The Blue Angel
Few film icons can wield a cigarette like Marlene Dietrich. The German actress smoldered on the big screen, an ever-present plume of smoke circling her like a halo. She made cigarettes seem exotic and sexy, and her brazen personality and razor-sharp wit was equally intoxicating. It’s interesting to note that Dietrich also held her cigarettes differently than most women in the movies, often gripping them the way men did. In The Blue Angel, the first German sound film, Dietrich played a sultry cabaret performer who uses smoking to tease and taunt a lovesick professor. As their relationship develops, his dignity and self-worth crumbles — witnessed in a scene where Dietrich casually drops her cigarettes under the table, forcing him to crawl and collect them.
During the 1960s and ’70s, Italian cinema saw a wave of dark and stylish thrillers known as the gialli. The lurid movies weren’t prized for their top-notch screenplays or A-list talent. These were surreal and seductive films that found beautiful women and dangerous men caught in a world of hedonistic pleasures — and murder. Everyone drank, smoked, and lusted wildly. Dario Argento, one of the godfathers of giallo cinema, directed Deep Red (Profondo rosso) — the first film he cast his wife and longtime collaborator in, Daria Nicolodi. The actress played a reporter who joins a foppish man on the hunt for a killer. In a rare show of feminine independence (that didn’t involve taking her clothes off), her character demonstrates that she is, in fact, more skilled and capable of saving the day and solving the crime. There’s a fun scene, in which Daria’s character twirls a cigarette between her fingers, treating it like a gun. It’s clear, however, that the cigarette is a cheeky symbol, demonstrating that a woman is the one who holds the power in Deep Red.
Pierrot le fou
At once a political thriller, crime story, road picture, and tragicomedy, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 film, Pierrot le fou, follows a couple on the run. Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and Marianne (Anna Karina) are exhilarating, charming, and romantic — in the way that all of Godard’s lovers are. There is pathos and desire, and the two are frequently upstaged by Godard’s love of cinematic reference. There is a charming scene in the film that takes place in Marianne’s humble apartment (referencing his previous masterpiece, Breathless). The couple talk about love, she sings a song to him that concludes their relationship will be “short and sweet,” and the camera follows her as she removes the cigarette from his mouth, leaning in for a kiss. It’s achingly sweet, but during her routine, we catch a glimpse of a corpse and several guns stacked against the wall. The moment quietly shifts our view of their relationship.
Wings of Desire
Two angels roam Berlin in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. They make their presence known to small children — the only people who can see them — but they are ultimately bound to another world. Invisible. And then a streetwise character (Peter Falk) feels their presence and talks to one of the angels, Damiel, who has fallen for a woman and longs for a tangible connection. “I can’t see you, but I know you’re here,” Falk’s character utters while taking a drag of his cigarette. He talks to the angel about the pleasures of mortal life — about the satisfaction of a good cup of coffee and a smoke. It’s the moment that the torn angel realizes the risks are worth the rewards.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Three gunslingers (Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach) are in a race for buried treasure. Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly helped redefine the western genre. The spaghetti classic is humorous, surreal, violent, and beautifully shot. Extreme close-ups and wide shots are Leone’s signature. There are long stretches of silence. The offbeat approach culminates in a final showdown where Clint Eastwood’s character, Blondie, casually grimaces over his cigar and doesn’t flinch when he whips out a gun to take his opponent out. Swagger for days.
Le cercle rouge
Alain Delon and Yves Montand are sophisticated crooks that exude understated cool in Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1970 film, Le cercle rouge. A thief and a murderer wind up in the countryside — one hiding in the trunk of the other’s car in order to escape the police. Upon discovery, the men view each other as a potential threat, but they soon bond over a smoke in silence. The best part of the smoking scene occurs when Montand’s character climbs back into the car trunk with his cigarette. It’s amusing, but doesn’t seem totally absurd. We’re confident the men know what they’re doing.
Melville and Alain Delon strike again in Le Samouraï. The opening scene featuring Delon’s hit man quietly smoking in a stark room while a bird sings is absolutely spellbinding. The fact that Delon’s character is barely visible in the shot is no mistake. We are meant to experience a moment of Jef’s solitude, and Melville’s camera offers no reprieve. (Note: unfortunately this YouTube user increased the speed in part of the scene.)
Summer with Monika
Young love and languid summer days abound in Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika. Two teenage lovers escape the monotony of responsibility and build an idyllic world for themselves on a boat. The Swedish director frames their tale against working-class life in Stockholm, where the smoke of cigarettes and smog covers the characters in a dreamy haze. Monika, the reckless half of the couple, sensually feeds her lover cigarettes during a kiss. It’s a romantic, erotic, and rebellious gesture — one she probably copied from the movies she emulates — that captures their adolescent relationship. In another scene, Monika smokes a cigarette and slowly turns to stare directly at the camera, challenging our judgment of her, as the world behind her fades to black.
Who didn’t fall in love with Eva Green smoking pink Sobranie cocktail cigarettes in Bernardo Bertolucci’s film? Pick any scene.
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