The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) rates movies to protect young people from sex, violence, adult situations, and bad language. Its relative success or failure at this doesn’t necessarily interest me as much as its attempt to raise a movie rating from PG-13 to R because it depicts cigarette smoking
I know that seeing my parents smoke most likely influenced my choice to smoke. I also know that I was fascinated by cigarette smoke itself. Did watching movies and television in the 1960s make me a smoker? I doubt it. But I thank the MPAA for reminding me how cigarettes have been used in the movies: as a convenient instrument of sharing and bonding, smoldering sexuality, or personal friendship.
In M (1931), Fritz Lang chronicles a city at the mercy of a serial rapist-killer. Cigarette smoke links a confounded police department and an equally desperate conclave of master criminals in a race to catch him. The coordination of their efforts is linked by shots of smoky meeting rooms, the clouds in which lend an expressionistic image to their intensity and to the rigorous mental effort expended by both sides.
In Double Indemnity (1944), cigarette smoking represents the intensely destructive sexual desire that unites Walter Nef (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis Dietrickson (Barbara Stanwyck) in a murderous pact. When we see them lighting up after having sex—censorship forbids depicting them in bed—the cigarettes add ritualistic significance, binding the two until they reach, in Nef's words, “the end of the line.”
Smoke is also the token of the strong friendship between Nef and his boss, Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). At the insurance office, Walter lights his cigarettes with a single sulfur-tipped match by crossing it with his thumbnail. Several times he performs this trick because Keyes can never find his matches. The action signifies their genuine affection. In the final scene, as Walter is bleeding out, he asks Keyes for a cigarette but is too weak to light it himself. For once, Keyes is able to get it.
Although people were aware of the harmful effects of cigarettes despite the absence of a formal public health campaign against them, few smokers knew how additive nicotine was or how cigarette companies made “coffin nails” more addictive. Filterless brands dominated, and the cigarette naturally took on the overtones of death.
In The Big Sleep (1946), we see the apotheosis of smoke become death—in the opening credits, no less, as they linger over a pair of smoldering cigarettes in an ashtray. More, the lead actor of The Big Sleep is Humphrey Bogart, whose real life habit caused his death from lung cancer at the age of 57. It’s difficult to disassociate that from his on-screen persona.
Bogart is caught in a labyrinth of death and deceit. He partly recognizes the mess he's in and barely negotiates it alive. His cigarette smoking serves, in part, to display a faux-confidence that he knows what he's doing. When the smoke clears, the movie landscape is filled with dead bodies, and he, along with the audience, seems none the wiser, as if the film taunts its characters and audience about the impossibility of knowing what death is or means.
Bogart’s character in The Big Sleep, Philip Marlowe, was played by Elliot Gould in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973). The most outstanding quality of Gould's portrayal is his chain smoking: more cigarettes lit by other cigarettes than ever seen in a movie before or since. Gould's Marlowe barely has time to eat, let alone get into bed with a woman; indeed, he’s so alienated him from the world that not even the half dozen, half-naked women across from his apartment hold his interest. Just give him his Camels.
The war against cancer was settling in when the film premiered, and The Long Goodbye strikes me as a last hurrah for cigarette smoking in movies, although Gould's heavy smoking nearly seems self-consciousness. We wouldn't see such self-indulgent smoking again outside of a period piece in which the milieu demands that the characters were chain-smokers.
One such example is The Black Dahlia (2006), a fictionalized noir version of a real-life Hollywood case. Although Josh Hartnett seems modeled on a film noir hero, he allows his cigarettes to smoke him, so to speak. He looks as if had never smoked one.
Lit up up again and again as historical props in Good Night and Good Luck (2005), cigarettes defined Edward R. Murrow as the Humphrey Bogart of television journalists, always smoking during the interviews on his show Person to Person.
Murrow also died of lung cancer. The movie had an obligation to smoking, and we had to be convinced that David Strathern was as wedded to tobacco as was Murrow.
I wasn't. As with Hartnett, it seemed nothing more than an obligatory biographical detail. Smoking finally seemed bereft of the deathly pleasure it had given the masses before 1960. For this reason I agree with the MPAA that smoking should be reduced and eliminated from movies—the sooner the better.
Collingswood resident Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. In town, he is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.
Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.