Smoke Doesn’t Get In Your Eyes: Movies and Smoking

"Match me, Sidney" The Sweet Smell of Success
“Match me, Sidney”
The Sweet Smell of Success

By Niall McArdle

Have you noticed in the last few years that the air in movies is getting more breathable?

In the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 (set in the smoke-filled 1940’s), not a single cigarette is seen. Harrison Ford’s character has a cigar, but for most of the movie it remains unlit.

There was a time when grown-ups in movies smoked at nearly every opportunity; behind desks, behind the wheel, in elevators, before, during and after meals, and always after sex. Now in the new cinema morality, people can fornicate with gusto and kill with  sadistic viciousness, but they hardly ever smoke cigarettes. Drinking booze is still permitted, thank God, but smoking has become a new cinematic taboo.

On the few occasions we see characters smoking, the moviemakers will go to great lengths to assure us they’d really rather not have let us see it happen, and it’s the one piece of product placement they’d prefer you forget:

“No person or entity associated with this film received payment or anything of value, or entered into any agreement, in connection with the depiction of tobacco products.”


In real life, smoking is a vile habit and will kill you. But smoking in movies is more than just smoking. Without it, movies are less meaningful, by which I mean they have lost a whole range of signifiers. In Hollywood’s Golden Age, when scripts were leaner and movies tended to move quicker, an awful lot of information had to be crammed on to the screen in ninety minutes, and smoking was an easy way to help tell a story. Need to show that someone is a tycoon? Put him in tails and give him a cigar. A wise man? Have him smoke a pipe. You’re a newspaperman? Here’s a chewed-up stogie. You’re a working woman who can still be one of the boys? Smoke

His Girl Friday
His Girl Friday

Smoking in movies was perhaps the only thing that accurately reflected real life. At a time when charming, witty drunks in evening wear solved murders, married couples slept in separate beds, and babies seemed to magically appear with no effect on the size of their mother’s hips, you could always rely on seeing a doctor puffing away at a Lucky Strike while he examined a patient. Real doctors were foisting cigarettes on their patients. They were good for jangled nerves or for women trying to lose weight.


Consider Sherlock Holmes and his pipe. It is impossible to imagine Basil Rathbone without it. Often a problem would present itself that no amount of violin playing or cocaine would solve. Holmes needed his pipe. It’s the pipe that helps make him a great detective because pipe-smoking invites contemplation. Rising above his deerstalker, the smoke forms no less than a thought bubble. Without it, he can still deduce, of course, but how less ruminative he is!

Perhaps our modern protagonists don’t smoke because they’re not the right sort of people. Hollywood no longer makes movies with journalist-heroes, just as it no longer makes movies about flighty heiresses. And it’s been years since we’ve seen a movie cowboy sitting by a campfire rolling himself a smoke.

But even the heroes that have endured have changed.  Does James Bond smoke these days?


The lack of smoking in movies is reflected by the lack of smoking in the movie theatres. It’s been years since the light from the projector has had to pierce through a fog to reach the screen. But don’t we go to the movies for the most part for escapist entertainment, and to see people do stuff that we can’t? Including smoking in public. It’s not okay for us to kill, but it’s okay to see pretend people shooting pretend guns. But we can’t see them smoke pretend cigarettes?

There was a similar shift in the culture after the gentleman’s hat went out of fashion. Without a hat to doff to a lady or to throw nonchalantly on a hat-stand, what is a movie hero to do? As go our movie heroes, so goes the audience. Is this why so many of today’s screen heroes dress like slobs: because we do too? Be honest: if you’re in the market for a private eye, who do you want to hire? This guy:


Or these two?

Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan in "Gone Baby Gone"
Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan in “Gone Baby Gone”

Mind you, like Rick and Ilsa will always have Paris, we’ll always have the classics, won’t we? Well, almost. In Turkey, for example, they’re not big fans of smoking on television, which is why they’ve magically removed cigarettes from old movies and replaced them with flowers.

Oddly enough, when Japan imports pornography it does something similar

download (1)

Is there less smoking in movies because we’re in a prudish age? Is the sexual suggestiveness of all that sucking and blowing too much? Surely we can cope. After all, audiences of yesteryear could handle it. There’s a moment in Gilda where Glenn Ford, standing, holds a match low to light a cigarette for Rita Hayworth, that is deliberately shot to make it appear as if she’s sucking on more than just a cigarette. This was 1946 but it somehow got past the Hays Office.

Rita Hayworth in "Gilda"
Rita Hayworth in “Gilda”

Smoking is bad for your health, but in the movies, in the right light, the blue-grey wisp of tobacco smoke looks cool. Ridley Scott, who knows a thing or two about lighting movies, has Sean Young smoke in Blade Runner. In a scene where she is being tested to see if she’s a replicant, she asks if she can smoke; thankfully, it doesn’t affect the test, because when she smokes, she’s smoking, which is the real point of the scene.

sean young

Then again, Young is dressed and made up to look like a 1940s career girl, so why wouldn’t she smoke? On the film set the filmmakers were in awe of her when she stepped out of her trailer; everyone thought that sort of Hollywood glamour had disappeared. It was as if Veronica Lake or Rita Hayworth was moving among them.

