Psycho filler


"There are two kinds of eating," Alfred Hitchcock once said. "Eating to sustain and eating for pleasure - I eat for pleasure." It was a funny kind of pleasure, though, twisted and dark. It made him so obese that he wheezed; so obese that he dreaded appearing in publicity shots for his own pictures. And, much of the time the pleasure had to be indulged in private, where nothing came between him and the object of his desire. As one of his earlier actresses commented: "He got as emotional about food as he did about anything, and his relationship with food was almost sexual." He spoke of restaurants as if they were lovers.

When we visualise Hitchcock (1899-1980), it is the profile of his tummy that we remember first. That bulbous receptacle was a cameo in over 50 films, and the great director was perfectly aware of how he looked: fat. Not that he liked it. He tried to lose weight sporadically, often to impress a lovely leading lady such as Grace Kelly or Tippi Hedren, but his love affair with food always triumphed. His most dramatic diet was in 1943, when he dropped 100 pounds, a third of his body weight, on a diet of black coffee and steak salads. The results appeared in Lifeboat (1944), where Hitch's cameo is as a "before" and "after" in a slimming ad, but by the time the film appeared he was already back to his old rotund self.

His biographer Donald Spoto describes a typical dinner as "relishes, a roast chicken, a small boiled ham, potatoes, two vegetables, bread, a bottle of wine, salad, dessert". Then brandy. Hitchcock learnt to eat for comfort as a boy. Hitchcock pere was an East End grocer, a distant, cruel man, and young Alfred found solace in the solitary consumption of cold meat and potatoes. In later life, his private binge food of choice was ice-cream, though he also couldn't do without Dover sole, his wife Alma's pate, and English bacon, which he had shipped to him in LA. When he first arrived in Hollywood in 1937, he took full advantage of the largesse of the American table and its horse-sized steaks. On one occasion, he dined with guests on a double-thick steak and ice-cream parfait. When everybody else ordered coffee, he ordered another steak and a second ice-cream. At last, he summoned the waiter and asked for the bill, along with a third steak and final ice-cream.

Hitchcock's films don't have as much food in them as one might expect - as if he didn't want to parade his greed in public. What eating there is can be distasteful. The mother in To Catch a Thief stubs out her cigarette in a poached egg. In Lamb to the Slaughter, a woman kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, before cooking it and serving it up to the police as they fruitlessly search for the murder weapon.

The edible and the macabre are very close. Hitchcock's passion for food, like that for cool blondes, could turn to revulsion in the heat of the moment. Friends said that he feared swallowing and had to take his meals in huge gulps. He also claimed - perversely - that he hated suspense, and for that reason could never have a souffle made in his house. "We'd have to wait for 40 minutes to find out if [it] turned out right and that is more than I could stand!" Instant gratification was what Hitchcock craved, hence his preferred breakfast: ice-cream and brandy.

I Scream
Take a tub of vanilla-blond ice-cream and pour spoonfuls of warmed brandy over it. Murder it quietly behind closed doors.

This article first appeared in the 21 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Better to shop than to vote