Sunday, May 24, 2009

Hitchcock at His Most Diabolical: What Really Constitutes a "Specialty of the House"?

Above: Robert Morley (left) and Kenneth Haigh as business proprietor Laffler and his employee Costain survey the dinner entree at restaurateur Spirro's famous establishment.

"Specialty of the House," adapted by Victor Wolfson and Bernard Schoenfeld from the story by Stanley Ellin; directed by Robert Stevens; produced by Joan Harrison; Norman Lloyd, associate producer; photographed under the direction of John L. Russell; art direction by Arthur Lonergan; Edward W. Williams, film editor; music supervision by Frederick Herbert; sound by William Russell; set decoration by Julie Heron; Vincent Dee, costume supervisor; makeup by Jack Barron; Florence Bush, hair stylist; an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" airing December 13, 1959, via CBS

The Cast: Robert Morley as business proprietor Laffler; Kenneth Haigh as his employee Costain; "Spivy" as restaurateur "Spirro"; with George Keymas, Bettye Ackerman, Charles Wagenheim, Tetsu Komai, and Lee Turnbull

Hurrying to restaurateur Spirro's establishment, inconspicuously planted within the confines of seemingly deserted brownstones, are the portly, remonstrating business proprietor Laffler (Robert Morley) and his gentlemanly employee Costain (Kenneth Haigh). Before the entrance, where they are summarily announced, Laffler comments: "Behind this door we leave behind us the vulgarity of our time. Two qualities are missing from this day and age: mystery and dignity, especially mystery. Inside, they are both restored to us."

Inside, upon whose formal air Costain observes "I feel as if I were going into a temple, not a restaurant," the obviously exclusive male patronage has been arranged who sit in tandem at twenty tables. Laffler reveals that there are "exactly forty members," only one of whom, a recently elected "life member," is notably absent, "Jackson--there's his picture on the wall; he's the puffy one on the end." Costain is surprised to learn that "Spirro's" is devoid of intoxicating liquors, tobacco and condiments. Nor are there even menus, although the food varies every evening, for as Laffler explains, "Spirro offers no choice; here we have no doubts, we ask no questions; we only know that there is a genius in the kitchen."

After consuming his soup Costain is surprised to find that it has been much to his liking, without his customary salt. And although the dinner itself was superb, Laffler expresses regret: "Can't possibly compare to the specialty of the house." Costain inquires "And what might that be? Nightingale's tongues? Filet of unicorn?" To which Laffler simply responds "Lamb Amirstan."
The following evening Laffler expatiates on this succulent meal which has formed an obsession not merely for himself but for every other member as well. "According to Spirro, Amirstan is a desolate plateau on the boundary of Uganda in Africa. Here, a small but superb flock of sheep graze on the delicate grasses which are only to be found there and which give the lamb its incredible flavor. This is the only restaurant in the world where you can get it!" To Laffler's great pleasure, the evening's course is, indeed, to be the "Lamb Amirstan," and as it is being served, Laffler stares longingly and Costain quizzically at this by now legendary entree. Costain soon discovers, however, that every swallowed portion becomes an almost exotic experience and he too comes to relish even the thought of the next sampling of "Lamb Amirstan."
Their shared ritual of dining at "Spirro's" have made them close friends, Laffler, who has been summoned to check accounts abroad, reports that he will be entrusting the management of his office to Costain. Earlier conversations with the mysterious Spirro ("Spivy"), a double-chinned proprietress who commandeers her staff with a queenly air, reveal Costain to harbor ambitions belying his apparent humility. When Costain asks of her "I suppose there's no chance of my becoming a member?," and she responds "Who can say? We have here a very long period of testing. . . .," he resolves, firmly, "I'd be glad to wait."
Laffler confesses that in addition to his craving of the "specialty of the house," he has "but two other obsessions. One is to become a life member of the club. The other is to see the kitchens where those miracles are performed." But Spirro proscribes access to her kitchens to all but a very few select members. Spirro relates the fact that she "merely supervises. . . . the only dish I prepare personally is the Lamb Amirstan. I've been preparing it now for three days; there is a marinating process, you understand."
Spirro telephones Costain that she desires a suitable wall-size photograph of his employer, apparently to commemorate the fact that Laffler at last has been designated a life member. Costain, too, has been granted his request for club membership. On the eve of his departure, Laffler arrives at Spirro's in advance of Costain, who reportedly has been attending to office affairs. In the alleyway to the entrance there is a skirmish between a waiter and an obviously inebriated man. Laffler comes to the waiter's aid, although the would-be victim dismisses any thoughts of calling for the police, seeking instead to preserve the reputation of Spirro's. Not long afterward, Costain arrives, presenting to Spirro herself the requested portrait.
Preparing to dine, Laffler is dismayed to discover that the "specialty of the house" is not to be served that evening. After lodging his protest with Spirro, he finds that she is strangely apologetic: "It must be an oversight on the part of the chef. Come with me into the kitchen; let's see what we can do about it." Before going in, he is caught by the waiter whom he had earlier assisted and who now beseeches him "I beg you sir, do not go into the kitchen!" A determined Laffler, about to realize a longtime passion, cannot, however, be dissuaded. He enters, finding a spotless, but not unconventional area for food preparation. "But where's the chef?," he asks. Spirro points to an enclosed area, where a burly man stands holding a meat cleaver. Laffler extends his hand in congratulation, as Spirro quietly closes the door behind them.
The final scene finds a smiling Spirro greeting Costain in her dining room. She places the portrait of Laffler alongside other former "life members." "Ah, how well he looks there among our other absent friends!," she comments, continuing, "I shall be expecting you to dine with us more often now that Mr. Laffler is away." Costain suggests, "Perhaps we shall be having the specialty of the house soon; maybe next week?" She responds, seriously, "It takes time to prepare--but I think, I think I can promise you!," as she stares at the portrait of Laffler once again.
Faithful to Ellin's story in all but a single major respect, inasmuch as the literary Spirro is a man, "Specialty of the House" offers an abundance of witty observations on the nature of man as a virtual slave to what he consumes. The literary Spirro offers this bit of wisdom to Costain: "You must turn your thoughts a little to the significance of the lamb in religion." For in this gourmet restaurant there is nothing pious about the consumption of "Lamb Amirstan." This is a perfect example of a Hitchcock tease; this is, pun fully intended, a delicious tale, deliciously told.
Below: Spirro (portrayed by the enigmatic "Spivy") explains to her customers that Lamb Amirstan, "takes time to prepare." Later, however, she accommodates them with this most exotically succulent meal. In the final scene she imparts to new member Costain that "I shall be expecting you to dine with us more often now that Mr. Laffler is away." Robert Morley as Laffler was a frequent player in sardonic cinema on both sides of the Atlantic, whereas Kenneth Haigh would perhaps realize his most enduring characterization as the multilingual scholar, translator, and explorer Sir Richard Burton in the BBC"s sublime series "The Search for the Nile," based on the Alan Moorehead accounts of Victorian England's quest for the source of the Nile River, first airing in the United States in six parts, from January 25 through February 29, 1972, via NBC.

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