Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Hitchcock Project-Stanley Ellin Part Three: Specialty of the House [5.12]

by Jack Seabrook

Stanley Ellin's first story, "The Specialty of the House," is his most famous. Published in the May 1948 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, it begins as a man named Laffler takes his employee Costain to dinner at Sbirro's, a restaurant housed in the basement of an unassuming brownstone. They are welcomed into a small dining room that is lit by gas jets, where no women are allowed and where an East Indian waiter serves them. Laffler is disappointed to learn that the special is not being offered tonight, and Costain is surprised to learn that every diner is served the same dish, prepared by a single chef. Laffler has never seen the inside of the kitchen but is obsessed with it.

"The Specialty of the House"
was first published here
The meal is superb but the rules are strict: no condiments, tobacco, alcohol, or any drink besides water are allowed. Laffler explains that Sbirro's is for the true gourmet. The meat is delicious but Laffler tells Costain that it is nothing like the special: Lamb Amirstan, from a rare flock of sheep on the border between Afghanistan and Russia. The dish is not often served and no notice is given. Most of the patrons are regulars and the restaurant is a well-kept secret.

Costain begins to accompany Laffler to Sbirro's on a regular basis and his profile at work improves as he puts on weight. Two weeks after his first visit to Sbirro's, the special is served, though one of the regular diners is missing. Costain meets Sbirro for the first time when the owner visits Laffler's table and explains that his restaurant is not a private club but rather is open to the public, since he only wants people to eat and enjoy his food. Pointing out a portrait that hangs on the wall, Sbirro explains that it portrays one man who was allowed into the kitchen. Costain recognizes the man as a famous writer who disappeared in Mexico, and he and Laffler savor their Lamb Amirstan.

The next evening, on the way to dinner at Sbirro's, Laffler and Costain encounter their waiter being choked by a drunken sailor who accuses the waiter of having tried to rob him. Laffler attacks the sailor and he and Costain subdue him, leading the waiter to tell Laffler that he owes him his life. Sitting down to dinner at Sbirro's, Laffler informs Costain that he is off to South America on a surprise tour of inspection for an unknown duration and that he is leaving tonight. The waiter that he saved warns Laffler never to go into the kitchen and Sbirro appears and tells Laffler that the chef flew into a rage when he heard there might be a guest in his domain. Sbirro invites Laffler into the kitchen alone and Costain gets up to leave. The last thing he sees is Laffler being led into the kitchen by Sbirro.

Robert Morley as Laffler
"The Specialty of the House" is a well-written story that is subtle in its menace, where the final events are only implied but are terribly clear in their implications. The parallels to ancient practices and religious rites are evident throughout the tale. Like a church, Sbirro's has "'refused to compromise'" and seems not to have changed in "'half a century.'" Costain remarks to Laffler early in the story that "'you make it sound more like a cathedral than a restaurant.'" Comparisons of humans and animals are also evident, as Laffler is described as having "large, cowlike eyes." The entrance to Sbirro's has an "ancient pull-bell," and the restaurant is lit by gas jets, not modern electricity. No women are allowed and only one meal is served, much like Communion in the Catholic Church.

The kitchen at Sbirro's is off limits to patrons (parishioners), like the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem temple and, like a religion, there are strict rules prohibiting alcohol, tobacco, and women. Laffler comments that the restaurant "'represents man at the apex of his civilization,'" yet it also seems like something retained from ancient times. When Costain tries the meat for the first time, his consumption of the dish is described in animalistic terms:  he notes "the peculiarly flat, yet soul-satisfying ooze of blood which the pressure of his jaws forced from the half-raw interior," he is "ferociously hungry for another piece," and he must prevent himself from "wolfing [it] down."

