Here's Pie in Your Eye

Top Ten Food Films / Susan Carini 03GS

Beyond holding our hunger at bay with popcorn and a soda, the movies have fed our imaginations for more than a century. It should be no surprise that, where matters of nourishment are concerned, the sensuality of food and eating translates well to the silver screen.

Many of us can name films with food themes from the past few years: Eat, Drink, Man, Woman; The Wedding Banquet; Fast Food Nation, and Chocolat, among others. Looking back over the history of the industry, the following movies mark film's enduring obsession with food.

Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein

The opening frames of Potemkin exemplify the battle on ship between the officers and enlisted men when the crew complain that their meat is crawling with maggots.


Battle of the Century (1927)
Directed by Clyde Bruckman

Like much else in film comedy, the mechanics of the custard-pie fight were apparently first worked out at Keystone Studio around 1915. They then were taken up and developed by many screen comedians, with Laurel and Hardy's Battle of the Century widely regarded by connoisseurs as the apotheosis of the genre.

In this nineteen-minute film, Ollie is the manager of Stan, the world's worst prizefighter. Desperate to make some money using Stan, Ollie deliberately tries to inflict injury upon Stan to collect insurance money. He plants a banana peel in Stan's way, but it is a pie vendor who falls victim. Spotting Ollie as the obvious culprit, the pie vendor throws one of his pies at Ollie but misses and hits an innocent bystander.

This act initiates the most spectacular pie fight in film history. Hal Roach authorized the purchase of the entire day's output of the Los Angeles Pie Company--more than 3,000 pies. In the film's fictional neighborhood, eventually everyone falls victim to pie-throwing hysteria, including a postman, a dental patient, a sewer worker, a shoe-shine customer, and a dignified matron.


A Corner in Wheat (1909)
Directed by D. W. Griffith

Despite the fact that the filmic sky often seemed to be raining custard pies, early cinema was not all about the conspicuous waste of food. An important theme that links both American and Russian cinema in this era is the exact opposite: hunger. D. W. Griffith pioneered the use of parallel editing in this terse moral parable, which showcases a grain speculator who has driven up the cost of bread suffocated, in the end, by his own wheat.


The Kuban Cossacks (1949)
Directed by Ivan Pyryev

After World War II, with Europe still reeling from its many deprivations, Russian filmmaking--as an arm of Joseph Stalin's propaganda machine--instead made films depicting abundant food, as in the case of this unlikely comedy/musical. In Kruschev's famed "Secret Speech" in 1956, he denounced Stalin for consistently using Soviet cinema for self-serving mythmaking. Nowhere is this impulse more in evidence than in the spectacle of plentiful food that occupied Russian screens through the hungriest decades.


The Exterminating Angel (1962)
Directed by Luis Buñuel

In this film by surrealist director Buñuel, nobody eats and runs. Dinner guests are mysteriously trapped and only saved from turning on each other by the equally mysterious appearance of a flock of sheep. The film's plot line involves an aristocrat appropriately named Nobile, who has invited several society friends to his home after the opera. The hours pass. The people yawn and stretch out in exhaustion, yet no one leaves. Despite the mutual realization of the guests that they clearly have overstayed their welcome, no one wants to bear the distinction of being the first person to leave the dinner party. The veneer of civility erodes as desperation and distrust set in, and inevitably the guests turn against their host, blaming him for their absurd, self-induced captivity.

Tom Jones (1963)
Directed by Tony Richardson

A bawdy, exuberant adaptation of the Henry Fielding novel, Tom Jones featured one of the more memorable demonstrations of the link between food and sex ever committed to celluloid, giving new meaning to the term "human appetite." The famous, sex-drenched eating scene between Tom (Albert Finney) and (all unknowingly) possibly his mother, Mrs. Waters (Joyce Redman), begins naturally enough with big steaming pewter bowls of soup. Mrs. Waters leans well over the table and lustily slurps big round spoonsful, breasts tumbling out of her bodice, with a more-than-come-hither look. Tom, nearly overcome, involuntarily rips a claw off the langouste he has in his hand and sucks happily on it. Turkey, oysters, pears, wine, and drafts of ale then are dispatched with loving attention.


La Grande Bouffé (1973)
Directed by Marco Ferreri

Anyone for thirds? Fourths? Fifths? A quartet of successful middle-aged men--Marcello, a pilot; Michel, a television executive; Ugo, a chef; and, Philippe, a judge--go to the villa of one of the men to eat themselves to death. The villa, the food, and a Bugati roadster are the film's essential props. And so the men eat. And eat. And eat. They sometimes have sex, drive cars, and get sick. But mostly they eat. They even have competitions to see who can eat the fastest. This neo-Sadean orgy--with its comic counterpart in  Terry Jones's exploding fat diner in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)--marks the climax of the cinema of disgust.


Soylent Green (1973)
Directed by Richard Fleischer


In the setting for this film, natural food such as fruits, vegetables, and meat are now unavailable. The earth is overpopulated, and New York City has forty million starving, poverty-stricken people. The only way they survive is through water rations and eating a mysterious food called soylent green that stems from an unidentifiable source. Charlton Heston plays a detective who investigates the murder of the president of the company that distributes soylent green. The truth is quite disturbing when he learns the secret ingredient of soylent green: the bodies of people who have used government-sponsored euthanasia centers. The film's tag line read: "It's the year 2022. People are still the same. They'll do anything to get what they need."


Goodfellas (1990)
Directed by Martin Scorsese

Are eating and killing the main occupations of Italian-Americans? You might think so from screening Goodfellas . In this film, a brutal mafia killing is followed by an alarmingly normal Italian meal, served by the director's own mother, Catherine. Later, the central figure's (Paul Sorvino) drug-fueled paranoia is signaled by his obsession with the meatballs and tomato sauce he is cooking as the FBI move in. "Keep an eye on the sauce and watch the helicopters" is one of his last orders before the Feds arrive.


The Last Supper (1995)

A group of West Coast sophisticates decide to better the world by passing judgment on their influential dinner guests. Say the wrong thing and you wind up as compost for the tomatoes. Food in this ironic postmodern movie, as in the British black comedy Shallow Grave of a year earlier, is more likely to be a trap or a nasty surprise than simple nourishment. Viewers should take note of how the quality of the food declines with each guest; indeed, sometimes these justice-seeking chefs serve meals that are flat-out cruel.


Making a film about food?
Observe, please, the reigning tropes.

When bringing home bags of groceries in a film, it is required that you spill at least one bagful on the kitchen floor.

Bags of groceries are never heavy.

Whenever anyone in a movie goes shopping, they always come back with stuff sticking out of the top of the shopping bag, usually carrot tops and French bread.

All movie mothers will prepare a breakfast, usually consisting of scrambled eggs, bacon, etc. Dad and the kids invariably will arrive at the table thirty seconds before Dad has to leave for the office and the kids have to catch the school bus. Each will have time only for a sip of coffee/juice and/or one bite of toast.

Excerpts were used with permission from
the London Food Film Fiesta website,






 © 2007 Emory University