The Last Cigarette

Cinema’s most seductive prop

Jack Nicholson in <em>Chinatown</em>, 1974 (Everett Collection)
Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, 1974 (Everett Collection)

Every cigarette is the last cigarette.

A cigarette is an invitation. When, in The Lady from Shanghai, able-bodied Irish sailor Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) meets Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) in a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park, he offers her a cigarette. “But I don’t smoke,” she says. Still, she wraps his cigarette in a handkerchief and tucks it away as a memento. When Elsa’s husband, Arthur, hires Michael to assist on a yacht trip from New York to San Francisco via the Panama Canal, the means and opportunity are at hand for an adulterous romance. Aboard the Zaca, Elsa smokes like an old pro, and it’s as if that pristine, unsmoked cigarette in Central Park prefigured the smoldering affair.

“A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces” is the first line of a sexy lyric. An airline ticket takes the smoker to the romantic places where sinners gather.

Cigarettes were currency among the new immigrants. You could tip the delivery boy with a cigarette.

My friend Ron observed the paradox of cigarettes: we smoke them because of the fear of death, not in spite of it.

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?”

“Which time?”

“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.”

And what, Mr. Marlow, is it that you crave? “A smoke. A length of ash slowly building. Oh, tube of delight. Blessed nicotine.”

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.[1] 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.”

A haiku:

I like to watch the stars,

in cafés and bars,

 smoking in films noirs.

In Laura, Gene Tierney may smoke cigarettes with Vincent Price, but she chooses Dana Andrews, a much better smoker. In Pitfall, when showroom model Lizabeth Scott (in beret, suit, and blouse with a lavaliere) gives married insurance man (Dick Powell) a cigarette and takes one for herself, it signifies something illicit—as is plain when they clinch instead of lighting up.

Kirk Douglas lights cigarettes for Doris Day and himself in Young Man with Horn (1950), which would have been a noir if Day hadn’t been there to rescue Douglas from viper Lauren Bacall. In the same movie, Hoagy Carmichael, as trumpeter Douglas’s buddy, is nicknamed “Smoke,” because he always has a cig in his mouth, even while his hands are busy playing the keyboard and producing “Get Happy” or “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

When Rita Hayworth (Gilda) and Glenn Ford (Johnny Farrell) share a scene in Gilda, one of them may be smoking, but usually not both. Rita in a strapless black dress with a lit cigarette between the index and middle fingers of her right hand is reason enough to rue the day the surgeon general condemned smoking in 1963. “Got a light?” Gilda asks, and when Johnny flicks the lighter, it is belt high and she must bend over to get the flame.

A running gag in Double Indemnity is that Edward G. Robinson lacks a lighter. Each time he tries to light up his cigar but finds no matches in his pocket, Fred MacMurray is on hand smirking and providing the necessary blaze. The relationship between Keyes (Robinson) and Walter Neff (MacMurray) is as intense in its way as the connection between Walter and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). It means something that when Neff is dying of a gunshot wound, it is Keyes who lights his final cigarette. The last line of the movie is on my top-ten list of great last lines: “I love you, too,” said by Neff to Keyes.

