***Spoilers: My apologies for some of the heavy spoilers at the end here but they are necessary for my discussion of the way food takes part in the film.***
Max (Robert Morley): Cut down? I am what I am precisely because I’ve eaten my way to the top! I’m a work of art, created by the finest chefs in the world. Every fold is a brush stroke! Every crease a sonnet! Every chin a concerto! In short doctor darling, in my present form, I’m a masterpiece!
In my blog post for the Movie Parody Blogathon, I talked about how the 1970’s was a golden age for social and cultural satire. American films especially saw all the big “T” Truths/ assumed to make up American life from the post-World War II era ripe for parody. For example, I wrote about the 1975 film Smile which parodies the American beauty pageants.
In some ways, the 1978 film Who is Killing The Chefs of Europe? takes a similar satirical approach when it comes to food. Food became more than just about physical survival after the post-war era in America (maybe as a backlash to the rationing that went on during that time) and it’s only been getting more so with the explosion of foodist culture, the slow food movement, special diets, and reality TV shows focused on chefs and restaurants. This film is, in many ways, ahead of its time in questioning some of the exaggerations and even absurdities behind these food obsession.
On the face of it, the Who is Killing isn’t a cozy murder mystery in the style of Agatha Christie where, as the title implies, Europe’s top chefs are being killed off one by one. But the film satirizes two main tenants of food – the idea that gourmet food is preferable to simple or common food and sacrificing the joy of food for health and weight loss.
The film constantly pits high-brow food against low-brow food with, predictably, the former favored by many of the characters in the film. Max (Robert Morley), a food connoisseur and editor of a gourmet magazine, is the main voice singing praises to the snobbery that encompasses exclusive and expensive high-end food. In one scene, he is going through the magazine’s test kitchens liberally tasting from dishes while he rails to his assistant, Beechum (Madge Ryan) about the bastardization of food in the modern age. At one point, he sniffs about how he fired an office worker because he found a jar of peanut butter in her desk. He then turns to an Asian chef and praises him, asking him what it was he just tasted that was so delicious. The chef delivers the name of the dish which includes – surprise, surprise – peanut butter.
In fact, the storyline begins with Max fulfilling one of his ultimate dreams – to create the perfect meal based on the specialties of the greatest chefs of Europe. As Roger Ebert puts it in his film review, “[Max is] poised on the brink of a lifelong ambition: He has chosen the greatest dishes of the world’s greatest chefs, and he intends to eat his way gloriously through them” (Ebert, par. 2). When the chefs start to disappear, Max’s main concern is losing some of his culinary favorites, such as pigeon pie, pressed duck, and a dessert made by lovely Natasha (played by Jacqueline Bisset) that goes by the rather frightening name of “Le Bombe”.
This idea that the lengths to which gourmet food will go can sometimes have some grotesque results is part of the satire of the film, as “[t]here are lots of gory discoveries in kitchens…” (Ebert, par. 6). In one scene, Chef Jean-Claude Moulineau (Philippe Noiret) shows Max how he makes his award-winning pressed duck by a special machine that squeezes the juice from the cooked meat and the demonstration is more nauseating than appetizing. Another scene has a good old-fashioned food fight between Chef Louis Kohner (Jean-Pierre Cassel) and Chef Fausto Zoppi (Stefano Satta Flores), reducing the professional kitchen to a pigpen.
So it’s maybe not a big surprise that the chefs die in the way of their specialties or, in an even more absurd turn, a meeting among the European chefs reveals more anger from those who weren’t targeted, as “[a] ghastly death awaits the victims, and there is unspeakable humiliation for those chefs who are apparently not great enough to be killed” (Ebert, par. 3). Kohner, in the way of his pigeon pies, is baked at a high temperature, Moulineau is pressed like his ducks and Zoppi is found drowned in a tank with his lobsters. The film not only finds unique ways to murder victims but also, as Ebert points out, pokes fun at the price these chefs must pay for being “chosen”.
Common non-gourmet food is represented by Natasha’s ex-husband Robby (George Segal). Unlike the snobbish and arrogant European chefs in the film, Robby is the enthusiastic, high-spirited American who has made millions on the kind of cheap low-brow food Americans enjoy – fast food (his nickname in the film is “the Taco King”). Unlike the chefs, he sees food as something people have fun with, and, more importantly, makes money for those selling it to them. His constant attempts to get his ex-wife and other chefs involved in his new venture (a chain of chicken joints a la Kentucky Fried Chicken spread all across Europe) offers an amusing contrast to everyone else’s stuffy gourmet attitudes. After Natasha has refused to be involved in the new chain, he gets her to ask Kohner, with whom she’s having an affair, if he will be advising chef for the restaurants. Kohner’s response? “I’d rather be dead.” Which, unfortunately, is exactly what happens to him a short time later.
It’s not only high-brow food that gets a dig in this film but also the whole diet and health obsession that began to take over America in the 1970’s and still continues today. Max is quite a large man and “has been solemnly informed by his doctor that he is calamitously fat, and must diet or die” (Ebert, par. 1). But to a man like Max, cutting down or cutting out all his gourmet culinary delights is worse than a death sentence. A scene that not only brings some of the most hilarious moments in the film and rings true for anyone who has ever been on a diet that illustrates this is when Beechum reads back to him a list (complete with calories) of his dinner, including a tiny slice of meat, one asparagus spear, and four ounces of wine. It’s no wonder Max declares that his diet “wouldn’t save a chipmunk from malnutrition.” So deprived is he of the joy of eating that he at first refuses to attend Kohner’s funeral until he realizes the reception will include some of the gourmand’s favorite dishes, including his adored pressed duck.
The ending of the film is the apex of the food satire. A most unlikely person is the culprit of the murders but more to the point, the “who done it” is less interesting than the “why done it”. Max is, predictably, finding it impossible to stick with his diet, as evidenced in the point of the final scene where Natasha and Robby walk in on a meal of massive plates and platters with all of his favorite dishes. The solution? All the chefs are responsible for his lack of willpower and therefore must be eliminated so that he will no longer have a reason to go off his diet.
The film is, first and foremost, a murder mystery and we have fun following the crazy clues that lead to solving the crime. But the subtler digs at the food obsessions that have taken over modern culture shouldn’t be overlooked.
Ebert, Roger. “Who is Killing The Great Chefs of Europe?” Rogerebert.com. Ebert Digital, LLC. 9 October 1978. Web. 1 November 2017.