning London Film Society, who created the title designs for The Lodger four years after Klee produced Eros, was one of the period's most sought-after graphic artists. Largely forgotten now, in his day he was known as "The Picasso of Advertising Design;" one critic enthused that he "makes one resent the division of the arts into major and minor." Whether he had Klee's painting specifically in mind is anybody's guess. The point is that such aesthetics were in the air, and Hitch made a conscious choice—against the better judgement of his meal-ticket providers (producers, distributors, etc.), I might add—to bring these avant-garde art touches to his film. 

Hitch's penchant for building his films around specific graphic forms reached their height when he worked with another superstar advertising designer, Saul Bass, on Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960).

Bass, too, was heavily influenced by the Bauhaus movement and Scandinavian design, which often advocated for simple forms, clean lines and the use of mechanical devices to produce artwork. For instance, regarding the latter, in order to create the spiraling images that float about in the opening credits to Vertigo, Bass retooled WWII airplane engine parts to make an early version of a Spirograph. The opening credits of North by Northwest are often compared to Mondrian's gridlike abstractions.

Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue, Piet Mondrian, 1942

Take a look at the intro—and listen to Bernard Herrmann's syncopated orchestration that accompanies it.

I'd like to add Klee as a possible reference as well. Here's why. Saul Bass' title sequence lays out a visual pattern of diagonal lines and grids that will repeat itself throughout the movie. (And those cockamamie arrows in the title itself? That's a trope that shows up again and again in Klee's pictures.)

Roger Thornhill's (Cary Grant's) offices at 650 Madison Avenue reflect the traffic below, making it appear to be no more consequential than an anthill.

In this Kandinsky-like view of the United Nations Plaza (it's actually a matte painting), an ant-sized Thornhill makes his extremely improbable escape to one of the waiting taxis. Hitchcock geek/architecture scholar Steven Jacobs points out that the UN Building was co-designed by Oscar Niemeyer, who also was in the midst of designing Brazil's planned capital city, Brasilia, and that one of his sketches for that city layout resembles the high-angle shot of the cornfield below! If these connections keep piling up, I'm going to need to start a crazy wall.

Only Hitchcock could make this frying pan-flat farmland look vertiginous. 

As the couple scrambles about the faces of Mt. Rushmore during the climactic conclusion of the movie, we get up-close views of its striated surface, along with the rubble that accumulated during its construction. It's like a peek behind the curtain of its creation; a corollary to the movie's story, which also reveals the inner—and cynical—workings of the U.S. government. Like Michelangelo's unfinished slaves, these lacerated rock walls appear frozen in the act of creation, as Thornhill and Eve Kendall come alive when they into contact with them.

In Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences, Dominique Païni says: "Most of Hitchcock's fleeing couples must negotiate labyrinths in addition to overcoming heights, as illustrated in the the drawing entitled Rock[-Cut] Temple by Paul Klee—the same artist who had created a very 'architecturalized' and unusually 'metaphysical' painting that was part of Hitchcock's collection. [He's probably referring to Strange Hunt.] This drawing [Rock-Cut Temple] is strangely reminiscent of the legendary Mt. Rushmore, with its monumental presidential faces."

Rock-Cut Temple, Paul Klee, 1925

I have to agree that this compares evocatively to the Mt. Rushmore scene. In addition, Klee produced an entire series of line drawings similar in style to this one. Now, if the Mt. Rushmore scene was inspired, at least in part, by Klee drawings, then it raises further questions about the influences behind the previous scenes—as well as the movie's entire graphic scheme, noted above.

North by Northwest explores the clash between tradition and modernism. Van Damme, (James Mason), preceded by ten feet by his plummy British accent, masquerades as old American money, hiding out first in a venerable Long Island mansion whose name—Townsend—hints at simpler, bygone times. He attends antique art auctions and hides his MacGuffins in pre-Columbian statuary. Even the type of aircraft—a biplane—that attacks Thornhill wouldn't have seen battle since World War I. Meanwhile, Thornhill wears tailored, stylish suits, works as an ad man in a sleek glass Manhattan skyscraper and, as befits the modern man, supports "two ex-wives and several bartenders."

However, modernity gets the last word in in North by Northwest. When Van Damm moves his entourage into that Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired house behind Mt. Rushmore (finished in 1941), his time literally runs out. During the final chase, his beloved (and hollow) pre-Columbian statue is smashed against one of America's greatest symbols of progress and triumphant patriotism. Nice touch, Hitch. It's also a neat, ironic coda: our forefathers, symbolized by the faces on Rushmore, also smashed those tribes that had occupied this land since pre-Columbian times—a theme that Hitch had visited the year before in Vertigo. That ironic ambivalence, of course, is at the heart of this movie that declares that "War is hell, Mr. Thornhill. Even when it's a cold one," and that has America's favorite leading man, Cary Grant, respond in disgust, "Perhaps you ought to start learning how to lose a few cold wars."

