Jan Olsson: “Hitchcock á la carte”Guest Writer: Julie McCormick Weng

Pat Gill and Jan Olsson discuss “Hitchcock á la carte.”

[On March 11, 2013 the Unit of Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted Jan Olsson (Stockholm University). His lecture “Hitchcock á la carte” is written about by Julie McCormick Weng, a graduate student in English]

Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘piece of cake’: Cinema, the Culinary Arts, and the Macabre

Written by Julie McCormick Weng (English)

“For me, the cinema is not a slice of life but a piece of cake” ~ Alfred Hitchcock

This snippet on Alfred Hitchcock’s philosophy of cinema makes a surprising claim–that cinema resembles an indulgent portion of a delicious dessert better than it reflects life. The idea of art and food informing each other inspired Jan Olsson’s presentation, “Hitchcock á la carte,” in which he argued that like the culinary practices and standards set in his personal kitchen, Hitchcock’s cinema required the same kind of preparation and perfect blend of ingredients. Through this combination of food art and cinema, Hitchcock created his iconic, international persona using a bizarre and untraditional connection with his sense of taste and love of the kitchen.

Following his transition into Hollywood films, Hitchcock became known publicly for his astounding appetite, fine taste in food, and rotund figure. Olsson suggested that Hitchcock took this association, in conjunction with his family albums and photo essays, and forged his international brand. Through imagery from his own kitchen, in which his wife, Alma, prepared their luxurious meals, Hitchcock mixed the culinary arts and the macabre. He fused his private domestic space with the commercial arena. Olsson shared an array of images that testified to this convergence of food, film, and fantasy. One image displayed Alma delightedly opening the refrigerator only to find Hitchcock’s decapitated head resting among an array of produce, poultry, and other tasty morsels. Through these images, Hitchcock not only catered to the grotesque using his body, but he also linked a space known for comfort and private indulgence with self-promotion.

The assemblage of Hitchcock’s family album, Olsson argued, depended upon the participation of Alma Reville Hitchcock. He pointed to Patricia Hitchcock’s recent publication, Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind The Man, which draws attention to Alma’s importance as Hitchcock’s partner in crime. It was Alma who created the perfect meals that inspired Hitchcock’s films, and it was Alma who contributed suggestions throughout the film production process, garnering her 37 film credits.

Alma Hitchcock poses with a model of her husbands’ decapitated head.

As Olsson noted, Alma became Hitchcock’s sous-chef and his most significant collaborator. She partnered in both the private kitchen and in the cooking up of the perfect film, holistically contributing to Hitchcock’s entire creative process, from the ingestion of food to the digestion of film.

Hitchcock’s underrepresented television career, of particular interest to Olsson, played a crucial part in developing Hitchcock’s public persona. It was television, he argued, that truly shaped Hitchcock into a global figure. In his television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (reformatted from 25 minutes to 50 minutes as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour), he used each episode’s introductory session to whet the appetite of the audience before serving the main course. Reserving a few minutes to talk directly to the audience, he paired a combination of his refined culinary taste, distinctly British humor, and his love of the macabre. This recipe was stylized through his unique partnership with James B. Allardice. Inspired by Hitchcock’s reputation for fine food, self-depreciating remarks about his size, and love of suspense, Allardice shaped these scripted introductions with ironic, pithy remarks delivered through Hitchcock’s detached and emotionless tone. The disturbing plots in the television series, Olsson noted, brought an interesting juxtaposition between Hitchcock’s expressionless, matter of fact delivery alongside the startling plots in the episodes: a chicken farmer strangling his ex-girlfriend in the manner he would ring a chicken’s neck; a magician slicing a woman in half in order to prove he could perform such a “magical” feat; a murder victim ground into food and unknowingly set at a dinner table for guests to cannibalistically consume. The effect gripped the attention of the show’s audience and cemented Hitchcock as an infamous celebrity with an appetite for gourmet cooking and mayhem. Through these techniques, the culinary arts became more than a metaphor for the perfect cinema production (much more than “a piece of cake”): it also became a mode through which Hitchcock branded himself to the hungry public.

Hitchcock’s reliance on both Alma and Allardice, Olsson referenced, shows that even though Hitchcock made it appear that he composed his films as the leading chef, in truth, he heavily relied upon other team members.

Respondent Pat Gill (Communication/Gender & Women’s Studies) agreed with Olsson’s argument that bizarre self-promotion played a main ingredient in Hitchcock’s performed public persona. Scenes of food and drink, plots with poison, moments of gluttony litter his filmography, and in his film Rope, he even sets a buffet of food above a murdered corpse. These displays show Hitchcock deploying his media promotionals of food and the macabre within his narrative products.

Rope was released in theaters on August 28, 1948.

The state of women and food, Gill added, offers another complex dimension to Hitchcock’s storytelling. While Hitchcock likes icy, cool blondes, the camera’s gaze shows a dislike for women who eat. While the men fair poorly, she argued, the women fair even worse through the camera’s disgusted gaze upon the eating woman. These women, she confessed, often end up murdered, likely through strangulation or some other unfortunate circumstance. Eating is like desire, she commented, and Hitchcock’s films present us with our own restrained desires. Hitchcock’s aggression toward eating is somehow like our restraint not to murder—but to participate in it via film.

The question and answer session brought a lively set of inquiries. What did Hitchcock like to eat? Was he aware of Julia Child and her public persona? What was Hitchcock’s relationship with other aspects of popular culture?

Both Olsson and Gill affirmed Hitchcock’s love for French cuisine, his deep awareness of popular culture, and his ability to remain consistent in his persona throughout his career. Gill noted that while many film scholars cite a remarkable shift in Hitchcock’s later productions in terms of style and narrative, his television career more seamlessly documents his gradually evolving interests. However, his core fascinations, Olsson’s project posited, remain the same—his concerns with food, beautiful women, strangulation, the perfect murder, and the macabre. Food and violence as elements of ingestion and consumption, both Gill and Olsson affirmed, are intertwined in Hitchcock, offering a fascinating way from which to view his career.