Siphon Cinema: A Journey Through Coffee



The coffee siphon (also known as the vacuum coffee pot) makes brief, innocuous appearances now and again in films. Its design has changed little since the 1830s, when it was first patented in Germany. And indeed, the glass bell and bulb suspended by a retort stand over a flame suggest both ornamental and scientific Victoriana, its utilization a delicate and ritualistic art, like alchemy or a seance. Some mediocre cafés will use it solely for decoration. Its subtle presence as a status symbol persists through occasional sightings in cinema.

Here it is, lower left, in a scene from William Dieterle’s The Turning Point (1952), being served up to William Holden by Alexis Smith.

Still from 'The Turning Point'

And in One, Two, Three (1961), James Cagney’s East German secretary prepares the siphon for his morning contentment.

Still from 'One Two Three'

Yes, it was also used in Sunset Blvd (1950).

Still from 'Sunset Boulevard'

So far, siphon coffee has been brewed exclusively by loyal women for pampered men. But Cornel Wilde’s underpaid detective Diamond, in The Big Combo (1955), has to stay up late in the office, shaving with a plug-in razor – and also brewing coffee for himself. Here we see a rare, aluminum-bowl siphon next to him on the desk.

Still from 'The Big Combo'

In an inversion (or is that a decanting) of prior suppositions, here is Rossano Brazzi in the Spanish noir The Black Crown (1951), attempting to jog the memory of an amnesiac María Félix. One wonders if co-writer Jean Cocteau specified the siphon’s use in his storyline.

Still from 'The Black Crown'

British cinema seems to see it more as a status symbol. In The Secret People (1952), it can be seen among the dessert spread at an exclusive outdoor restaurant…

Still from 'The Secret People'

…shortly before the table is destroyed by a terrorist bomb.

Still from 'The Secret People'

Of course, the rich people have already vacated their table by the time it happens, so the only victim is a hapless waitress. The siphon looks strangely undisturbed, possibly incriminating itself in the outrage.

Speaking of bombs, this low-pressure form of brewing was pointed out by Nathalie of the Food on Film blog as featuring in Powell and Pressburger’s high-pressure bomb-defusing film The Small Back Room (1949) – even warranting a close-up of the apparatus itself. The astute blogger even found that there was a commercial tie-in with the Cona coffee maker company. The first siphon coffee product placement?

Here Kathleen Byron readies the finished product for David Farrar.

Still From 'The Small Back Room'

And Farrar, hand steadied by doses of caffeine, even uses ultra-modern retort stand technology to defuse bombs in the film.

Still From 'The Small Back Room'

The device can be found in a much more sedate role in Brief Encounter (1945), the encounter between the two characters no doubt prolonged by the glass flask of goodness on the table.

Still From 'Brief Encounter'

It takes a distinctly downwardly-mobile turn in Kim Ki-young’s 1975 Promise of the Flesh, when it can be spotted (also aluminum-belled) as a prop in a coffee shop of – let’s just say – ill repute.

Still from 'Promise of the Flesh'

In Japan, the siphon finds a domestic profile, less an accessory of the wealthy and more a common household appliance. Notice Yoshigo Kuga preparing coffee for young Kiyoshi in Heinosuke Gosho’s Yellow Crow (1957).

Still from 'Yellow Crow'

The same shot, with a siphon in the foreground, appears three times in the 1972 drag-racing film Hairpin Circus, part of a humble apartment. The protagonist’s girlfriend criticizes him for frequenting a drive-in diner, boasting that her coffee is the best.

Still from 'Hairpin Circus'

Finally, here it is in an unassuming kissaten in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Man Without a Map (1971).

Still from 'The Man Without a Map'

Is the coffee siphon a bauble for pretension or a modestly ingenious device? Like the little kissaten in the film, it has its hidden significance.

Edit: An on-the-ball reader (I’m not sure if she would want her name mentioned, so I won’t) pointed out a siphon appearance in Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich (1940), which predates any of the scenes that I had found. Here is Margaret Lockwood’s character Anna carrying the siphon coffee to her father while staring daggers across the room at Rex Harrison.

Still From 'Night Train to Munich'

5 Responses to “Siphon Cinema: A Journey Through Coffee”

  1. Hugh Gerechter said

    Interesting, curious detail – I’m reminded somehow of a maxim (I think) Truffaut said he learned from Hitchcock, about always offering something to learn in each of his films.

    On Thu, May 11, 2017 at 4:33 PM, Night in the Lens wrote:

    > chaiwalla posted: “Procrastinating on my next review – no, caramelizing it > – I thought I’d offer a rare picture-essay, a nod to the fuel that > (ordinarily) pushes my writing forward: The coffee siphon (also known as > the vacuum coffee pot) makes brief, innocuous appearance” >

  2. Nealstar said

    When I saw, “Night Train to Munich” the other night, I thought I was looking at a some kind of Vac-u-lator prototype. Wanting to check it out, I did a search for “‘Night Train to Munich’ Vac-u-lator coffee pot” and ended up here. You’re very esoteric and a great humanitarian. Thank you for your dedication to obscure detail in cinema.

  3. jundai said

    I also spotted it in a key scene with epsom salts in The Arsenal Stadium Mystery

  4. jundai said

    I also just saw a siphon coffee scene in Force of Evil

    I started a list here:

  5. aghaken said

    Also in “My Man Godfrey” at 56:36 and 1:26:35.

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