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. 

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