There was a fine piece by Robbie Collin in The Telegraph recently that looked at the ubiquity of smoking across cinema’s history in light of talks of potentially branding films that contain smoking as for over 18s only. Collin’s article is about the very real world problems of promoting smoking to a younger, more impressionable audience. Alas, I have no concern for this ‘real world’. It means nothing to me, but I’ll add my two cents anyway.
Let’s face it: cigarettes are cool when put on film. From an action hero having a well-deserved drag after saving the world for what seems like frankly too many times to a dame seductively enticing the hardboiled detective into her smoky, and often for our protagonist, unhealthy company. Tarantino has practically hinged his aesthetic on people smoking cigarettes. Smoking also has the unfortunate side effect of being completely and totally bad. Smoking is odd insofar as it is presented as cool and desirable without any manner of contextualisation to justify, or mitigate, its terrible effects. It’s a different approach to violence for instance. We all know violence is bad, yet we will gladly cheer when John McClane blows up that baddie infested building, or when Batman quite obviously gives a man brain damage in the name of justice. Yet violence is almost always framed in a particular way so that we understand the violence itself isn’t desirable but its consequences (i.e. defeating the villains) are. On the contrary, Smoking is framed as a desirable pastime in itself, with no consequences. However, this isn’t really what I want to talk about, as frankly it’s all a little tedious. What I want to discuss (briefly and probably badly) is smoking’s cinematic and cultural home: American Film Noir, particularly during and after wartime.
Whereas usually smoking is used to create or maintain a certain tone or style, in Film Noir cigarettes have, I think, a particular function that goes beyond simply looking cool – in spite of noir’s culturally perceived ‘coolness’ that stems from smoking as a trope of noir. (I haven’t the time or energy to explain why journalistic platitudes about noir are derivative and ultimately wrong, but I digress). Film stars such as Humphrey Bogart, who of course died from lung cancer likely brought on by his incessant smoking, got his hardboiled attitude from smoking and some of this has been transplanted on noir itself. Smoke both obscures and acts as a clue to misdemeanours; Obscurity is one of the primary aesthetic and narrative modes of noir – if I can skip straight to platitudes in noir nothing is as it seems. When objects are put on film and edited together they are no longer mere objects. An object in a film always has meaning. A cigarette, on film, is always more than a cigarette. An extension of character, an establishment of mood and so on. Repetition breeds meaning, and judging by how many cigarettes they get through in noir (see Out of the Past for an education) smoking is never just smoking.
Now, to ask the now obvious Freudian question: when is a cigarette not a cigarette?
It should come as no surprise that as a current English Literature postgraduate I think cigarettes in noir can easily be read as primarily phallic objects that transfer libidinal energy from one character to another. I like to live up to expectations. This all might seem a little obvious now, as to some extent noir set standards for cinematic representation. Two people exchange a cigarette and smile at each other, then fade to black? They probably had sex, or at the least they should have. Take, for example, the opening title crawl of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946) where we see two silhouetted figures (whom we later discover are Bogart and Bacall, yet we probably already know from their distinctive shadows) sharing a cigarette. The implication of a late night rendezvous where they light each other cigarettes is clear. It foreshadows their romantic (and sexual) involvement – and in this case, literally foreshadows as they are depicted as shadows.
Honestly, although The Big Sleep is really convoluted plot-wise (I’m still not 100% what actually happens) it’s packed to the brim with sexual innuendos. Suggestive, well-timed rain, to Bogart’s character being told he doesn’t “look like the type of man who’d be interested in first editions” – thereby insinuating a ‘real’ heterosexual man wouldn’t care about books. It’s really great and serves a good example that noir mixes subtle comedy and tragedy extremely well.
Objects’ meanings are encoded in film noir in part due to restrictions placed on Hollywood directors and the way these restrictions force directors to be creative in their approach to filmmaking. During wartime scripts were only allowed to be produced if they could justify in aiding the war effort. Far from representing any nostalgic sentiments how noir harkens back to ‘good old days’ and it just ‘tells things how they were’, noir is one of the few styles/genres that is made with an explicit ideological purpose (whether or not directors adhered to these ideological goals is another matter entirely and beyond the scope of this innocuous post). This means that more than any other styles/genres encoding in noir often more readily apparent and broad – certain actions gain meaning through their repetition as directors had to work out how to say or imply something without actually saying it.
Another examples of the cigarettes-as-sex metaphor (what can I say, I’m always on the lookout) is in the great noir classic, and one of my favourite noir films, Gilda (1946). Early in the film a suspicious wealthy figure, Ballin Mundson , encounters a rough gambling sailor and offers him to visit his high stakes casino. In striking this deal Mundson and Johnny (the sailor) share a cigarette and Johnny remarks that that he have to “give [him] a cigarette sometime” to repay him for both the cigarette he is now enjoying and for Mundson saving his life – it acts as a relation between them, a shared social symbol. The cigarette offers credence to the implication that Mundson is homosexual or bisexual: he, a wealthy casino owner, has more interest in a rugged rouge than the beautiful Rita Hayworth (who tells him that she thinks it’s a “good idea” that he surrounds himself with “ugly women and beautiful men”). His casino is an elaborate cover up for a criminal ring, perhaps much like his own cover up – the Gatsby like mansion, the extravagant wife, all treated by him as guarantees of both his wealth and his heterosexual masculinity – the two in Hollywood cinema are often intimately connected. The whole film is about Johnny navigating his own desire in relation to Gilda – the principal hurdle is discovering what he actually desire. Yet cigarettes are the one thing that are made desirable in any context. Earlier Johnny compliments him saying “you must lead a gay life” to which Mundson replies “I live the life I like to lead”. The evidence is hiding in plain sight. The cigarette merely confirms our suspicions as well as coding the cigarette thereafter as being a symbol for sexual activity or interest.
Classical Hollywood Cinema’s politics are a complicated matter, they lean to the conservative side but to say that conservatism is the norm is, at least in my opinion, a little simplistic. That said, its problematically bad stance on sexual politics is abundantly clear: anything other than heteronormativity is immoral. In Gilda’s case the offering of the cigarettes, to Mundson’s odd appearance down at the docks (I mean, why else would he be down there?!) is an indication that he might be homosexual and ergo a villain.
As they say, there’s no smoke without fire. And a cigarette is never just a cigarette.