1 Hitchcock’s Ravenous Look–Wining, Dining, and Partying with Hitchcock

Dinner With Hitchcock

The Ravenous Gaze

Eating and Drinking in Hitchcock’s Work

 Book Proposal*

 Dr. Emanuel Levy

 * This proposal is registered with the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Library of Congress

Dinner With Hitchcock

The Ravenous Gaze

More books have been written about Alfred Hitchcock than about any other director. However, surprisingly, there are still some crucial themes in his work that have remained relatively unexplored.

The proposed book, Dinner With Hitchcock: The Ravenous Gaze, is part of a trilogy of manuscripts about Hitchcock as a brilliant director.  Each of the three books aims at yielding new ideas and fresh insights about the work of a brilliant filmmaker whose career spanned over half a century, during which he made 53 feature films.

About half of these films (30 to be exact) were made in the U.S., from Rebecca in 1940 to Family Plot, his last film, in 1976.

Dinner With Hitchcock explores the prevalence of food and wine in Hitchcock’s work as themes, plots, symbols, and metaphors.  Hitchcock’s movies are replete with eating and drinking scenes that play important role in the narratives.   Turning points in the plots and defining character details are often disclosed in breakfast, lunch, and dinner sequences.   Wine and food items often function as the MacGuffins in Hitchcock’s work, as in Notorious, where a key leads the “wine” cellar, where the spies

Hitchcock’s characters consume immense amounts of liquor and drinking is often a significant defining element of the protagonists’ persona. A large number of alcoholics, both male and female, populate Hitchcock’s films, in which drinking is used as a metaphor for cynical, disillusioned characters and for an empty lifestyle devoid of meaning.

Dinner With Hitchcock will show how the themes of food, sex, psychosis, murder, and ritual are interwoven in intriguing ways in Hitchcock’s narratives.  The book will analyze some of Hitchcock’s best-known and most popular movies, such as Psycho and The Birds, as well more obscure and less commented on films, such as Rope and The Trouble With Harry.

Arguably, of all Hitchcock’s films, it’s Frenzy (1972), his next to last film, that makes the fullest use of food in both literal and figurative ways.   In this film, Hitchcock examines hunger (for food and sex), rape, and murder as interrelated situations. Brilliantly functioning as a sustained metaphor, food is such an insistent motif in Frenzy that it approaches the comic and the grotesque.

Food also provides a source of humor and poignant commentary about the marriage of Inspector Oxford.   One of the film’s running jokes is that during the investigation of the serial murder, inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) must content with the “gourmet,” i.e., dreadful cooking of his wife (Vivien Merchant).

In both Rope and Frenzy, food is almost a character in its own right, through which Hitchcock explores consistent themes in his work, such as cannibalism, people who devour each other as they devour food.

Since most of Hitchcock’s movies have been intensely analyzed, my interest in them will be largely confined to those aspects that illuminate eating and drinking as narrative and metaphoric activities. Phrased differently, Hitchcock’s movies will be subjected to a detailed analysis through the paradigms of food and wine.   To demonstrate the different functions of eating and drinking, Dinner With Hitchcock will take a thematic-analytic rather than chronological approach per se.

Hitchcock shows keen awareness of the affirmative and negative rituals implicit in eating and drinking.   He is aware of the irony of psychologically sterile meals and meals shared with enemies.   For a variety of significant reasons, most meals in Hitchcock’s films are interrupted or disrupted by outside forces.

Dinner with Hitchcock will also discuss the director’s food activities off screen, his “chubby” physical appearance, which he exploited throughout his career as an easily recognizable trademark, and his casting of tall, slender, and attractive men, such as Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda.

Finally, the book will enlist Hitchcock’s cameo appearances in his films, focusing on those that are directly related to eating and drinking.   For example, in Notorious, Hitchcock is seen drinking a glass of champagne, which is one of the film’s motifs, commenting on the relationship between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman (See discussion below).

Part One of the book deals with more general and theoretical issues related to parties, food, liquor, sex, murder, and death.

Part Two presents a detailed analysis of 14 movies (or so), in which food, wine, and parties serve as major ideas.

Spanning the entire spectrum of Hitchcock’s American pictures, the discussion begins with Rebecca (1940), Hitchcock’s first masterpiece, and ends with Frenzy (1976), his last film.

