David Lehman, in the American Scholar, offers a eulogy to the cigarette in the cinema. It’s a nice article.
What a shame that the Puritans successfully banned smoking. You used to ask permission to smoke, and the common reply was:”It’s a free country.” Not anymore. Today’s rebellious young and the rural left-behinds sometimes smoke, but they pay a whopping fine with every puff. The average national price for twenty cents worth of cigarettes is $8.00, and you’ll pay closer to $12.00 in NYC.
I miss cigarettes myself: especially that first cigarette in the morning with one’s coffee, the one lit directly after a fine dinner, the chain-smoked cigarettes that stimulated one’s inspiration when writing. I quit decades ago because I declined to be bothered by the hankering for a smoke when the ban descended on business offices everywhere. I refused to be one of the pathetic lepers huddled surreptitiously outside shivering in the cold enslaved by the habit. I also had no intention of paying the monstrous premium tacked on going straight into the coffers of the State and the pockets of shysters from the litigation bar.
I thought recently of having a cigarette once again, for old times sake, and when I looked, I found that they stopped selling unfiltered Lucky Strikes in 2006. I couldn’t get my old brand without paying $35-$45 a pack “collectible” price.
I have considered writing an ironic “modest proposal,” in the vein of Jonathan Swift, advocating the return of cigarettes to movies, which might shorten life expectancy and thereby ease the costs of long-term health, but friends have dissuaded me on the grounds that the irony would not be grasped.
In 1929, when cigarettes were marketed to women as “torches of freedom,” well-dressed debutante types were paid to smoke while strolling down Fifth Avenue in the Easter Parade.
“Do you remember the last cigarette you had when you gave them up?”
“I used to think that all I wanted was the respect of honorable men and the ungrudging love of beautiful women,” says Philip Marlow, the hospitalized mystery writer in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective. “Now I know for sure that all I really want is a cigarette.”
In the first sentence of Too Many Cooks (1938), Rex Stout’s narrator, Archie Goodwin, says that he “lit a cigarette with the feeling that after it had calmed my nerves a little, I would be prepared to submit bids for a contract to move the Pyramid of Cheops from Egypt to the top of the Empire State Building with my bare hands, in a swimming-suit.” That’s quite a lift to be gotten from a smoke.
Leave aside the rush of nicotine. Forget the ritual of opening a pack of unfiltered Luckies, Camels, Chesterfields, Pall Malls, tamping them down, pulling one out, lighting it, discarding the match, taking the first, satisfying long drag. Cigarettes are the greatest prop of all time: puffing, taking in the smoke, drawing in a deep lungful and slowly expelling it, holding the cigarette between your index and middle fingers, motioning with that hand to underscore a point.
“Cigarettes are sublime,” Richard Klein asserts in a book he wrote to console himself when trying to quit smoking. Sublime, maybe; sexy, for sure. “Cigarettes had to go,” the poet and noir connoisseur Suzanne Lummis concedes. “But the cinema lost a language. Aside from the smoking, the lighting of the cigarette could be handled so many ways with such different effects. Richard Conte, Robert Mitchum, all those guys—in two smooth gestures they’ll slide out that silver lighter and make the flame leap up, and we get the message—this is what unflappable cool looks like, virile confidence.”
There is the cigarette of loneliness, the cigarette of desperation: Jean Gabin holed up in his attic room, chain-smoking his last Gauloises, as the police close in on him in Le Jour se lève. There is the cigarette of heartbreak, the chain of cigarettes that won’t help you “forget her, or the way that you love her,” with all the force Sinatra can put into the singular female pronoun in “Learnin’ the Blues.” And there is the cigarette of intense nervousness, jeopardy, and fear smoked by Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, stunning in black cap and veil with black dots. When with a shaky hand Dunaway lights up, Jack Nicholson points out that she already has a cigarette going, and says: “Does my talking about your father make you nervous?”
Lighting somebody’s cigarette is a powerful gesture, suggesting intimacy or the desire for the same. “If you’re going to smoke, you gotta learn to carry matches,” Dix (Sterling Hayden) says when he lights up Doll (Jean Hagen) in The Asphalt Jungle. Aldo Ray does it for Anne Bancroft at the bar in Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall, and Glenn Ford performs the gallantry for Gloria Grahame in Fritz Lang’s Human Desire. When Lana Turner falters trying to light her cigarette, John Garfield does the honors, foreshadowing the adultery and murder in The Postman Always Rings Twice. The movie producer played by Kirk Douglas teaches the self-same Lana Turner how to smoke sexily in The Bad and the Beautiful, while Dick Powell has the flame Claire Trevor needs in Murder, My Sweet.
Suzanne Lummis draws my attention to the moment “when Powell fires up his lighter and Trevor puts her hand on his and moves it toward the tip of her cigarette.” Says she: “You will help me, won’t you?” He: “Am I doing this for love, or will I get paid with money?” Toward the end of the movie, when “Helen, who is actually Velma, who is actually a killer … rises from the shadows with her cigarette, in her gown slashed with stripes of glinting sequins,” the images presage danger and disaster. Soon bullets will be flying and bodies dropping.
In her discussion of smoking, Lummis also cites In a Lonely Place. Dix Steele (Humphrey Bogart) and Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) sit at a piano with other couples, listening to the silky-smooth rendition of the lounge singer, vocalist and pianist Hadda Brooks: I was a lonely one, till you. “He lights a cigarette for her, and she takes it in her mouth, such an intimate gesture,” Loomis writes. “He whispers to her. They are so in love. And it will never be that good again. Nothing is going to be that good again, for either of them. If these characters had lives beyond the credits at the end, we know that each on their dying bed looked back and thought, ‘that’s what happiness felt like.’ And because someone who unsettles their composure enters the club, that happiness didn’t even last the length of the song. That’s noir.”
I like to watch the stars,
in cafés and bars,
smoking in films noirs. …