After all, the point of so much modern art wasn't just to say something new, but, rather, to highlight the hollowness of modernism itself, especially the lethal hypocrisy of modern statecraft. From his youth as a member of the London Film Society onward, Hitch internalized these views and they crop up over and over in his movies. All that time, Klee's aesthetic approach was apparently never far from his mind. Charlotte Chandler even went so far as to say that "Hitchcock’s own drawings bore a certain resemblance to those of Klee." If you're looking for Klee's influence on Hitch's films, it's everywhere—and yet, as befits a master of his craft, it's also nowhere.

In my next post, we'll be talking about how Klee and Hitch nourished their creativity from the same pot. Come back!

Side note: I've written extensively about such connections on this blog, but I need to tell you where my own inspiration comes from. In 1999, I visited the Hitchcock centennial exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences. This show laid it all out with film stills, dozens of props, and even full recreations of many iconic film sets—all placed alongside original artworks that, the curators suggested, had been the inspiration for these scenes—or, at least, fascinating coincidences. Taken as a whole, the exhibition placed Hitchcock firmly within the  pantheon of great 20th century artists. This event changed my life and my outlook on film in general, Hitch in particular.

There are still copies of the copiously-illustrated 500-page souvenir book around. Next to Hitchcock/Truffaut, it's one of the most important books on Hitchcock out there.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Hitch and Klee at the Intersection of Artistic Invention

Mural from the Temple of Longing, Paul Klee, 1922 (Click to enlarge.)

I Confess (1953), opening sequence. (Click to enlarge.)

This is Part 2 in a series. The beginning is a very good place to start.

Alfred Hitchcock’s approach to filmmaking was unusual, if not unique. For him, the plot came in second behind a direct appeal to his audience’s emotions. As he said to Charles Thomas Samuels in 1972, “I’m not self-indulgent where content is concerned; I’m only self-indulgent about treatment. I’d compare myself to an abstract painter.”

Then, as if free-associating, he said: “My favorite painter is Klee.” An apt comparison. Klee, too, untethered himself from literal content and meaning, to explore his inner life as if it were a dream. For him, the line, planes and color were the content itself. 

Despite the fact that these two artists worked in two very different mediums—one was a solitary painter, while the other ran a creative factory—they approached their work in a remarkably similar fashion—broadly, with an emphasis on form over content; specifically, in a variety of ways.

Hitch and Klee embraced modern art early on in their lives. Klee, though, was about 20 years older than Hitch, who would surely have read his books, such as Contributions to a Pictorial Theory of Form (1922) and On Modern Art (1924)—even if he’d had to struggle through them in German, in which he was conversant. Modernism was exploding right in front them and their minds buzzed with the freedom and new horizons that were opening up before them. It was an electric time to be alive—how 50s rock and 70s punk would be for future generations. Many followed these trends. A few led. But only a tiny minority was thinking through the meaning and ramifications of the powerful new creative tools at their disposal. Hitch and Klee were among those few.

Both laid enormous groundwork in the development of the twentieth century’s two definitive art movements: modernism and cinema. Klee wrote voluminously about art, supporting—and nourishing—his work as an instructor at the Bauhaus in Germany and, later the Düsseldorf Academy. Klee geek and museum director Douglas Hall wrote: “Many talked about a new relationship between art and nature; only Klee actually tried to define it, and with considerable success.” Along the way, he developed a modernist vocabulary.

Hitch, through his interviews, speaking engagements and occasional articles, generously taught his version of film theory. Released in book form, his weeklong conversation with French New Wave director François Truffaut became the Bible for all filmmakers who came after. Very few directors thought through the relationship between film and nature as deeply as Hitchcock did.

Klee's “Keyboard of colors”
Klee often spoke and wrote of art in musical terms. His diaries included entries like: “I am continually being made aware of parallels between music and the fine arts,” and: “One day, I must be able to improvise freely on the keyboard of colors: the row of colors in my paintbox.” During the 1910s, avant-garde artists all over Europe were exploring the relationship between art and music, and Klee, along with his colleague at the Bauhaus, Wassily Kandinsky, were at the forefront of it. Klee took those concepts one step further; many of his paintings actually look like sheet music brought to lyrical life.

