Thursday, December 20, 2012


Dinner and a Movie

Hitchcock Toscana

By Steve Herte

After a ridiculous workday - ever have one of those days where everything that could have arrived any other day all comes at once? - I was ready for an entertaining movie night and I was not disappointed. So with a “Good Evening” nod to the central character, I present my latest Dinner and a Movie.

Hitchcock (Fox Searchlight, 2012) Director: Sascha Gervasi. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Danny Huston, James D’Arcy, & Jessica Biel. 98 minutes.

Two grime-covered men are digging in the dirt and one berates the other for his stupidity. The second man goes off camera for a moment and clobbers the first in the neck with the shovel, killing him. Charles Gounod’s "Funeral March for a Marionette" begins to play and the camera pans right to Anthony Hopkins in profile as Alfred Hitchcock, just like the opener to every Alfred Hitchcock Presents show on television, except that it’s in color. Admittedly, Hopkins isn’t an exact copy of the great director but he tries very hard and the make-up department should be commended for their illusion. He manages to beautifully capture Alfred’s voice style, poses and mannerisms, right down to the mouth shape when he speaks and the hands-behind-the-back when he walks.

Helen Mirren plays Alfred’s long-suffering wife, Alma Reville. She’s constantly after him to lose weight and cut down on the drinking. In one scene, he’s in the bathtub and she’s dressing for an important meeting they’re both expected to attend. She tells him he really should do something about his weight and emphasizes that he also needs to get dressed and ready for the meeting. He responds with the question, “Why? You’ve already told me I’m too heavy to be seen in public.” Helen plays the role so well you forget that she’s just played a queen of England and the Prime Minister, but you know how great an actress she is.

The story of Hitchcock is about the making of Psycho and the trials and tribulations of creating and presenting such a radical horror film in 1960. Paramount wants another film like North by Northwest and refuses to fund it, so Alfred mortgages his home to pay for it himself. The censors have a real problem with the shower scene and the nudity and violence it could depict. At one point he makes a deal with them. “If you let me have my shower scene intact, I will let you on my set and I will do the love scene to your exact specifications.” He says. No more is heard from the censors.

One might say this movie is a love story between Alfred and Alma and the true love they share as equals in intelligence and movie-making clinches it at the end, when the first viewing of Psycho falls flat on its face – is “stillborn,” per Hitchcock. Alma works with him on editing the film, sprucing it up and adding the signature screeching violin sounds at the shower scene to make it his greatest hit. Before the credits roll a note is put on the screen that he made six films after it but none achieved the greatness of Psycho.

As this rocky love story progresses we see a Hitchcock who has a fantasy blonde that he needs to pursue and Alma knows it. She comments on his obsessions with all of his leading ladies (this time Janet Leigh, played convincingly by Scarlett Johansson). Alfred is seen many times peeping through holes in the wall or finger pried-up blind slats to either catch a glimpse of female flesh or to check up on the actions of Alma (who is assisting Whitfield Cook, played by Danny Huston, as he revises his script hoping Hitchcock will produce it while simultaneously trying to seduce her). We see a potential philandering Hitchcock who is at the same time jealous of anyone paying attention to Alma.

On the stage set, Hitchcock is all business. He makes the entire cast and crew take an oath not to divulge any of the plot, scenes, or many secrets of Psycho (especially, not the ending) to anyone, including the outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower. When Janet doesn’t scream to his satisfaction in the shower scene he terrifies her by wielding the knife himself and gets the reaction he wanted. He sits un-phased while Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy) nervously recounts that he’s very close to his mother and that this movie might hit too close to home. He casts Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) in the movie, all the while regretting that she previous chose the life of a housewife (she lost a role in a previous movie by becoming pregnant) to being the big star he wanted to make of her.

Throughout the film, Alfred is “haunted” by Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) who was the real-life character who inspired the book, Psycho, even to appearing in a nightmare featuring a bloody female corpse in a bathtub.

At long last, the movie is ready for its première and another problem arises. It will only be screened in a limited number of theaters. Hitchcock goes to great lengths to play the horror of the film up by having armed guards for crowd control and taped warnings played outside the theaters. The crowds flock to the theaters. Though Alma saved him a seat, he stands in the lobby listening. When the shower scene plays he directs every audience reaction like a concert conductor and they respond exactly as he directs. Everyone loves the film, the Hitchcock home is safe again and Janet Leigh tells him that the blonde he always fantasizes about doesn’t really exist. Alma compliments her on being so professional, and the love story has the happy ending when Hitchcock confesses to Alma that his fantasy blonde has red hair.

But it isn’t over yet. The theme song plays yet again on the Hitchcock estate and once again he appears saying that he’s now looking for his next inspiration for a movie. A large raven flies in and lands on his shoulder, they do a double take, and it flies off. “Good evening!” says Hitchcock. Beautifully done. 

Rating: 4½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Dolcino Trattoria Toscana
517 Second Avenue (Bet. 28th & 29th), New York City

The beautiful romantic name of this Kips Bay Italian restaurant does not prepare you for the understated décor. Outside is an unremarkable sidewalk café surrounded by a red canvas and aluminum “fence” under a matching awning. Inside, only potted poinsettias adorn the whitewashed brick walls and the simple tables on a dark rust tiled floor for Christmas, one on each table. The front door doesn’t have a second door to prevent cool breezes from entering and I was hesitant to sit at one of the first tables but it proved to be not as bad as I thought. The two window tables are up a step from the main floor and sport a black and yellow tape along the edge to alert customers to watch their step (except the colors really detract from the aesthetics).

I ordered my martini and scanned the two-page laminated menu, 10 Appetizers, 2 soups and 6 salads, 13 pastas (which can be half orders), 4 Risottos, 6 Chicken entrees, 5 Fish entrees, 6 Veal entrees, 4 Steak and Chops entrees, and 8 side dishes. It seemed like a simple selection until I started reading and found two of my favorite pastas and the specials chalkboard on the wall.

The Grilled Portobello Mushrooms won the appetizer slot and were substantial slices, nicely grilled and juicy, truly living up to their moniker “the steak of mushrooms”. They were served over iceberg lettuce. At this point I asked my waitress for the wine list and found a definitive list of Italian and American wines, all very affordable. So I chose a fruity, medium bodied 2010 Villadoro Montepulciano and it was perfect.

The pasta war was between the Gnocchi al Pesto and the Papardelle in Veal Stew. Sorry, flat noodles, I love gnocchi as well as basil. A half order was a good-sized bowl of these tender potato-pastas in a well-prepared pesto sauce. The sliced Italian bread, which arrived with a glass of water, helped to get every bit of pesto from the bowl.

Having viewed the menu online I knew my main course and the specials did not deter me. The Striped Bass Livornese seduced me from the start. When it arrived at the table it caressed me with its aroma and tantalized my taste with its capers, olives and tomato sauce. A side of sautéed mushrooms added an earthy, sensual note to the already erotic meal. I was rapidly becoming sated.

After wrapping up the remaining sautéed mushrooms (I finished the bass, even though it too was a fairly large serving) I checked the dessert menu, but decided against it. The only one that was interesting was a Tartufo and I had no room. So I ordered a double espresso and paid the bill. Dolcino deserves a second visit to try other dishes, but not when a family is celebrating a toddler’s birthday at the next table.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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