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'

So far, it’s used by loyal women for pampered men. But Cornel Wilde’s underpaid detective Diamond, in The Big Combo (1955), has to shave in the office and brew coffee for himself. Here we see a rare, aluminum-bowl siphon next to him on the desk.

Still from 'The Big Combo'

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 destroyed 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 a hapless maid. The siphon looks strangely undisturbed, possibly incriminating itself in the outrage.

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

Still from 'Yellow Crow'

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'


One Response 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” >

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