Black Coffee (2009) – By Cary Conley

So how’s this for creative—each year at the Seattle International Film Festival, four directors are given the opportunity to make a short film that will premiere at SIFF.  Each film must have three actors, three sets, be no more than ten minutes long, and each film must share a theme.  Last year’s theme was film noir.  Each director pulls a script from a hat (!) and then they have five days to rewrite and fine tune the script, five days to shoot, and five days to edit.

Black Coffee is what director Quoc Bao Tran produced from this little contest.  Filmed in 16mm black-and-white stock, it has the perfect ambiance for film noir.  When I think of the film noir genre, I think of expressionism, the use of angles, plenty of shadows, and hard boiled narration.  Director Tran obviously knows his noir, for this film exhibits these characteristics flawlessly.

David is a big-time politician who is being blackmailed.  He decides to save his career, and hopefully his marriage, by making the payoff.  But he discovers he is being double-crossed and decides to do a little manipulating himself.  To say anymore would be to divulge too much information and lessen the impact of this little gem of a film.

Aside from a very brief cameo by the director, there are only three characters in the film and they are all played superbly by each actor.  This is a tight, taut, and well-directed romance/thriller.  All of the trappings of a film noir are present:  we have a dark staircase with plenty of shadows and angles on the top of an old water tower where the payoff will be made.  And while there isn’t strict narration, Tran does use a narrative device by allowing the viewer to listen in on private telephone conversations that help inform the story.  This also lends a seedy feeling of voyeurism to the film as the viewer hears the plans for the crime and witnesses the most private of acts—sex, blackmail, and murder—carried out by each character.

The score is also quite accomplished and really lends a noir vibe to an already creepy and threatening atmosphere.   And in true noir fashion, there is an ugly murder by manual strangulation.  The camera cuts from looking down on the female victim to looking up at the male killer, showing the strength and power of the male and the weakness of the female in a classic noir sequence.  And if that isn’t enough, everyone in the film gets double-crossed by the others, creating plenty of twists and turns in under 10 minutes.

Tran is truly an accomplished filmmaker and Black Coffee is an excellent example of noir filmmaking.  If you get a chance to see this short on the festival circuit or online, don’t miss it.  Highly entertaining and fraught with tension, Black Coffee deserves to be seen.