When I was asked to write about food this week, I was delighted, and immediately turned my attention to one of my favorite movies, “Who Is Killing The Great Chefs Of Europe?” (directed by Ted Kotcheff, 1978). While not one of the best movies ever made, it belongs in the company of other diversionary “who-done-it?” films like “Murder By Death” and “Clue” that also spend lots of time in the kitchen.
There are certainly worse ways to spend one hundred and twelve minutes. I urge you to watch it as soon as possible, while enjoying the perfect score by Henry Mancini. Warning–watching it will make you very hungry, although you might not be able to eat during some of its unsavory, yet quite humorous scenes.
This wonderful movie, which will serve as a springboard for considering how food is a central character in many fiendish movies, has a very simple plot. Natasha O’Brien, a celebrated pastry chef, played by Jacqueline Bisset, arrives in London to assist obnoxious food critic Max Vandeveer, played to perfection by Robert Morley, in planning a grand meal for the Queen. Natasha’s ex-husband, Robby, played by George Segal, is a fast-food magnate who shows up in London to provide a generous serving of irritation to Max and Natasha with his less-than-savory culinary tastes. His object is to open a chain of taco restaurants and to find a way to win back Natasha’s heart. In the meantime, Max has been ordered by his doctor to go on a drastic diet to reverse the bodily damage that has been inflicted after many years of dining on the rich gourmet food he loves. When his favorite European chefs start showing up dead, killed in the manner of their culinary specialties (i.e. cooked in an oven, drowning in a lobster tank, and crushed to death in a duck press), suspicion falls on Max, who might be eliminating the sources of his temptations. I won’t spoil the ending, which is quite the bomb, As an extra treat, if you like the movie you can read the equally enjoyable novel by Nan and Ivan Lyons (“Someone Is Killing The Great Chefs Of Europe,” 1978).
A major reason to watch this movie is to revel in the delicious (no pun intended) dialogue, which reminds me of the banter in which Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis engaged when they starred in the 1980s series “Moonlighting.” For example, when warned by his doctor that unless he goes on a diet he will die within six months, Max replies, “I am what I am precisely because I’ve eaten my way to the top! I’m a work of art, created by the finest chefs in the world. Every fold is a brush stroke. Every crease a sonnet. Every chin a concerto. In short, doctor darling, in my present form, I’m a masterpiece!” I can’t help but wonder if Morley’s portrayal of Max provided the inspiration for the infamous Mr. Creosote and his show-stealing performance in “Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life” (1983). If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the next-to-last scene in Great Chefs.
Food, murder, and mayhem have played major roles in way too many movies and TV shows to list in this column, so I will just skim the surface. As a case in point, let’s examine one of my favorite TV shows, “Columbo.” In “Murder Under Glass”, which was aired in the same year as the Great Chefs movie, Louis Jourdan plays a pompous food critic, Paul Gerard, who uses venom from a poisonous blowfish to poison the wine of a well-known Italian restaurateur. Lieutenant Columbo, of course, manages to capture the critic by using another bottle of wine. This episode’s real star, however, is a steady procession of very appetizing dishes, the last one prepared by Columbo himself. And the disheveled Lieutenant often solved many of his toughest cases after treating himself to a bowl of his beloved chilli.
A movie that is in so many ways a much darker companion to Great Chefs is David Fincher’s 1995 thriller, “Seven,” which is a very fiendish take on the seven deadly sins, particularly gluttony. Other horror films that feature food in very prominent, and cannibalistic ways include Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and Herschel Gordon Lewis’ “Blood Feast” (a genuine, yet very unappetizing, black comedy and cult classic).
Perhaps the best examples of how food and murder can be very close companions are found in the films and TV shows associated with Alfred Hitchcock. In fact, all of Hitchcock’s many movies feature food in prominent roles. Just think of the simple meal enjoyed by Janet Leigh and Tony Perkins immediately before the infamous shower murder in “Psycho,” the dinner table murder in “Sabotage,” the foreshadowing meal in “Shadow of A Doubt,” and the first time Jimmy Stewart sees (and becomes enthralled by) Kim Novak in a restaurant in “Vertigo.” Entire chapters have been written about Alfred Hitchcock’s use of food in his movies. In fact, like Max Vandeveer, Hitchcock was a gourmet whose many health problems resulted from his love of gourmet food. Perhaps the best example of the way Hitchcock used food as a theme is his self-directed 1958 TV episode, “Lamb To The Slaughter.” In the this 30-minute masterpiece, Barbara Bel Geddes plays a wife who is suspected of murdering her husband, but the police can’t find the murder weapon. The audience learns that the police officers destroy the weapon by eating it. You see, the wife killed her husband by hitting him over the head with a frozen leg of lamb and then served the cooked leg to the unsuspecting officers. The perfect murder indeed.
I will leave you to find your own examples of culinary mayhem in the movies. And I hope your foodie encounters are filled with pleasure rather than mayhem. Thanks to Luci Tate for giving our columnists this tasty opportunity to focus on food.
See you next week with another hopefully appetizing column. Bon Appetit!