As someone who misspent some of his early life viewing movies, I can’t help but recall some of coffee’s more exhibitionist moments before the camera.
Here are but a few moments memorable to me:
The 1952 film noir classic, The Turning Point with Edmond O’Brien as a well-intentioned but naive politician trying to clean the rats out of government featured a scene making coffee using a vacuum maker. The film’s director wisely starts the scene during the vacuum drawing the finished brew back down into the lower carafe. I can’t watch the scene without shoveling some fresh Guatemala Antigua into my own vacuum Silex.
For the best “coffee as sacrament” you can’t do better than Air Mail, my favorite John Ford film. Cheerless airline executive/pilot (from the days when they did both) Ralph Bellamy must pour twenty cups or so of coffee to maintain his seemingly eternal vigil running his airmail operation during an equally endless fog bound night. As atmospheric as these exciting early years of airborne heroics were, I think in balance I prefer the boredom of modern airlines. The safety, but not the coffee, has improved, however.
Another noir classic, The Stranger on the Third Floor, sets much of its dark story line around the confines of a diner called Nick’s. Nick, a Greek restaurateur steals a scene in which he explains why his coffee is so good to two dewy-eyed starlets who ask his secret. “The secret”, Nick says, “is I put a raisin in the every cup”. I’m thinking of remaking the film with this same scene in it. Only in my remake it turns out that I am Nick’s killer, after I discover he’s been flavoring my coffee without my knowledge.
Any film with alcoholics in it is guaranteed to feature early morning “lots of black coffee” scenes and Lost Weekend is no exception. Ray Milland’s portrait of a boozer is liberally peppered with the coffee-making activities of crusading Jane Wyman, whose employment of a percolator almost excuses Milland’s habit, at least in my book.
Preston Sturges, whose work seems to age even better than the best Sumatra green beans, obviously knew how to weave the coffee into a good yarn. His classic, Christmas in July, is about an advertising wannabe, Dick Powell, who tries to seduce gal pal Ellen Drew with his phrase, “If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee. It’s the bunk.” In fact, he enters the slogan in an advertising contest sponsored by a major coffee company. At one point his mother notices that he has accidentally dropped a penny in his coffee cup. “That’s lucky”, she says with her first generation brogue. Sorry, Mom. Not in my house, where you couldn’t see a penny in the bottom of the cup. It’s never good luck to look into a coffee cup and see anything but coffee. If you can it means the coffee is weak.
Patricia Fitzgibbon, Coffee Companion staffer, forced me to endure one of her favorites films, the ultra-campy Pillow Talk. Other than watching Rock Hudson method-act love interest in Doris Day, this film does have our top-rated Chemex coffee maker as its scene stealer. Once I spotted the Chemex, I re-wound and ran the scene several times.
A somewhat late entry in classic coffee-making in film comes from an early 60’s cold war comedy, One, Two, Three, starring James Cagney as a Coca-Cola executive trying to sell Coke in the Soviet Union. His secretary is shown in a photo accompanying this article making coffee and, yes, that is a vacuum maker. No wonder the Soviets resisted his efforts to introduce Coke when they apparently still had superior coffee-making equipment.
The 70’s and 80’s proved to be dark ages for coffee makers, as for coffee in general. It speaks volumes about our culture’s subconscious shame in using electric percolators and switching to high-content robusta-grade coffees that there is a drought of good coffee-making scenes in films during this period.
Perhaps the 90’s will prove to be a more coffee-focused time period. Already we have Café Romeo (a film so dependent on Joseph Campanella that even after he dies he is brought back via flashback for the film’s duration). Although Groundhog Day has no noteworthy coffee scenes in it, I was impressed by rumors that Bill Murray insisted on specialty coffee from a local roaster during shooting. A recent Christopher Walken film, in the Company of Strangers, has him sipping espresso in Venice while playing intense psychotic games with two impressionable British.
I haven’t yet seen the ultimate coffee cinema scene. When I do, I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, if you do, let me know.