The Third Act for Second-Hand: Smoking in Cinema

They're bad for you, but cigarettes and smoking take on symbolic meaning in good movies.

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.

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Sean Gallagher May 16, 2012 at 01:58 AM
Extremely interesting piece, glad someone else besides me appreciates "M". Peter Lorre give the performance of his career in that film. Check out "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy", it has some very interesting uses of smoking to illustrate emotions and character.
Robert Castle May 16, 2012 at 03:01 AM
Sean, Thanks for the comment. I'll be catching Tinker Taylor in the next few weeks. M is one of the great films. Peter Lorre was never better -- although he's excellent in The Maltese Falcon and The Mask of Demetrios.
Patrick Littel May 16, 2012 at 11:28 AM
"Smoldering sexuality and smoking" seemed to go together in the movies, as did having a cigaretter with a cocktail. They spelled success. Look at the television series "Mad Men" and the depiction of the fifties has to have cocktails and cigarettes; it was part of the time. Smoking is an addictive habit, which leads to death. That is a new tag line for the American Cancer Society, and it's time we all faced the addiction head on. Should cigarette smoking be banned from films? Only if blasphemy, violence against women and the weak (including murder), illicit drug use (remember "Mahogany"?) and romanticizing bad behavior are banned, as well. Rhetorical? Yes; we can not legislate morality or good health practices. Movies depict the best and worst of whom we are as a culture. I do not want my children to do drugs or smoke, but banning them from films will not stop anyone from picking up a cigarette to be part of the crowd. Great article--thanks!
Nancy VanTwistern May 16, 2012 at 01:57 PM
Do we really want much censorship in our lives? What about learning to control ourselves?
Sean Gallagher May 16, 2012 at 09:17 PM
I have noticed recently that newer movies include smoking in their ratings. Ex. Alice in Wonderland is rated PG "for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar." Smoking caterpillar seems like an afterthought here!
bayboat May 19, 2012 at 04:18 PM
Im INSULTED by the attitude of Robert and his ilk. Typical lib. We must be saved from ourselves. No need to think for yourself, WE know best. We arent RESPONSIBLE enough,SMART enough or MATURE enough to see images of smoking and make our own choices. Mommy must step in to shield and regulate the images we see (Big Brother is watching!) I guess car chases are next. Followed by murders in movies. Just think what would happen if we saw DRINKING in movies, add that to the list. Any kind of unhealthy situation..."Lets rate it X! Its got smoking! THAT'LL teach em! I think its sad when BUSYBODIES decide what IM not mature enought to watch. I think its sad that some LIKE others thinking FOR them. Thanks for your concern about my welfare Robert, but NO THANKS!
Paul J. DiBartolo May 19, 2012 at 05:05 PM
>> "Smoking caterpillar seems like an afterthought here!" Wait, I've heard of smoking banana peels but now people are smoking caterpillars? Seriously, while I don't necessarily agree with 'bayboat's' rhetoric, I must say that enough is enough with the nanny state. If the government busybodies were so concerned with our welfare the State should never have gotten itself into the gambling business. Oh, wait, the revenue...oh well. The State should be careful because if the population ever does really quit smoking think of all the revenue it will lose. Then it will have to tax us elsewhere...maybe a sin tax on unhealthy food. BTW, how ironic that Hollyweird has moved itself into a position that it thinks it needs to lecture us about how to live but when it comes to making movies, anything goes? Violence, bullying, sexual discrimination. etc., etc.
Robert Castle May 20, 2012 at 12:01 AM
Bayboat missed the point of the article -- but I'm not insulted. Nowhere did I agree with the MPAA -- nor with their ilk -- for going after smoking. My suggestion to end smoking in movies was an aesthetic one. In fact, the entire piece laments the loss of smoking but acknowledges that the anti-smoking campaign has created an inhospitable world for cigarettes in movies. For the record: A) my concern for the welfare of people I don't know is minimal; B) I smoked for nearly 40 years and am not a fan of the government's anti-smoking campaigns; C) I'm not thrilled by movie ratings in general nor by the secrecy of the MPAA. That said, what amazes me is the hysterical reaction to the evils of the Nanny state. Are you kidding? One can't write a parody of Bayboat's ranting -- it's already a parody of itself. There's nothing original about it. It's just noise.
One road town May 20, 2012 at 02:18 AM
@Robert Castle, I usually refrain from commenting on local pages (such as the Patch) on issues that are not pertinent/relevant to Collingswood/Haddon Twp, but obviously I'm doing so now. I appreciate your article and respect your positions (and agree with them) So now that I've qualified all of that, my point is, for those who get completely bent out of shape over irrelevant issues on social media I think is way more concerning than whatever the topic at hand is. Point number two, the people who write such wild statements and investing such displaced emotion on mundane topics is also of concern. Our town (Collingswood) or any for that matter, has enough issues to invest oneself in, and sadly few people actually do. It should be reminded that we all have a direct impact on our immediate living conditions if we so choose to do so. By questioning the standards that are falling by the wayside in other lands, ask; Are you first helping improving and maintaining the quality of life in yours?
bayboat May 22, 2012 at 12:33 PM
You contradict yourself. The LAST sentence of your article states "I AGREE WITH THE MPAA that smoking should be reduced and eliminated from movies—the sooner the better." and THEN in your reply, you state " NOWHERE DID I AGREE WITH THE MPAA-- nor with their ilk -- for going after smoking." Ummmmm... pick a position please!
Robert Castle May 22, 2012 at 12:51 PM
My position -- and it will not be one where I use caps -- is that I find the way actors smoke in movies unconvincing enough that the movies would be better off without smoking. Given that I was being sardonic and didn't expect anyone to act on my suggestion. . . . I will thus restate so that bayboat can sleep better: "On one and only one point can I agree with the MPAA. . . ."


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