On Monday, yet another public smoking law went into effect in New York City, this one banning the consumption of cigarettes in 43 square miles of parks, public plazas, boardwalks, and beaches. While it’s certainly not as shocking as the 2002 prohibition on smoking in restaurants and bars (“No smoking in bars now,” Eddie Izzard memorably warned, “and soon, no drinking and no talking!”), it is yet another sign of the continuing ghettoization of the habit.
I should pause a moment to point out that I am not a smoker — never have been, never will be. I recognize the indisputable health dangers, and the addictive nature of the product, and I’m not making light of them. But here’s the thing: I’m also a movie nut, so my feelings about smoking are, well, complicated. The classic teen impetus for smoking is that it “looks cool,” and countless anti-smoking advocates have done their best to debunk that notion (“Y’know what doesn’t look cool? A voice box,” etc.), but you know what? We’re all adults. We can say it. Smoking does look cool. At least, it often looks cool in movies, when it’s properly lit and framed and done by a movie star. So, in memory of the smoker, that most endangered species, join us after the jump for ten movies that make you feel like lighting one up (plus one that does quite the opposite).
Honest, one of these days I’ll make it through a post without a block quote from Roger Ebert, but this ain’t that day. He writes about Out of the Past in his negative review of 200 Cigarettes, a movie that you’ll notice is not on this list. Noting that the filmmakers don’t even know how to light cigarette smoking properly, he directs them to Out of the Past, which he calls “the greatest cigarette-smoking movie of all time.” According to Ebert, the trick is “to throw a lot of light into the empty space where the characters are going to exhale. When they do, they produce great white clouds of smoke, which express their moods, their personalities and their energy levels. There were guns in Out of the Past, but the real hostility came when Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas smoked at each other.”
“You smoke too much,” Uncle Pio tells Gilda. “I noticed only frustrated people smoke too much and only the lonely people are frustrated.” It’s an insightful observation, and one that certainly penetrates the surface of the woman he’s talking to — who is, after all, played by the achingly sexy Rita Hayworth, and when she smokes, she looks neither lonely nor frustrated.
In movies, the act of smoking together (bumming smokes, getting a light, lighting one off the other) is frequently a none-too-subtle kind of foreplay — particularly back when movies couldn’t show actual foreplay. All that said, this clip of Bogie and Bacall in Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not… good heavens. This one requires a cold shower afterwards.
Few actors looked cooler with a cigarette in their mouth than Humphrey Bogart — just ask Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who idolizes the actor, even going so far as to practice his Bogie stance, cigarette dangling from his mouth. Since Godard’s Breathless is a French film from the 1960s, cigarettes are pretty much all over the place; Belmondo chain-smokes from one end of the movie to the other, while pixyish Jean Seberg frequently joins him (see her stunning backlit light-up in the clip above, right around the five minute mark). The smoking in Breathless is all of a piece with the film’s rebel spirit — in both the filmmaking and the freewheeling characters.
This one was suggested — nee, insisted upon — by our own Judy Berman, so I’ll let her take over: “The Mother and the Whore is the ultimate French film, embodying just about every stereotype of Parisian life. Released in 1973, the black-and-white classic stars Jean-Pierre Léaud (of course) as a young bon vivant caught between the two titular female archetypes. It’s over three and a half hours long, and most of the running time finds the characters talking philosophy, listening to music, engaging in various sexual explorations — and, throughout it all, smoking. The whole thing looks so languid and bohemian that, if that kind of thing appeals to you, it’s hard not to daydream about a pack of Gitanes.”
Edward R. Murrow’s cigarette was his constant on-air companion, so naturally Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney’s 2005 account of the newscaster’s battle with Senator Joseph McCarthy, is full of smoking — both in front of the TV camera and in the control room. Shot in luminous black and white by the great Robert Elswitt, the film gives actor David Straithairn the opportunity to use his cigarettes as Murrow did — as a prop, an affectation, and a rhetorical device.
The Coen Brothers’ deadpan 2001 film stars Billy Bob Thornton as Ed Crane, a barber and wronged husband whose reaction to seemingly every complication and situation (giving a haircut, finding out his wife is having an affair, even regarding the unexpected appearance of a UFO) is to solemnly partake of a cigarette. “He smokes so many of them,”The New York Times A.O. Scott notes, “that the movie deserves a surgeon general’s warning to go with its M.P.A.A. rating.” The film is shot (again, in black and white) by the Coens frequent cinematographer, the great Roger Deakins, who clearly studied Out of the Past and the other great monochromatic smoking movies; his photography makes Ed Crane look like one cool customer.
Well, c’mon. It’s right there in the title.
Jeff Bridges is one of our great cinematic smokers — clear back to The Last Picture Show, and on up to Tucker, The Contender (smoke rings, no less!), The Fabulous Baker Boys (which would have been on this list, had we not just put it on one yesterday), The Big Lebowski, and his Oscar-winning turn in Crazy Heart. As Bad Blake, a washed-up country singer, Bridges is seldom seen without a cigarette on his lips; he regularly works his light-ups and stamp-outs into the fabric of his scenes. Blake is kind of a mess, but like so many smokers, he uses his habit to give his hazy days a sense of order and routine.
In his book When You Are Engulfed in Flames, which is much preoccupied with his attempts to quit smoking, writer David Sedaris describes his early days as a smoker thus: “It was as if my life were a play, and the prop mistress had finally showed up. Suddenly there were packs to unwrap, matches to strike, ashtrays to fill and then empty.” The notion of the cigarette as a prop is seen in many musical performers, but few as strikingly as Keith Richards, whose uses his on-stage smoking as part of his metamorphosis from young heathen to the kind of grizzled old blues man he grew up idolizing. Ebert again: “Notice that Keith does not smoke onstage not simply to be smoking, but to use the smoke cloud, brilliant in the spotlights, as a performance element.” His inventive use of the ciggy results in one of the movie’s most electrifying moments, glimpsed (though it’s not as effective out of context) in the film’s trailer, right around the 2:08 mark.
Counterpoint: Dead Again
Kenneth Branagh’s 1991 homage to film noir features plenty of atmospheric black-and-white smoking in its scenes set in the past, particularly from Andy Garcia’s hardboiled reporter, Gray Baker. But when, in the present-day timeline, Branagh’s private detective, Mike Church, goes to visit an aged, wheezing Baker, he gets a grisly shock. The reporter (again played by Garcia, in less-than-stellar old age makeup) is quite ill, his years of smoking resulting in a tracheotomy tube in his neck. He provides Church with some information helpful to the film’s central mystery, and asks for a cigarette in return. What happens next (starting around the 8:00 mark in the clip above) is enough to make a hardened smoker push away their pack, at least temporarily.