Compare that with Hitchcock’s synesthetic description of pure cinema as “complementary pieces of film puttogether, like notes of music make a melody.” He would refer to high-angle shots as “tremolos,” a big-head close-up as a “sounding of brass” and a quick jump-cut as a “staccato movement.” He eschewed improvising on the set, likening it to a composer working with a “full orchestra in front of him and saying, ‘Flute, will you give me that note again? Thank you, flute.’” It’s tempting to imagine that he was drafting on those modernists’ theories to form his own. This isn’t the only time you’ll get that impression.

Time and movement
Klee saw his painting, not as a static product, but as an expression of time and movement. He famously said, “A line is a dot that has gone for a walk.” Elaborating, he wrote in his Creative Credo, “The act of viewing the work of art, too, is in essence, a function of time. The beholder focuses on one section after the other; he must leave what he has already viewed in order to be able to center his attention on a new area. The work of art, then, results from physical movement; it is a record of such movement, and is perceived through movement (of the eye muscles).” Klee’s art draws often attention to itself as time-based acts of creation.

Growth of the Night Plants, Klee, 1922 (Click to enlarge.)

Hitch also advocated what he termed the “moving-around principle,” in which the ideal cinematic form is the chase. “Just as the film—be it in preparation, in the camera, or in the projection booth—has to move around, so in the same way I think the story has to move around also.” (Cahiers du Cinema, 1959) For Hitchcock, the movement of the film through the camera is of one piece with the kinetics of the camera, the actors, their locations and of the motion of the projector itself. (This raises interesting philosophical questions about the meaning of motion pictures in a digital age, which bypasses all those mechanics except at the electronic level. New art theories are already arising: we may be headed into a post-Hitchcockian era!)

That all-embracing approach ties directly back to his—and Klee’s—Romantic notions of reaching out to become one with the universe. Hitchcock scholar Ken Mogg has pointed this out, connecting Hitchcock and Klee to 19th century Romanticists like composer Richard Wagner, philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer:
“I see Hitchcockian suspense as making an audience experience the Will, or an analogue thereof. Schopenhauer had noted the same thing of music. In a celebrated passage he wrote: ‘The effect of the suspension [consists of] a dissonance delaying the final consonance that is with certainty awaited; in this way the longing for it is strengthened ... This is clearly an analogue of the satisfaction of the [individual] will which is enhanced through delay.’ According to Christopher Janaway, many see this idea especially reflected in Wagner's composition of Tristan and Isolde (1865). So perhaps it's no coincidence that Hitchcock's favourite composer was Wagner, just as his favourite painter was Paul Klee—whose manifesto On modern art (1924) speaks of the artist embracing "the life force itself" in order to emerge into ‘that Romanticism which is one with the universe.’”

Flammerion engraving, artist unknown, 1888. (Click to enlarge.) Klee wrote in 1924: “Chosen are those artists who penetrate to the region of that secret place where primeval power nurtures all evolution. There, where the powerhouse of all time and space—call it brain or heart of creation—activates every function; who is the artist who would not dwell there?”

With his birds and fish and actors and masks, Klee didn’t necessarily introduce new subject matter to the art world. His more realistic images are reduced to cartoonish symbols; even to him, they almost seemed like afterthoughts, as he wrote in his diary in 1918: “Everything vanishes around me, and works are born as if out of the void. Ripe, graphic fruits fall off. My hand has become the obedient instrument of a remote will.” It was Klee’s intensely personal, fresh approach to those subjects that gives his art its enduring power.

Similarly, Hitchcock’s movies are usually melodramas wrapped in crime or espionage stories. How Hitch handled those boilerplate subjects made all the difference. His insistence on taking an original approach to them led him to perfect the psychological drama and even create whole new genres, such as the lone-man spy caper (The 39 Steps), the slasher movie (Psycho) and the modern disaster movie (The Birds). Hitch trusted his—and his collaborators’—creativity so much so that form dictated substance.

“I put first and foremost cinematic style before content…. I don’t care what the film is about. I don’t even know who was in that airplane attacking Cary Grant. I don’t care. So long as the audience goes through that emotion! Content is quite secondary to me.”—Cinema magazine, 1963

As a result, the works of Klee and Hitch both have the logic of a dream. Tomorrow, we'll compare some of their specific images to find what the French Canadians would call coïncidences fatales.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Hitchcock's Origins in the Bauhaus: Paul Klee

Twittering Machine, Paul Klee, 1922. 
Turn the handle slowly and you might hear Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ show theme Funeral March of the Marionettes. Crank it fast and you’ll hear Bernard Herrmann’s furious soundtrack to The Birds. (Click the pic to enlarge.)