Table of Contents

Part One: The Ravenous Gaze

  1. Sites of Eating and Drinking as Crucial Narrative Locales
  2. Drinking and Eating as Defining Characteristics of Protagonists and antagonists (villains)
  3. Food and Wine as Significant Plot Points
  4. Symbolic and Metaphoric Meanings of Food and Wine


Part Two: Analysis of Specific Films

  1. Rebecca (1940)
  2. Suspicion (1941)
  3. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
  4. Rope (1948)
  5. Strangers on a Train (1951)
  6. I Confess (1953)
  7. Rear Window (1954)
  8. The Trouble With Harry (1955)
  9. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
  10. Vertigo (1958)
  11. North by Northwest (1959)
  12. Psycho (1960)
  13. The Birds (1963)
  14. Frenzy (1972)



Hitchcock’s Cameo Appearances

Sites of Restaurants (Real and Reel)

Wine (Real and Reel)





Brief Description

Chapter One:  Sites of Eating and Drinking as Crucial Locales

Chapter one will discuss the sites of eating and drinking as crucial locales in the development of Hitchcock’s plots and characters. Distinctions will be made between public and private sites, and indoor versus outdoor locations.


Chapter Two: Food and Wine as Characters’ Defining Attributes

Excessive drinking and alcoholics prevail in Hitchcock’s films. The list of alcoholics includes characters in Foreign Correspondent, Notorious, Under Capricorn, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Psycho, Marnie, and others.  Hitchcock cast Ingrid Bergman, one of his favorite screen ladies, twice as an alcoholic.   In Notorious, as Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a spy condemned for crimes against the U.S., she tries to drown her sorrow and guilt in excessive drinking.   In Under Capricorn, Bergman plays lady Henrietta, a disillusioned woman who has become a pathetic alcoholic.

In a number of films, food-related habits are used as commentary about the characters’ social manner or lack of.   In Rebecca, the vulgar and pretentious Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates), who acts as Joan Fontaine’s chaperon, is seen stubbing out a cigarette in cold cream.   Similarly, Mrs. Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis), the nouveau riche and Grace Kelly’s mother in To Catch a Thief, stubs out a cigarette in an egg yolk.

In Notorious, the villainous Mrs. Sebastian (Claude Rains’ mother, played by Leopoldine Konstantin) puts a cigarette between her lips and lets it hang there loosely with crass vulgarity, like a man.  She then lights with the crudeness that characterizes tough gangster heroes.


Chapter Three: Food and Wine as Crucial Plot Points

The most obvious and explicit example of drinking (wine, champagne, juice) as crucial plot points is in Notorious, in which poison (in coffee) also features prominently in the suspense.

After her father is sentenced for treasonous crimes against the US, Alicia Huberman gives a party at her house, in which she tries to drown her sorrow as she pours generous drinks to herself and her guests. “The important drinking has not started yet,” she says with cynical abandonment.  She then pours a drink to a stranger, shot from the back.  It turns out to be Devlin (Cary Grant).  Tipsy, Alicia suggests they take a wild night drive, unconcerned about the police.

The morning after the drunken drive, Devlin serves Alicia a huge glass of juice, which is shown in close-up, similar to the way that the threatening glass of milk is shown in Suspicion.  All the drinking in the film is either poisonous or fraudulent, using alcohol to cover a shallow lifestyle or a dangerous scheme.  The wine bottles in Sebastian’s home contain samples of uranium intended for the bombs.  When the supply of that champagne diminishes during the party sequences, Alexander descends into the cellar, where he discovers Alicia and Devlin in a compromising position.

Chapter Four: Symbolic and Metaphoric Meanings

Chapter Four is the most central and in the book. It shows that all of Hitchcock’s thematic motifs and recurrent obsessions are illustrated in food and wine scenes.  He expresses his fascination with eating and drinking verbally, in the dialogue and text, and visually, through strong imagery.

Order and chaos is the most prevalent theme in Hitchcock’s work, running through all of his films. In Strangers on a Train, it’s over lunch that Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) proposes his swap of murders to Guy Haines (Farley Granger).   We learn that Bruno has been expelled from three colleges for gambling and drinking.   Later on, Bruno’s sudden appearance at Senator Morton’s party represents his final eruption into the world of order, during which he almost kills a social matron while demonstrating strangling methods.

It’s also noteworthy that at the crucial amusement park, just before Miriam gets killed, she asks her two boyfriends to buy her ice-cream, which she licks suggestively, while at the same time talking about hot dogs; the boys tease her for “eating too much.”

The contribution of this chapter, and the book in general, is to demonstrate how chaos and order, a defining element of Hitchcock’s vision, is reflected through the metaphoric use of food and wine.

In Shadow of a Doubt, the genius of Uncle Charlie’s (Joseph Cotton) murderous psychosis is revealed while he eats breakfast in bed and chats with his sister (Patricia Collinge) and niece, Young Charlie (Theresa Wright).   During a dinner scene, Uncle Charlie singles out Young Charlie for special recognition, and later, seals their bond by giving her a ring (stolen from one of his murdered widows), an act that takes place in the warm ambience of the kitchen.

In Rope, an elegant buffet dinner served from the top of a chest that hides the corpse of a man killed by Philip and Brandon (standing in for the infamous Leopold and Loeb real-life murderers) to demonstrate their professor’s Darwinist ideas.  In this film, Hitchcock makes a direct association between exploitation, murder, and cannibalism.