Kenneth Haigh as Costain
The owner and his staff are exotic and the signature dish, Lamb Amirstan, is from a foreign land. Laffler calls Sbirro's a "'warm haven in a coldy insane world,'" much as a churchgoer might view the inside of a church. In a sense, Costain is like a new convert to a religion; he is "hypnotized" by Sbirro's words. Continuing the theme of restaurant as temple, Laffler refers to the kitchen as the "'sanctum sanctorum'" (a/k/a the Holy of Holies, or innermost room in the temple, where only the high priest could enter once a year, on the Day of Atonement) and when Costain takes a bite of Lamb Amirstan he exclaims, "'Good God!'" as if he has just taken a Communion wafer that has been transformed by the priest into the Body of Christ.

Costain comments that "'It is as impossible . . . for the uninitiated to conceive the delights of lamb Amirstan as for mortal man to look into his own soul,'" causing Sbirro to reply, "'perhaps you have just had a glimpse into your soul.'" Costain says that "'I should hardly like to build my church on lamb en casserole,'" which is meant as a humorous remark but which recalls Jesus' statement about Peter being the Rock upon which he will build his church. Sbirro, continuing the same theme, suggests that Costain turn his "'thoughts a little to the significance of the Lamb in religion.'" Stanley Ellis could not be much clearer at this point in the story; Sbirro is referring to the sacrificial lamb, whose life is taken as payment for the sins of others. At the end of the story, Laffler will be the next lamb to be sacrificed.

Spivy as Spirro
Laffler himself recognizes the parallels between food and religion, stating that "'Lamb Amirstan is a ritual with [Sbirro]; get him started and he'll be back at you a dozen times worse than a priest making a conversion.'" After the sailor attacks the waiter, Laffler says that the sailor's drunken and violent condition is due to "'Plain atavistic savagery'" but he quickly uses the same term to explain his and Costain's reason for enjoying the consumption of meat: "'because our atavistic selves cry for release.'" Atavism describes the return of an ancestral trait lost through evolution over generations; in a sense, the sailor's attack and the diners' enjoyment of meat both hearken back to the actions of primitive man. Laffler compliments Sbirro for bending "'all his efforts to the satisfaction of our innate nature without resultant harm to some innocent bystander,'" not realizing that he himself will soon be harmed to satisfy the appetites of his fellow diners.

In the end, the East Indian waiter believes he owes his life to Laffler and warns him in a particularly significant way, telling him "'By the body and blood of your God . . . do not go in the kitchen . . .'" As Sbirro leads Laffler into the Holy of Holies, Costain glances back, much like Lot's wife looking back at Sodom. Costain sees the lamb being led to the slaughter but fortunately he is not turned into a pillar of salt, since condiments are not permitted at Sbirro's.

"The Specialty of the House" has clear religious parallels but is also a thoroughly entertaining story with hidden treats. The famous writer who disappeared in Mexico is surely meant to recall Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared in that country in 1914 while observing the revolution. Ellis has a bit of fun here by suggesting that the author did not really make it south of the border but rather was an earlier victim of Sbirro, served to diners on the eve of the first world war. Near the end of the story, Costain makes a comment that he intends as humorous but which is unintentionally prescient: "'think of that ferocious chef waiting to get his cleaver on you.'"

George Keymas as Paul, the waiter
In 1959, when the decision was made to adapt Ellin's story for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the writer assigned to the task had a challenging job ahead of him. In his introduction to a 1979 collection of his mystery short stories, Ellin wrote that, when he wrote this one, he had "an idea for a story so outrageous that even as I was putting it down on paper I knew it was destined for oblivion." He was certainly wrong about the fate of his tale, but he was not wrong about its outrageous premise. The teleplay for "Specialty of the House" (the definite article has been removed from the title) is credited to Victor Wolfson and Bernard C. Shoenfeld, suggesting that there was some difficulty in translating the story to the small screen that required two writers to work on the teleplay. The show that they crafted benefits from strong performances by the actors and from the creative mind of director Robert Stevens.

The shows opens with two establishing shots. It is night, and the camera pans across a river with a bridge in the distance; we see a highway with many cars speeding by alongside the river. I suspect the city is New York, though this is never explicitly stated (late in the episode, Costain says that he is going to dictate a memo to London, so the setting is not London). The shot dissolves to a fog-shrouded dock, then to a sidewalk, where we see Laffler and Costain hurrying to dinner. Among the many minor alterations from story to screen is the fact that in the TV version, Sbirro's is a private club, not a public eatery, and in the credits at the end of the show, Sbirro's name is spelled "Spirro."