In 1938, following the premier of The Lady Vanishes, Alfred Hitchcock stopped in at an art exhibition in London to admire a certain painting. He paced back and forth in front of it, then walked away for a moment—only to circle back again for another look. He wondered if he could afford its £600 price tag (that’d be ≈$35,000 today, converted and adjusted). True, the film was confirmed to be a hit, but still.... Eventually, he went for his checkbook—and Paul Klee’s Mask and Scythe became one of the founding pieces of Hitchcock’s museum-quality collection of modern art.

It’s easy to see why Hitch wanted that painting. Of all the artists whom he admired (and there were many), Klee—a modernist master and instructor at the Bauhaus—was the one he identified with the most. The two were kindred spirits. They both gleefully mixed lightness and darkness, comedy and the macabre, suspense and humor in new, modern ways. They offered easy entertainment, yet upon closer examination their work yields up much more serious matters. In fact, the similarities are so abundant that sometimes it seems as if their work ‘finishes the other’s sentences.’ Klee wrote in his diary in 1906: “To emphasize only the beautiful seems to me to be like a mathematical system that only concerns itself with positive numbers.” Hitch just as easily could have said it.

Over the years, Hitchcock purchased three Klees: Mask and Scythe, Odyssey 1924 and Strange Hunt.

Over the next few days I’m going to post my thoughts about the relationship between Hitchcock’s films and Klee’s paintings. Why? Because Hitch often told interviewers, friends and anyone else who would listen that Klee was his favorite artist. He also claimed that a great deal of his creative inspiration came from fine artists. Plus, Klee’s work—or, at least, Klee-like sensibilities—can be found all over Hitchcock’s films. We know that Klee influenced Hitch, but the record doesn’t exactly tell us how. While Hitch never specifically stated that this or that shot or scene bears Klee’s stamp, I believe it’s a good exercise to try to break that down. What you’re going to see over the next few days are my geek-educated guesses—mixed with cold, hard facts and some pretty good research—as to how, exactly, Klee’s influence found its way into Hitch’s screen. Come back tomorrow!

Birds Swooping Down and Arrows, Paul Klee (1919). (Click the pic to enlarge.)

Monday, August 17, 2015

Feeding Frenzy: An Evening Inside the Mind (and Belly) of Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock loved to make movies and he loved to eat—and not necessarily in that order. So it's no surprise that just about every movie he made featured food and dining. In Blackmail, Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Strangers on a Train, Psycho, Topaz and many more films, important scenes that reveal his deeper, often unappetizingly macabre, themes take place over a meal. It's an area ripe for study, and at least one book has been written about it.

Saturday night, my dear friend Laura Locker invited me to speak at her Hitchcock-themed dinner party. Splitting my PowerPoint presentation into three sections, each one corresponding to the meal's courses, I shared a Hitchcockian outlook on the subject of food, dining and appetites in general. Here's what I had to say:

Herbed white bean bruschetta 
Caprese bruschetta
Prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe
Wine: A variety of sparkling wines
Cocktail: White Lady 

 He took food very seriously:

But he didn't take himself too seriously.

At all.
In these last few slides, we see Hitch with his wife of 55 years or so, Alma Reville. She was as great a cook as you'd ever meet. I have a hunch that she kept Hitch fat and happy in order to create a bit more distance between him and the beautiful actresses he directed. Whatever the case, they had a beautiful, flourishing relationship.

Although the Hitchcocks were rich and famous, they kept a relatively modest ranch style home in Los Angeles' Bel-Air neighborhood. In the early 1960s, they remodeled their kitchen to create an open floor plan, with a bar where guests could hang out and enjoy wine while Hitch and Alma kept busy in the kitchen. While this social-cooking arrangement is common in many homes today, it was unusual back then: just another area in which the Hitchcocks were ahead of their time.

This is a wonderful scene from Psycho. Here you can see the first close-up of a flushing toilet ever to appear on the big screen. I chose this screenshot as a reminder that tonight's meal, like every meal, will end up in the same place. Hitch himself was never far from that thought.

He sometimes mused about making a movie about a meal: it would begin early in the morning with the chefs' helpers down at the wholesale market buying boxes of fresh produce and vegetables and the finest meat, then loading all of that onto delivery trucks to be shuttled to the kitchen of a five star hotel, where an army of chefs in tall paper toques would slice and dice and chop and bake and fry and flambé all of those ingredients into gastronomic masterpieces. A brigade of waiters would then file in and with great ceremony march those platters out to hungry patrons in the dining room, who would then cut and scoop and scrape all of that food into their mouths. The scene would end with a giant close-up of a sewer drain, disgorging all of their resulting shit into the river.

