Today is the birthday (1899) of Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, KBE, well known English film director and producer, who pioneered many elements of the suspense and psychological thriller genres. After a successful career in British cinema with both silent films and early talkies, Hitchcock moved to Hollywood in 1939 and became a US citizen in 1955.
Over a career spanning half a century, Hitchcock fashioned for himself a recognizable directorial style. His stylistic trademarks include the use of camera movement that mimics a person’s gaze, forcing viewers to engage in a form of voyeurism. In addition, he framed shots to maximize anxiety, fear, or empathy, and used innovative forms of film editing. His work often features fugitives on the run alongside “icy blonde” female characters. Many of Hitchcock’s films have twist endings and thrilling plots featuring depictions of murder and other violence. Many of the mysteries, however, are used as decoys or “MacGuffins” that serve the films’ themes and the psychological examinations of their characters. Hitchcock’s films also borrow many themes from psychoanalysis and sometimes feature strong sexual overtones. Through interviews, movie trailers, cameo appearances in his own films, and the ten years in which he hosted the television program Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he became a highly visible public figure.
Hitchcock directed more than fifty feature films. Often regarded as the greatest British filmmaker, he came first in a 2007 poll of film critics in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, which said: “Unquestionably the greatest filmmaker to emerge from these islands, Hitchcock did more than any director to shape modern cinema, which would be utterly different without him. His flair was for narrative, cruelly withholding crucial information (from his characters and from viewers) and engaging the emotions of the audience like no one else.”
I don’t think there’s any need to go through his movies and production techniques in detail. They are all well known. Instead I’ll focus on three things, his cameos, his practical jokes, and (since this is a foodie blog) his relationship to food, and his favorite dishes.
His cameos are justly famous: a trademark. When I was a young boy my mother told me about them and said I should watch out for them. It can be a challenge. Some are fleeting, or in the far distance, or from behind or disguised in some fiendish way. The one in Lifeboat is classic. Here’s a compilation of all his cameos:
His practical jokes were also famous, some benign and some quite sadistic. He once sent Peter Lorre a suit made by London’s most prestigious tailor; the suit, however, was sized for a child. On another occasion, he sent an actor 400 smoked herrings. He had a horse delivered to the dressing room of actor Sir Gerald du Maurier (father of Daphne) just to see how he would react to inconvenience. When a cameraman boasted about his elaborate new all-electric kitchen, the man returned home to find two tons of coal delivered to his doorstep with a receipt marked ‘Paid by A Hitchcock’.
Hitchcock would often enlist a colleague to whom he would tell a tantalizing story in a loud voice while they were in a packed elevator. He would perfectly time his exit just before the punch line and then bow politely to the eavesdropping passengers.
He may have inherited some of this behavior from his father who, when Hitchcock was about five, sent him with a note to a local police chief, who locked the little boy in a cell. After about 10 minutes, the policeman released Hitchcock, saying: “That’s what we do to naughty boys.” Hitchcock later said he could never forget the fear of such a humiliation.”
There was certainly an element of bullying. Assistant cameraman Alfred Roome had been the target of one of his jokes but exacted revenge by putting a fake smoke bomb under Hitchcock’s car. “You never saw a fat man get out of a car quicker,” he recalled. “Hitch never tried anything on me again. He respected you if you hit back. If you didn’t, he’d have another go.”
Hitchcock himself called it the “humor of the macabre.” He believed it was simply a typically London form of humor, and used to say as an example: “It’s like the joke about the man who was being led to the gallows, which was flimsily constructed, and he asked in some alarm, ‘I say, is that thing safe?’ ”
Actresses were often the target of his ‘jokes’. Elsie Randolph revealed her fear of fire to Hitchcock and he later played an elaborate trick on her, getting a technician to pump smoke into a telephone box after the door had been surreptitiously locked. This was probably just a sadistic prank, but his treatment of Tippi Hedren (The Birds) was malicious, which she suggests resulted from her refusing his advances. He sent her daughter, Melanie Griffith, an exquisitely lifelike miniature of Hedren in a coffin in one of the dresses from The Birds when Griffith was 6. I would hardly call this a joke or prank. Furthermore, he used his influence to prevent Hedren from getting further roles after his second film with him which, she says, effectively ruined her career.
Hitchcock’s relationship with food was also dark. He was bullied a great deal in school and compensated by overeating and developing what he called his “armor of fat.” This no doubt made things worse. English schoolboys (and schoolmasters) are, or at least were, merciless with any boy who is fat. My take on it all is that Hitchcock was both jovial and twisted because of his upbringing, and was largely oblivious to his own peculiarity which he turned to good use in his films.
Hitchcock’s overeating was legendary. He could eat three steaks and three portions of ice-cream at a sitting. But then would go on crash diets. His cameo in Lifeboat shows a “before” and “after” of him in a slimming ad during a dieting phase.
Sometimes he combined pranking with eating. His targets were often people he had privately identified as “phonies” and “big heads”. Pompous guests would be invited to dinner parties where he would slip whoopee cushions on to their chairs before they sat down. Sometimes, the food would be served in the wrong order, starting with dessert. At one lavish meal, guests were disturbed to find all the food dyed with blue coloring: blue soup, blue trout, and even blue peaches and ice cream.
It’s hard to tell when he was joking about food. He once told an interviewer, “I’m frightened of eggs. That white round thing without any holes…have you ever seen anything more revolting than an egg yolk breaking and spilling its yellow liquid? Blood is positively jolly by comparison.” He also claimed to have a phobia for making soufflé, because he couldn’t stand the suspense of waiting 40 minutes to see how it would turn out. This has to be a joke from the “master of suspense.” His daughter Pat said that soufflé was one of his favorite desserts.
Soufflé is one of those dishes that frightens a lot of cooks, but if you follow some simple rules they are not as hard as you might think. When my son was under my tutelage as a homeschooler I gave him cooking lessons, and his first soufflé was stellar. The links below to videos give all you need to know.
A soufflé really has two basic components: a cream, which for a savory soufflé is usually made from béchamel and for sweet an egg custard, folded with stiffly beaten egg whites. The two must get combined together to form a mixture that is then poured into special molds and then placed in the oven. This is when a law of physics comes in, in the form of evaporation. The mix first gets cooked externally, along the borders of the mould, trapping the water molecules from the steam from within. When the temperature rises, they seek a way out and the only way is upwards – the only part of the soufflé not confined by the mould. As the top of the soufflé bakes and becomes thicker, the molecules push harder and this is why the top rises. And here lies the crux of the issue: a proper soufflé is one that creates the most resistance for the steam molecules. The secret to this is to beat the egg whites until they are very stiff, so they create a compact foam that serves as a barrier.
Key “secrets” revealed in the videos are:
- Brush the sides of the molds with softened butter with upward strokes to guide the soufflé straight up as it rises.
- Preheat the oven 10 degrees hotter than you want for baking, so that when you put the molds in, the temperature change by opening the door merely lowers it to the desired level.
- Temper one-third of the beaten whites with the béchamel/custard, then fold in the other two-thirds.
- Run your thumb around the edge of the molds once they are filled so that the tops can rise freely.
- NEVER open the oven when the soufflés are baking.
Early on I had some fair disasters, but it got easier once I followed the rules. I prefer savory soufflés with cheese, mushrooms, or tomato. That’s because I am generally not a fan of desserts. Follow the same rules for savory as for sweet. Use a béchamel as your base adding the necessary ingredients and cooking them in the sauce before adding the egg whites. Happy viewing – they are good videos.