Like many of the characters in his films, Alfred Hitchcock was always partial to a good drink. To honour the great man’s birthday, curator Nathalie Morris tries one of his favourite tipples: the White Lady.
|A season of Hitchcock Silents screens at BFI Southbank throughout August.|
What better way to celebrate the birthday of Alfred Hitchcock, who was born on 13 August 1899, than by whipping up one of his favourite cocktails?
Hitchcock was notoriously fond of good food and drink, an obsession that continually manifested itself in his films, albeit with often unsettling – and sometimes downright grotesque – results. The threat of poison taints non-alcoholic drinks like milk and coffee in Suspicion (1941), Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946), while booze, and the way it’s consumed, is used in a host of different ways across Hitchcock’s films.
It occupies title status in Hitchcock’s eighth feature, Champagne (1928), in which heiress Betty Balfour finds herself slumming it in the nightclubs of Paris. In The Ring (1927), celebratory glasses of champagne go disappointingly flat as the boxing champ (Carl Brisson) waits for his flighty wife (Lilian Hall Davies) to arrive home.
Champagne plays an important part too in Notorious (1946). Devlin (Cary Grant) leaves a bottle of bubbly in the office after being told that the woman he loves, Alicia (Ingrid Bergman), is being sent to spy upon, and seduce, an ex-lover who is suspected of being a Nazi. Later, in the film’s masterful party sequence, steadily depleting stocks of champagne are used to generate suspense in case Alicia’s now husband (Claude Rains) is obliged to pop down to his generously stocked wine cellar for replenishments (Alicia has stolen his key, rightly convinced there’s something suspicious about the bottles of wine stored there).
Like Alicia in Notorious, Bergman’s character in Under Capricorn (1949) is an alcoholic, driven to drink by a mixture of guilt and psychological manipulation. Alcohol also helps ex-war hero Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) get through civilian life in Frenzy (1972). Unfortunately it does nothing for his temper, especially after he gets sacked from his job as a barman after helping himself to a drink. In North by Northwest (1959), Cary Grant’s sharp suited Mad Man is fond of a martini or two. This tolerance to alcohol helps save his life when he’s forced to drink a tumbler-full of whiskey before being set behind the wheel of a car.
Hitchcock’s own capacity for alcohol must have been fairly impressive. Potent drinks frequently loosened the creative faculties at raucous after-hours story conferences held at the Hitchcocks’ home in west London. After their move to America in 1939, Hitchcock was able to cultivate his love of fine wine. His weekend home was situated amid the vineyards of central California, and he later became a Grand Officer of the Burgandian Order of Tastevin, building up a renowned wine cellar that at one point numbered 1,600 bottles. But like any good Londoner, Hitchcock also remained partial to gin. He relished a dry martini and once he’d relocated to sunny California journalists reported on his enjoyment of a “gin and orange concoction”, which he mixed himself from his well-supplied home bar.
In England in the 1930s a favourite Hitchcockian tipple was the gin-based White Lady. Actor and writer Rodney Ackand recalled that this cocktail fuelled the development of the script for one of Hitchcock’s least successful films, Number Seventeen (1932).
According to Ackland, Hitchcock was assigned Number Seventeen against his will, and when the news was announced the director “looked momentarily almost thin” because he was so deflated with disappointment. Hitch promptly told Ackland, “what we need is a White Lady”. These were, Ackland recalled, “his speciality: they knocked one out more quickly and unfailingly than anything I have drunk since”.
The White Lady was invented just after the First World War by Harry MacElhone (of Harry’s Bar fame). The recipe here comes courtesy of Harry Craddock and The Savoy Cocktail Book (1924):
1/4 lemon juice
1/2 dry gin
Shake well and strain into a cocktail glass
It’s easy to see why Hitchcock liked the taste of this cocktail. It’s gin-based and has orange notes courtesy of the Cointreau. The lemon juice adds a pleasing sharpness that cuts through the richness of the liqueur and (slightly) tempers the potency of the alcohol.
Many versions of the White Lady include an egg white. This makes the cocktail light, creamy and slightly ethereal, helping the drink to fully justify its name. In the interests of research I made both versions and have to say that I prefer the version with egg white. But I suspect Hitchcock’s White Lady would have been defiantly without. After all, he famously despised eggs, describing them as “slimy” and “disgusting”. He also gave them some unpleasant cameos in his films, as in To Catch a Thief (1955), in which Jessie Royce Landis stubs her cigarette out in a yolk. I somehow can’t imagine Hitch cracking and separating an egg to slip the gelatinous white into his drink.
By the way, if you do try the egg white version, make sure you shake it really hard to aerate and emulsify the white (think of the Gordon’s ‘Heart of a Good Cocktail’ sign in Piccadilly Circus that terrorises the heroine of Blackmail, 1929). If not, you’ll find yourself sharing Hitch’s sentiment while nursing an unpleasantly gloopy cocktail. And what sort of a birthday toast would that make?
Do also please spare a quick thought for the morning after. Hitchcockian hangovers can be immense. Think of Alicia when she wakes up after her first meeting with Devlin in Notorious (towards the end of the film Dev doesn’t realise Alicia is being deliberately poisoned, taking her symptoms for a hangover).
Or Roddy (Ivor Novello), sobering up and making a return from a life of debauchery in Downhill (1927).
Or poor Roger O. Thornhill (Grant) in North by Northwest, who has to endure a hungover court appearance for drunk driving, while being heckled by his mother (Jessie Royce Landis).