Hitch deeply understood that it's shit we are and it's to shit we will return, as the ending to Psycho shows:

That's not a dour, or even grotesque outlook. It's just the truth. And, in fact, it's our attempts to avoid those facts that get us into trouble. I believe that Hitch had his own holy trinity, which looked something like this:

These are three elemental facts of life, and in Hitch's world they are inextricably intertwined. In Notorious' famous kissing scene—the longest screen kiss up till that time—Hitch makes the connection between food and sex when Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant spend several minutes smooching and making out and rubbing their tummies together: and the whole time they're talking about what they should make for dinner.

Regarding sex and death, François Truffaut sometimes said of Hitch that he filmed his love scenes like murders and his murders like love scenes. A good example of that is in Dial M for Murder, when Anthony Dawson tries to strangle Grace Kelly. He throws her on the writing desk and climbs on top of her, adding a distinctly rapey aspect to the scene.

Hitchcock's greatest food film was Frenzy, from 1972. It's his second-to-last movie, and it's a perfect bookend for his career: his second film, The Lodger, from 1927 (even the numbers are reversed!), was about a Jack the Ripper-style murderer who stalked around London looking for blonde women to kill. Frenzy covers pretty much the same ground, with the added detail that the murderer strangles his women with a necktie. The film very neatly outlines Hitch's fascination with food, sex and death, as its trailer demonstrates:

We're going to talk more about Frenzy and food. But for now:

Roasted beet and tomato gazpacho
Wine: A variety of white wines

In Frenzy, Hitch treated food to grossly comical surreal effect. In this, the movie resembles another great food film, which came out the same year:

Made by the great surrealist Luis Buñuel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is about a group of upper crusty Parisians who visit a restaurant, a cafe and people's homes in search of a meal, but each time, they're interrupted and throughout the whole movie they never do get to eat. In the case of Frenzy, the police chief is served lavish meals that are all but inedible. Here's the rub: Hitch and Buñuel were friends; Hitch even called the surrealist his favorite director of all time. Because of the similarities between these two movies I believe the two directors were passing notes to each other in the back of class that year.

Now I'd like to introduce the next course with a clip from an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I think you'll agree that Barbara Bel Geddes' leg of lamb was a real knockout:

Go here and, to get to the good part, skip ahead to 4:55.

Roasted Leg of Lamb
Wine: A variety of red Bordeaux

Throughout his career, Hitch occupied the spotlight while Alma, his partner in crime, was content to remain in the background. In 1979, he squared that up when he received the AFI Life Achievement Award. During his acceptance speech, he said:
"I beg permission to mention by name only four people who have given me the most affection, appreciation, and encouragement, and constant collaboration. The first of the four is a film editor, the second is a scriptwriter, the third is the mother of my daughter Pat, and the fourth is as fine a cook as ever performed miracles in a domestic kitchen and their names are Alma Reville."
A few years ago, their daughter, Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell, wrote a biography of about her mother, shedding some light on this important, but heretofore somewhat unknown woman. At the end of the book she added an appendix that reproduced several of Alma's most noteworthy guest menus. Here's one for dinner with Tippi Hedren:

Here are a couple more images that reveal Hitch's domestic side—as well as his love of imports. Hitch was a neat freak, so after Alma cooked the meal, he enjoyed washing the dishes and tidying up the kitchen.

If you're an American of a certain age (like me), you might have had a mother who was raised on canned, packaged food. But then in the late 1960s, kitchens across America rediscovered fine dining. With the help of Time-Life's "Foods of the World" cookbook series, mothers everywhere tried their hand at preparing the unusual ingredients and exotic recipes featured therein. My mother's efforts, though served with love, didn't always deliver the results promised in those cookbooks' photos. This scene from Frenzy perfectly captures those moments of awkward domestic bliss, while also serving up a delightful blend of of food, sex and death:

And this leads us right into our dessert course!

Freudian delights: 
Lady fingers and beignets arranged to look like penises
Lady fingers and custard served in an ashtray, arranged to look like cigars
Cocktail: Rusty nail

We also enjoyed conversation about many other aspects of Hitch's films, his relationship to women (I hope I dispelled a few myths) and other topics. Then we all went home satisfied, mentally nourished and ready for a long, thoughtful spell in the loo.

Laura, flanked by two guests, one of whom brought a Hitchcockian companion on his shoulder.