Cyril Delevanti as the diner who says, "No salt!"
Not surprisingly, the religious parallels of Ellin's story are toned down considerably for TV, though a few comments survive: Costain tells Laffler, right before their first experience at Spirro's, that "'You make me feel as if we're going into a temple, not a restaurant,'" to which Laffler replies, "'In a sense, we are.'" Inside the club, the writers of the teleplay use dialogue and interaction between Laffler, Costain, and the other diners to make points that are made through narrative in the story. An Asian diner named Long Fong Ho says he comes three times a year from Singapore "'just to eat here'" and a diner at another table overhears Costain complain about the soup needing salt and exclaims, "'No salt! No salt! Keep the palate pure!'" The key dish, known as Lamb Amirstan in the story, becomes "Lamb Armistan" the first time it is mentioned, and later "Lamb Armistran."

Wolfson and Schoenfeld open up the story by having a few scenes at the office of "Laffler & Co.--Importers/Exporters," where Laffler and Costain interact with the only other employee in sight, a secretary named Miss Hinkle. Costain is shown to be a liar when he breaks a date with Miss Hinkle by saying that Laffler wants to go over accounts with him; in reality, he is accompanying his boss to dinner at Spirro's. The source of Lamb Armistran is said to be a plateau on the boundary of Uganda, perhaps because mentions of Russia were unpopular at the height of the Cold War. Another religious parallel is made when Laffler tells Costain that one of his two obsessions is to "'see the kitchens where these miracles are performed.'" Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, the dramatic rise that ends the first act comes after Costain asks Laffler of Spirro, "'What sort of a fellow is he?'" Spirro's hand appears on Laffler's shoulder and the camera pans up to reveal a stout woman, rather than a man. This is doubly surprising to those familiar with the story, in which women are banned from the restaurant--now, the owner is a woman! Unlike Ellin's story, Spirro gives notice of the special dish and says, "'I think we shall be having the specialty of the house very soon, my friend.'"

Bettye Ackerman as Miss Hinkle
After the break, we return to see Spirro sitting at a piano, having just finished playing a song and basking in applause from the assembled diners. This is very different portrayal of the restaurant's owner than that in the story, where Sbirro's only concern is to serve food that makes people happy. Costain approaches Spirro and asks if he might become a member; she is impressed by his manners and modesty and Laffler compares her to a religious figure, calling her "'the high priestess of our kitchen.'" This leads to an interesting addition to the religious theme, one not found in Ellin's story, as Spirro says that "'The only dish I prepare personally is the Lamb Armistran. I've been preparing it now for three days.'" Of course, the traditional time between the death and resurrection of Jesus was three days, and the writers of the teleplay seem to be making a subtle comparison here that suggests that the murder of the missing diner and his return as a fine dish parallel the resurrection in the New Testament. When Spirro leaves the dining room, there is a fleeting glimpse of a painting of Mary and the Baby Jesus on the wall.

In another change from the story, Spirro says that "'the specialty shall be ready'" the next night; in Ellin's original, it was always served with no advance notice. The atavistic behavior of the diners when presented with the meat is suggested by Laffler's anger with Costain the following night, when he does not want to share the Lamb Armistran with his employee and thus refuses to let him into the restaurant. Unexpectedly, Spirro comes to the door and lets Costain in herself. After dinner, the scene shifts back to the office, where Laffler shows Costain files in preparation for leaving on his trip. This time, Laffler's statement is prescient, as he remarks that "'I want to have time to enjoy my last meal at Spirro's. Well, my last meal for a few weeks.'"