Even when he’s not portraying women vampishly, Scott (a cigar fan himself) knows the power of an image of a woman smoking. Look at Demi Moore in G.I. Jane: head shaved, bruised and bloodied from getting the shit kicked out of her so she can be a Navy S.E.A.L. What does she smoke? The world’s biggest, fattest, most phallic cigar, that’s what, just the same as the base commander.

All this cinematic smoke, plumes of it, wreathing angelic haloes and making not so tough guys look tougher, is of course down to Bogart. Lots of screen idols smoked, but none so definitively as he did. Everything we think we know about Bogie is tied up in those images of him with a cigarette dangling from his lips. “The Humphrey Bogart cigarette,” writes critic Annie LeClerc, is “the cigarette of the cop, the journalist, the bad guy, the man in the know.”

bogart smoking

Generations of men probably only smoked because they saw Bogie smoke. How he held the cigarette, how he inhaled and exhaled, how he spoke lines of quotable tough guy dialogue between puffs; all this contributed to the legend of Bogie the cynical loner-hero. Incidentally, Marius Goring, his costar on The Barefoot Contessa, hated all of his mannerisms – the tight smile, the tiny snarl in his voice, the little cheek tremor to show suppressed rage – he called him “Humphrey Bogus”.

But Bogie and smoking are still synonymous. It is hard to summon his face without seeing it wreathed in smoke. Indeed, he smoked in every movie he was in, even when it made filming difficult. On the set of The Barefoot Contessa, director Joseph Mankiewicz had to redo several scenes and cut them around and between Bogart’s coughing fits.


For a movie character, how you hold a cigarette is just as important as the smoking of it. If you’re Bogart, or a Bogart wannabe, you hold it between thumb and forefinger, your knuckles still showing, to show you’re a tough guy. A long cigarette delicately held between two tapered fingers? You’re an elegant, seductive woman. Your hand flat, the cigarette between middle and third finger? You’re an aristocrat.

When Bogart smokes, you see how tightly he clenches the cigarette and how he grimaces as he inhales, and how relaxed he is exhaling. In contrast, when Bette Davis smokes on screen, you can’t help look only at her eyes; she had early in her career mastered how to use those huge saucer eyes, and how to use them in a seductive combination with a cigarette.

bette davis

She smoked in countless movies, but never as famously as in Now Voyager, playing a neurotic, ugly-duckling spinster transformed into a self-confident beauty because of a kindly psychiatrist … and because of smoking. When Paul Henreid lit two cigarettes and passed one to her, women’s hearts across the world melted. They could indulge in the fantasy that a shipboard romance with a suave continental is the cure for all sorts of psychological ills.

Men began copying the gesture with their sweethearts. It probably worked for some: it had appeared before in The Rich Are Always with Us, in a scene between Ruth Chatterton and George Brent. It apparently worked for Brent; he and Chatterton had a steamy affair, and Davis, a supporting player in that film, was besotted by him.

On the other hand, Davis was something of a tough girl, and in private she held her cigarette the way Bogart did. That’s where the similarity ends: as her biographer Charles Higham noted, although she’d smoked countless Chesterfields and Pall Malls in the movies, she didn’t actually inhale.

Bogart’s first appearance in Casablanca is holding a cigarette. Viewed from behind, he’s signing a piece of paper. The opening shot of the Mad Men pilot (an episode about Lucky Strike ads) introduces Don Draper in an almost identical way, from  behind, smoking and doodling, and because nothing in Mad Men happens by accident, we can assume that the shot is a deliberate echo of Bogie’s appearance in Casablanca.

Mad Men is famous for its authentic feel. The show recreates the sixties era in all its glory and disgrace, and smoking is as much a part of that as its liquid lunches and rising hemlines.

download (3)

In contrast to Mad Men’s obsessive attention to authentic detail, Pan Am, the short-lived TV series set in the high-flying 1960s world of sexy stewardesses and handsome pilots might have failed because – by choice on the network’s part – there wasn’t a single cigarette in sight. 

Will we ever again see people in movies smoke as much as they used to?

Probably not. So enjoy this now, before the cigarettes are turned into flowers:

12 thoughts on “Smoke Doesn’t Get In Your Eyes: Movies and Smoking

  1. Smokin’ blog Niall! Two recent movies “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Call Girl” have not shied away from the cigarette heavy seventies, I am sure the Seven Dwarves did a happy dance when they saw them!


    1. cheers, ben. Several films, of course, still show characters smoking (I just watched Brad Pitt smoke up a storm in ‘Killing Them Softly’). But there is a definite trend in removing it from films, particularly if the film is going for a PG rating. There is a move to have any film with cigarettes in it rated R (which would be 18 in Ireland).


  2. Great blog! Check out the first scene between Joan Crawford and John Barrymore in ‘Grand Hotel’ – you can barely see the actors for smoke!

    Also, the cowboy sitting by the campfire rolling a cigarette – that happened in Brokeback Mountain!


  3. While I’d noticed the decline of smoking in movies over the decades, I hadn’t paid attention to the lack of cigarettes in period movies. Now, thanks to you, that’s all I’ll be able to focus on for the next 10 movies I watch.


  4. The upcoming “Parkland” (a period film!!) about the assassination of JFK is rated PG-13 with the following explanation: Rated PG-13 for bloody sequences of ER trauma procedures, some violent images and language, and smoking throughout.


  5. Wow great blog…but Niall you never did come up with your entrance theme song choice from a past blog…in lieu of this would “Smoke on the Water” be appropriate? ..maybe not! ☺

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s