Coffee Siphon: A Journey Through Cinema

05/11/2017

While my next review takes its time percolating, I thought I’d offer a rare picture-essay, a nod to the fuel that (ordinarily) pushes my writing forward:

syphon10

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. Its subtle presence as a status symbol persists through rare sightings in Western cinema.

Here it is, in the lower-left corner of the frame, in William Dieterle’s The Turning Point (1952), 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 him.

Still from 'One Two Three'

So far, it’s used by loyal women for pampered men. In the British film 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 blown up by a terrorist bomb.

Still from 'The Secret People'

Of course, the rich people have already vacated their table when it happens, so the only victim is the hapless maid. The siphon looks strangely undisturbed, possibly incriminating itself.

In Japan, it seems less an accessory of the wealthy and more a regular household appliance. Notice Yoshigo Kuga preparing coffee for young Kiyoshi in Gosho’s Yellow Crow (1957).

Still from 'Yellow Crow'

And finally, here it is in an unassuming Japanese kitassen 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 kitassen in the film, it has its hidden significance.

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