Through the act of eating, Hitchcock illustrates his characters’ inability to establish or to maintain meaningful communication. Inadequate communication and lack of rapport are expressed by the barrenness of eating: Hitchcock’s favorite symbol of social cohesion.


The Ravenous Gaze: Case Studies


The first words heard in Psycho concern food.  Sam (John Gavin) and Marion (Janet Leigh) are in a motel room, and Sam says: “You never did eat your lunch, did you?”  The camera then zeroes in on Marion’s untouched sandwich. Marion’s uneaten lunch will be the first of several aborted meals.  We are led to believe that Marion was hungrier for sex and affection than for food and had no time to eat during her lunch break.

Going back to her office, Marion’s boss, Mr. Lowry, is seen lunching with a client, Mr. Cassidy, whose first line of dialogue is, “Wow! It’s as hot as fresh milk.”  Seconds later, he says he’s dying of thirstaroony,” and goes into Lowry’s office for a drink. Marion’s co-worker, Caroline (played by Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia) offers her a tranquilizer that she had received from her mother’s doctor on her wedding day!   “You can’t buy off unhappiness with pills,” Marion says while rejecting the pills, and we know she means that.

The theme of eating recurs during the sequences that precede Marion’s murder.  It’s late at night, and with no place to go for dinner, Norman offers Marion to share his sandwiches and milk.  He says: “I don’t set a fancy table, but the kitchen’s awful homey.”

Food is directly associated with sex when Marion overhears Norman’s mother angrily screaming at her son: “No! I tell you, no! I won’t have you bringing strange young girls in for supper.  By candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap erotic fashion of young men with cheap erotic minds.  And then what? Go tell her she’ll not be appeasing her ugly appetites with my food, or my son.”   Mother then taunts Norman with vulgar imagery: “Do I have o tell her ‘cause you don’t have the guts? Huh, boy? You have the guts, boy?”

The next scene shifts to the office parlor, where Norman doesn’t eat at all, and Marion nibbles at her food.  “You eat like a bird,” Norman says in a scene that prefigures The Birds, with is seated between stuffed ravens and owls.  After the meal, Norman returns to the kitchen, where an untouched apple rests on the table, suggesting hunger in two ways, both as uneaten food and as unconsummated desire.

The shower scene that follows, in which Marion is stabbed with a knife (a phallic object), establishes a direct link between food, rape, and murder.   As presented, the murder stands for a symbolic rape; it’s as if Norman “consumes” and consummates Marion by killing her.  Later, when Norman sinks in the swamp Marion’s car with her body in it, he chews a bit of food nervously, and when questioned by detective Arbogast, he munches on candy.  These images recur with greater lucidity and consistency in Frenzy.



In the film’s first scene, Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) is fired from his job as a bartender when he’s caught drinking early in the morning; he claims he intended to pay but his boss doesn’t believe him. The film’s first murder, of Brenda Blaney (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), Richard’s ex-wife, occurs during lunch, when her secretary is out.  In the scene preceding her murder, Brenda buys Richard lunch since he has no money and slips some cash into his jacket.

In a crucial scene, the serial killer Bob Rusk (Barry Foster) realizes that Babs Milligan (Anna Massey), his victim, must have taken his monogrammed tiepin during the struggle when he throttled her. When he goes back, he is inadvertently hauled back with Babs’ corpse and the potatoes, and we viewers take pleasure in his discomfiture.   This scene in the back of a moving truck is notable for its mixture of humor and horror, a winning combination in most of Hitchcock’s pictures.

In the film’s climax, Hitchcock masterfully intercuts between inspector Oxford trying to carve a quail on his plate at home and Rusk trying to rescue the pin from Babs’ fingers; eventually, he has to cut her fingers.  It’s arguably the blackest humor scene in Hitchcock’s career.   Rusk struggles with the dead Babs over the possession of the diamond stickpin.  Babs is reduced to a piece of dead meat, tumbling among the potatoes.  Unwanted and unsold, the potatoes are about to be returned to Licolnshire to be plowed back into the ground, just like Babs’ body would fall into the ground during the police’s chase of the truck.

Food plays a major role in Frenzy for character development as well as the plot machinations.  Richard is hungry because he is penniless; in fact, he’s fed by his wife.  The inspector is also perpetually hungry, though his wife is a terrible cook and doesn’t satisfy his appetite.  Rusk cannot find enough women “to satisfy his unusual appetites,” as the inspector later says, “the killer must be found before his appetite is whetted again.”  Like Norman Bates, Rusk is often seen chewing (grapes!), talking about food, or drinking cognac, before and after committing murders.

My Books:

Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood’s Dark Dreamer (St. Martin’s, 2009)

All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards (Continuum International, hardcover 2001, paperback 2003)

Michael Moore and the Rise of American Documentaries (in progress)

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