Lee Turnbull as the chef
The events that follow take a different approach than in the short story. Costain stays behind at the office as Laffler rushes to dine at Spirro's. Taking a seat behind Laffler's desk, he takes a telephone call from Spirro and tells her, "'No, I haven't forgotten.'" Forgotten what? Is Costain aware of what goes on in Spirro's kitchen and is he complicit in Laffler's murder? The answer is not certain. Laffler stops the attack on the waiter by himself and enters the club alone. Soon after that, Costain arrives and hands a wrapped package to Spirro--presumably, the package is what she called him at the office to remind him to bring. Laffler petulantly complains to Spirro and she invites him into the kitchen to address his complaint. The waiter tries to stop Laffler at the kitchen door but Laffler ignores him and enters the kitchen, which is never seen in the short story. In the TV show, Laffler takes time to examine the large, elaborate kitchen in the presence of Spirro, who tells him that the chef is waiting for him. She leads Laffler into a large meat locker, where the chef awaits, holding a large meat cleaver. Spirro shuts the door, grinning ear to ear.

Costain then enters the dining room and Spirro unwraps the package, which contains a framed photograph of Laffler. She hangs it on the wall, in line with many other portraits, and comments "'How well he looks there among our other absent friends.'" Spirro then confirms that the specialty of the house will soon be served and the episode ends, having made Laffler's fate much clearer than it was in the short story but leaving the viewer wondering what Costain's role in the proceedings was and how much he knew about what was going to happen to his boss.

Charles Wagenheim as Henlein
Giving a wonderful performance as Laffler is Robert Morley (1908-1992), an English actor whose girth fits the role perfectly. He started acting on stage in the late 1920s and moved to film in 1935; among his memorable film roles were as Katherine Hepburn's missionary brother in The African Queen (1951) and as the critic who is forced to eat his dogs in Theatre of Blood (1973). Morley turned down a knighthood in 1975 and, unfortunately, this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock TV show.

His employee, Costain, is portrayed by Kenneth Haigh (1931-2018), who was also seen in the Hitchcock-directed episode, "Banquo's Chair." Some of the shots in this episode recall shots in that one, especially in the way Haigh's face is lit. He was on screen from 1954 to 2002 and also appeared on The Twilight Zone and Thriller; he made a splash on stage in 1956 when he starred in John Osborne's Look Back in Anger.

The rather frightening character of Spirro is played by an actress credited only as Spivy (1906-1971). Born Bertha Levine in Brooklyn and known professionally as Spivy, she began her career as a nightclub singer in the 1930s and ran a club in Manhattan called Spivy's Roof from 1940 to 1951. "The Specialty of the House" was her first screen role; she would appear on TV and film occasionally until 1967.

In smaller roles:
  • George Keymas (1925-2008) as Paul, the waiter; he had many small parts on TV from 1952 to 1976 and is best remembered as the Leader in the "Eye of the Beholder" episode of The Twilight Zone; his menacing image is beamed on screen throughout the hospital as he advocates for conformity.
  • Bettye Ackerman (1924-2006) as Miss Hinkle, the secretary; she had a recurring role on Ben Casey from 1961 to 1966 and was on screen from 1953 to 1991. She was married for many years to the much older actor Sam Jaffe and also appeared in an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
  • Charles Wagenheim (1896-1979) as Henlein, another diner; he was on screen from 1929 to 1979 and played the assassin in Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940). His life ended when he was murdered in his Hollywood apartment.
  • Tetsu Komai (1894-1970) as Long Fong Ho, the Asian diner; he was born in Japan and emigrated to the United States in 1907. He was on screen from 1925 to 1964 and his family was held in a Japanese internment camp during World War Two. He appeared in Island of Lost Souls (1932) and one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
  • Lee Turnbull makes a fleeting appearance as the chef with the meat cleaver; he has few credits and was on screen from 1951 to 1961.
  • Cyril Delevanti (1887-1975) makes an uncredited appearance as the diner who tells Costain, "No salt!" He was on screen from 1931 to 1974 and appeared in three Hitchcock episodes, including "The Derelicts."
Tetsu Komai as Long Fong Ho
Robert Stevens (1920-1989), the director, worked in television from 1948 to 1987 and directed 44 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and five episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He won an Emmy for "The Glass Eye." He also directed 105 episodes of Suspense in the early 1950s.

