We’re heading back into the early days of Cannibal Studies with this one! The TV anthology Alfred Hitchcock Presents aired on CBS and NBC between 1955 and 1965. Produced and presented by the great auteur himself with a humorous introduction and postscript, the stories covered mysteries, thrillers and dramas. It remains timeless; in 2021, Rolling Stone ranked it 18th on its list of “30 Best Horror TV Shows of All Time”. Hitchcock was called “The Master of Suspense” and is considered one of the most important figures in cinema history. His films garnered 46 Academy Award nominations, including six wins.
The production team he put together for the TV series was a lot cheaper than a film crew, and he used them often to make his movies. A year after Specialty of the House, Hitchcock used his TV crew to make the film Psycho, a seminal film in the horror genre and in Cannibal Studies. Psycho’s story was itself adapted from the case of the so-called “Butcher of Plainfield”, Ed Gein, who would dig up bodies and use the bones and skin to make masks, accessories and furniture. Gein would make women suits out of human skin (which inspired Jame Gumb – “Buffalo Bill” – in Silence of the Lambs) so he could dress up as his mother (which inspired Psycho). His facemasks, made out of human faces, inspired the character Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and its many sequels.
This week’s 1959 TV show was also an adaptation, from Stanley Ellin’s short story “The Speciality of the House” about gourmet chef Sbirro, whose exclusive restaurant offers a “warm haven in a coldly insane world”. Sbirro serves a specialty called “lamb Armistran”, which turns out to be the flesh of patrons who had enquired too deeply into the mysteries of his kitchen. Ellin’s story was first published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1948.
This production is fairly true to the short story. The wonderful Robert Morley is Laffler, a well-heeled import-export businessman, who has invited his protégé, Costain, to the very exclusive club/restaurant. They meet some of the other diners, including a rich Singaporean businessman (as if to show us that American elitism is not entirely white, but ironically played by Japanese actor Tetsu Komai) and another very cantankerous diner whose regular eating-partner has apparently resigned, immediately after becoming a life member. Laffler is astonished, because his three obsessions are lamb Armistran, which all the members crave, a longing to become a life-member of the club, and a yearning to “see the kitchen where these miracles are performed”.
On their first two visits, lamb Armistran is not served, much to Laffler’s disappointment. The dishes that are served are always superb, but there is no menu, no choices offered.
“My dear boy, when you’ve studied the art of fine eating as long and as vigorously as I have, you won’t trouble with menus…. Here at Spirro’s we have no doubts, we ask no questions, we only know that there is a genius in the kitchen!”
Spirro (the spelling in the story changed, for reasons not explained) makes an appearance while Laffler is complaining about not being allowed into the kitchen. Unlike the short story, in which women were not welcomed into the club, in the Hitchcock show Spirro is a woman (played by Spivy), very much in the style of the “monstrous-feminine” who, we are all subconsciously afraid, will reabsorb us into the feminine form from which we emerged. She puts a hand of Laffler’s meaty shoulder and announces, “I think we will be having the speciality of the house very soon, my friend.” She is looking at Costain; we realise by now that Laffler has become a nuisance to her and is likely soon to become lamb Armistran. The next night, when lamb Armistran is finally to be served, Laffler is very rude, refusing to sit with Costain, demanding to be served first, and insisting on more food on his plate.
Unlike Laffler, Spirro says of Costain, “He has very nice manners, your friend.” Manners, the rule of laws and language referred to by Michel Foucault as “the symbolic” are the basis for civilised, patriarchal societies. Rudeness is appalling, and you will perhaps recall Hannibal Lecter, decades later, saying “discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me.” Laffler has been discourteous, intrusive, and so is destined to become a “life member”. When he makes a fuss about no more lamb Armistran on the following night, he is delighted to find Spirro inviting him into the kitchen, to “meet the chef”. Chef is clearly ready for the meeting.
Cannibalism here is presented as addictive. All the members crave not the superb cuisine served every night but specifically the “specialty of the house” which turns out to be the latest life-member. It is a myth that cannibals only want human flesh once they have tasted it; in fact, all the evidence seems to indicate that we don’t taste that much different to pigs. But the myth is enduring – think of the many stories of the Wendigo, a figure from Algonquin stories who becomes addicted to human flesh which makes him grow larger and therefore inevitably hungrier. Or the recent movie Bones and All, where the two Romeo and Juliet lovers are united not only in their affection for each other but their recurring fascination with human flesh. Or Cannibal Apocalypse, where Vietnam vets are infected with the wendigo bug.
Like many cannibal stories, the victim’s life is envisaged as being absorbed by the eaters. “Life member” is, therefore, an apt description for one whose life has been taken and now lives only in metabolisation into the body of the cannibal. These members are what are sometimes described as “innocent cannibals” – they love to eat meat, but are not aware from what animal it has been carved. Think of the appreciative consumers of the meat pies in Sweeney Todd.
But are any of us really innocent, if we know that some sentient animal has died to be on our plate? It might be a rare breed of lambs from the Ugandan border, or it could be a rude businessman. Ethics, as Hannibal once told us, become aesthetics. If it tastes great, if a person of authority and good taste places it before us, it is at least aesthetically, if not ethically, proper. As the new life member, soon to be lamb Amirstan, told us earlier in the show:
“My mother used to say – we eat what’s set before us, and we like it.”
The episode is available on line, including the link at the top of this blog.