Coffee has got many a movie made, and kept many a scene on the boil — and it is the beverage of choice in the smartmoviemaking.com office. David Thomson filters the meaning of the key bean-related moments
There comes a night in Michael Mann’s film Heat (1995) when the police detective (Al Pacino) decides he should have a little chat with the criminal he suspects is planning a major heist (Robert De Niro). Your first instinct may be to wonder: does every criminal enterprise in Los Angeles qualify for this friendly heart-to-heart where the law explains to the outlaw just how serious the crime and its consequences will be – is it a little like having your Miranda rights read to you? Or, is it simply that a big movie with Pacino and De Niro had to bring its firepower together, in the way Friedrich Schiller could not resist improving on history with a meeting between Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots in his play Mary Stuart? Or maybe it’s the coffee?
You see, when Pacino summons an LAPD helicopter that can deposit him on the freeway where there’s a car waiting, so he can track down De Niro’s car and pull him over, the cop doesn’t begin with, “Have you heard the story about the rabbi and the priest?”, or “Suppose we put our heads together over a good crossword puzzle?”, or even, “What about a staring contest?” Instead, he says: “What do you say I buy you a cup of coffee?” And somehow that makes the far-fetched scene that follows seem as reasonable or casual as it is entertaining. Coffee is a mainstay of movies (as it is of movie-making – just about every scriptwriter’s desk and every movie set are likely to be littered with styrofoam cups with a cold inch of undrunk coffee that has acquired the color and the strength of iron). Coffee is like cigarettes, cars, hats and telephones – you really aren’t allowed to make a movie without them, and that’s a big reason why Roman epics or films set in remote deserts are so difficult to do. In fact, in Heat, Pacino and De Niro spar with each other about their jobs, their prospects, their honor and their manliness – it’s a load of high-toned actorly posing, but the coffee covers it. Coffee is a grim, unsweetened philosophy in the steady discourse of law and disorder. What a magical film it might be, though, if the two stars simply slid into a close-harmony version of the 1946 novelty The Coffee Song: “Way down among Brazilians/ Coffee beans grow by the billions/ So they’ve got to find those extra cups to fill/ They’ve got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil.” Whereupon, cop and crook could start a shuffling conga line that quickly enlists everyone else in the diner and ventures out into the night and the dangerous city.
In Fritz Lang’s classic film noir The Big Heat (1953), the heat of the title could promise the intensity of the investigation, as in, “Watch out, boys, the heat is coming down!” But for those who treasure The Big Heat, the scene conjured up by the title occurs when Vince (Lee Marvin), a nasty hoodlum and mobster, is so suspicious of his girlfriend, Debbie (Gloria Grahame), that he throws a pot of scalding coffee in her face. In 1953, that was startling violence, and it left Debbie so horribly scarred that she had a bandage all over one half of her face, with the wounded cheek dipping down into her fur coat. In that drastic new form, she helped Glenn Ford destroy the underworld conspiracy. Of course, she took her revenge, and finally Vince got his own coffee closeup and proved what a wretched, snivelling coward he was.
Coffee can help give the game away, or it can be a move in the game. In François Truffaut’s movie Mississippi Mermaid (1969), Jean-Paul Belmondo is a tobacco-planter on the island of Réunion (just off Madagascar). He finds himself a mail-order bride and goes down to the docks to meet her boat. He has a photograph of the woman, a modestly appealing young lady, but when she arrives she turns out to be Catherine Deneuve. Well, he’s not going to complain at his good luck, and he accepts her feeble excuse that she sent him a photograph of another woman, because … well, I forget the exact because, but the audience wants Deneuve as much as Belmondo does. Then a sinister hint appears when she takes coffee for breakfast, even though in her letters she had told him she was a tea-drinker. A femme fatale is going to drink a rare brew.
If you were a scriptwriter, it might be that one day you’d think to have Deneuve adding rat poison to his broth, or his coffee. For decades, coffee has been a pungent cover for insidious extras. Do you recollect how in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), Claude Rains and his mother are introducing a little unkind sweetener to Ingrid Bergman’s after-dinner coffee? Hitchcock films the cups as looming objects in her diminishing life. If only Ingrid could see the movie we’re seeing, she’d know why she feels sickly and lethargic.
In westerns, it seems a small miracle when a lonesome rider with no more than a horse, a Winchester, a bedroll and his hat can still make a pot of coffee over a campfire. How does he do it? Is he carrying several pounds of ground coffee, or does he have beans and a grinder? Is it even the ugly truth that he resorts to a bottle of vile coffee essence, or a packet of what we’d call “instant”? Still, the cowboy savors his coffee as if it was close to life, liberty and solitude, and if a stranger passes by, our guy has usually got a spare cup to offer. This is social expressiveness on the frontier before the word espresso was in common usage.
Times have changed: coffee now is on every corner and at every desert filling station. It’s become what Tom Hanks talks about in You’ve Got Mail (1998), written and directed by Nora Ephron, who had been a lively journalist on food and drink: “The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caf, decaf, low-fat, non-fat etc. So people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing or who on earth they are can, for only .95, get not just a cup of coffee, but an absolutely defining sense of self: Tall. Decaf. Cappuccino.”
Jim Jarmusch made a film called Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), woefully pledged to the principle I am talking about – that a hot drink and a smoke actually make up the greater part of existence. The coffee shop may be one of the central locations of modern existential unease – think of Five Easy Pieces and When Harry Met Sally – but it’s more sensible to let that perception creep in gently (like cream), instead of pouring the entire beverage over the audience’s head. As far as I recall, in Woman of the Year the superwoman status of the Katharine Hepburn character is neatly and amusingly offset when we discover that she can’t actually make a decent cup of coffee for her guy, Spencer Tracy. Thus, under the threatening onslaught of feminism (as long ago as 1942), male prowess and superiority were vindicated.
I’m sure that in the course of reading this short piece, and sipping at your own cup of coffee, you’ve thought of many films I have omitted, or can’t remember. But for me, the archetypal coffee scene comes in Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967). A cup of coffee, as seen from above, nearly fills the CinemaScope frame. We see the ripples from stirring and the short life of bubbles on the surface. We scrutinise the range of colours glimpsed in a cup of black coffee. We feel it as an ocean on which we are engaged in a single-handed voyage. And all the time, Godard’s professorial voiceover is instructing us on the lessons in coffee. But don’t take too long in intellectual percolation. Every cup of coffee has an ideal drinking moment, and if you make too many metaphors and philosophies out of it, it may turn cold before you’ve had the pleasure.
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