Victor Wolfson (1909-1990), one of the two writers credited with the teleplay, was a playwright who also wrote books. He wrote for TV from 1951 to 1960, including teleplays for Suspense. He penned an episode of Janet Dean, Registered Nurse, the show that Alfred Hitchcock Presents producer Joan Harrison produced right before the Hitchcock show began, and he wrote six episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby," also based on a short story by Stanley Ellin.

The other writer credited with the teleplay is Bernard C. Schoenfeld (1907-1980), who wrote for film and TV from 1944 to 1975 and who wrote the screenplay for Phantom Lady  (1944), which was produced by Joan Harrison. Among the sixteen episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that he wrote was "A Night with the Boys."

Laffler first enters the kitchen
"The Specialty of the House" was adapted for the 1980s Alfred Hitchcock Presents series and broadcast on March 21, 1987; from summaries in print and online it appears that the story was much different. The short story was also adapted twice for BBC Radio: first, on April 13, 1974, for the series The Price of Fear (with Vincent Price) and later, on March 20, 1988, for the series, Fear on Four.

Read Stanley Ellin's story online here or watch the Alfred Hitchcock Presents version here. Listen to the radio adaptations here and here. The 1959 Hitchcock episode is available on DVD here. The 1987 version is not available on DVD or online, but a short clip is here and it is in Italian here. Read the Genre Snaps take on this episode here.

Ellin, Stanley. “Introduction.” The Specialty of the House, Mysterious Press, 1979.
Ellin, Stanley. “The Specialty of the House.” The Specialty of the House, Mysterious Press, 1979.
The FictionMags Index,
Galactic Central,
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
“Specialty of the House.” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 5, episode 12, CBS, 13 Dec. 1959.
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Apr. 2018,

In two weeks: The Day of the Bullet, starring Barry Gordon!


Grant said...

Bettye Ackerman is also good as the killer's secretary (though not any kind of accomplice) in the COLUMBO episode "Blueprint For Murder." I might know her from many things I can't think of, but that's the obvious one.

JP said...

Thanks for the great write-up, Jack! Really enjoy this episode, especially the performances from Robert Morley and Madame Spivy. Also great to see some Zone faces in there in Haigh, Delevanti, and Keymas, who wore some of that great pig-person makeup in "Eye of the Beholder."

I first read Ellin's story in an Otto Penzler-edited anthology titled The 50 Greatest Mysteries of All Time and greatly enjoyed it. I'd been searching for it for awhile by then. Later I came across an old paperback of Ellin's tales titled Quiet Horror which included this tale among others. It's a volume I treasure to this day. Ellin's stories aren't that easy to find, which is a shame. His collected mystery stories should remain in print. As good as this episode is I still think my favorite adaptation is the one done for The Price of Fear. I enjoy the novelty aspect of Price playing himself as stand-in for Costain.

The ritualistic aspect of the whole charade is one of the creepier elements for sure but I hadn't realized just how many religious overtones were present in the tale. The disappearance of Ambrose Bierce tied in to a tale of cannibalism rang a bell and, if I'm not mistaken, I believe Gerald Kersh used a similar idea for his tale "The Secret of the Bottle," although in case of the Kersh story Bierce made it to Mexico before being eaten.

I haven't seen the 1980s interpretation but I'll definitely have to track it down. Thanks again!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Grant. I never watched Ben Casey so I don't know her at all.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Jordan! I recognized Delevanti right away because I know him from that TZ episode where everyone turns into statutes. I'm reading the complete mystery stories of Stanley Ellin now and it's a volume I highly recommend--$7.99 on Kindle from Amazon.

Mike Doran said...

Not to nit-pick …

That TZ episode where everybody was turned into statues - that was Cecil Kellaway, who was somewhat more robust.
Cyril Delevanti, a touch on the dessicated side, was Barry Morse's sourpuss butler in that other TZ episode.

With you all the way on the Stanley Ellin stories, though …

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Mike. I'm allowed to make mistakes in the comments because I'm just going on memory, not research!

meyo said...

I believe the link to the 1987 version on YouTube you say is in Spanish is actually in Italian.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks! I corrected the post.