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Smoke Gets In Their Eyes

A history of cigarettes in cinema


The history of cigarettes on screen is almost as old as the history of the film medium itself. It's only in the past two decades that lighting up on screen has become the target of organized protests and major media attention; before that -- especially during the 30s and 40s -- it was virtually guaranteed that at least one major character in a movie would whip out a smoke. Yet in many cases, whether subconsciously or not, that same cigarette took on a greater meaning within the context of the film. Here are some notable examples.

As A Key Film Noir Ingredient One of the mandates of the film noir -- those wonderful, hard-boiled thrillers that primarily existed in the 40s and 50s -- is that the action be set amidst dark trappings. For outdoor scenes, that generally meant fog; indoors, however, it was the smoke that provided the murky atmosphere. What's more, the character doing the puffing was usually the one in control, occasionally going so far as to blow the smoke into the face of one of his underlings or antagonists. Note, for instance, Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon (1941) or both Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas in Out of the Past (1947).

As A Sign Of Machismo The Marlboro Man isn't the only hunk who supposedly looks good with a cig hanging out of his mouth. Many of the screen's toughest tough guys have been caught with a smoke seemingly glued onto their lower lip, from Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1943) to Clint Eastwood in several of his defining Westerns.

As A Sign Of Femininity On the flip side, nothing looked so seductive in decades past as a woman throwing her hair back and taking a long drag -- think of Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Veronica Lake and numerous others. In fact, in the 1940s, when men and women played mental tugs-of-war in various screwball comedies and rugged melodramas, the mutual cigarette smoking was often a sign that the characters were on equal terms. Case in point: Humphrey Bogart (yet again) and Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944).

As A Bargaining Tool In prison flicks and WWII yarns, nothing was so valuable as a pack of cigarettes. Everyone wanted one, and, in some instances, they were even better for bartering than hard cash. Take, for example, The Great Escape (1963), in which POW Charles Bronson trades his cigarettes for a pick and an overcoat as he seeks to escape unnoticed among a group of Russian prisoners used by the Germans for out-of-camp labor. (For the record, this particular plan failed.)

As Post-Coital Relaxation We all know the routine. After a great roll in the hay, it was customary for both parties to unwind with a cigarette; this was a frequent screen sight in many a movie once the film censors relaxed their standards in the mid-60s. This ritual became so commonplace that it was even spoofed in Young Frankenstein (1974), in which Madeline Kahn shares a smoke with the Frankenstein Monster (Peter Boyle) after their whoopee-making session.

As A Neat Party Trick There's only so much one can do with a cigarette, but one of the most enduring on-screen tricks was to roll a lit butt into the mouth with the tongue and then pop it out again. In Hair (1979), we get to see Beverly D'Angelo pick up a stranger by seeing if they can blow smoke rings through each other's smoke circles; this sort of fume-filled feat was given a fantasy twist by Ian McKellen in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). The most famous trick, though, comes from Now, Voyager (1942), in which suave Paul Henreid lights two cigarettes simultaneously and hands one of them to an appreciative Bette Davis.

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