In the black-and-white world of noir, cigarettes are everywhere. But then, they are ubiquitous in all movies, as in life, in the first half of the 20th century. Among great smokers I think of FDR with his holder tilted rakishly upward, as if to reinforce his smile, and Ike, who smoked four packs of unfiltered smokes a day before and after D-Day in 1944. Gregory Peck smokes fiercely as he types up his exposé of anti-Semitism in Gentleman’s Agreement, as if to say that smoking is an aspect of the writer’s job, a sine qua non, and that an ashtray full of butts is evidence that a writer has done his work. When New York replaced Paris as the world’s art capital, the art critics fell into two rival camps: Pall Malls for Harold Rosenberg, Camels for Clement Greenberg. Audrey Hepburn smokes stylishly in Charade. Marlene Dietrich smoked brilliantly, sometimes with a cigarette holder and furs. Bette Davis is in the smoker’s hall of fame, and not solely because of the end of Now, Voyager, when Paul Henreid lights two cigarettes, one for her and one for him, sealing their intimacy, and Bette has her famous line about settling for the stars if you can’t have the moon. She’s got a cigarette between her fingers in All About Eve when she says “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Chesterfield ads of the 1940s and ’50s featured Claudette Colbert, Joan Crawford, and Rita Hayworth. Camels were advocated by Teresa Wright, Alan Ladd, John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, and a neon sign in Times Square that blew out smoke. Some of the great jingles of the 1960s advertised mediocre cigarettes. Winston “tastes good like [sic] a cigarette should.” L & M has got the filter that unlocks the flavor. You can take Salem out of the country, but. To a smoker it’s a Kent. The most famous of all Marlboro commercials used Elmer Bernstein’s music from The Magnificent Seven, and Yul Brynner, who played the leader of the pack, was a dedicated smoker (and made a public service announcement after he learned he didn’t have long to live). Nat King Cole credited the quality of his singing voice to cigarettes. Leonard Bernstein couldn’t live without them.

Addictive? A hardened criminal would rat on his best friend for a cigarette, even a bad one (Lark, Parliament, Viceroy) if he needed it. Reason not the need. Hell, the guy in solitary would smoke the butts off the floor if he needed a smoke. Read the opening chapter of Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno. It is titled “The Last Cigarette” and narrates the hero’s efforts to give up cigarettes and the lengths the addict will go to satisfy his or her craving.[2] In Dead Again (1991), Kenneth Branagh’s ode to the noirs of the 1940s, the intrepid reporter played by Andy Garcia smokes and smokes, and when we see him as an old man, decades in the future, he has a tracheotomy tube in his neck. What does he ask for—what does he crave—in return for sharing information with the detective played by Branagh? A cigarette.

There is the cigarette of combat: According to Roger Ebert, Out of the Past (1947) is “the greatest cigarette-smoking movie of all time.” Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas wage war by cigarette proxy. “The trick, as demonstrated by [director] Jacques Tourneur and his cameraman, Nicholas Musuraca,” Ebert writes, “is to throw a lot of light into the empty space where the characters are going to exhale. When they do, they produce great white clouds of smoke, which express their moods, their personalities and their energy levels. There were guns in Out of the Past, but the real hostility came when Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas smoked at each other.”[3]

The cigarette as a prize: In The Snake Pit (1948), a so-called “problem picture” dramatizing the plight of the mentally ill, Dr. Kik (Leo Genn) wants to reward Virginia Stuart Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) for the progress she has made. On the wall, a framed photograph of a severe Sigmund Freud looks on as the doctor kindly says, “What about a cigarette now?”

The romantic cigarette, in defeat: On television in the late ’50s, Sinatra in fedora and raincoat, with a cigarette in his hand, takes his seat at the bar. It’s nearly three in the morning, and he begins to sing “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” with only Bill Miller’s piano accompaniment. There’s a glass, an ashtray, and an open pack of smokes on the bar. Joe the bartender pours whiskey into the glass when the singer tells him to “set ‘em up,” and Sinatra strikes a match, keeps it lit, stares at the flame, while telling his new pal Joe that tonight he is drinking “to the end of a brief episode.” Only then does he bring the flame to the cigarette and take a puff. He keeps the cigarette between fingers, or taps the ashes into the tray, and holds the glass of whiskey while singing. The song as written ends with “the long, long road,” but Sinatra never reaches the period at the end of the line. After “the long,” he pauses, takes a drag of his cigarette, repeats “the long,” and lets the music drift off like smoke.

The cigarette of melancholia: A triptych of Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey, and Michael Kidd—World War II army buddies who reunite 10 years later and realize that they loathe themselves and one another—shows the guys smoking and singing “Once I had a dream, what a joke / Gone is that dream, up in smoke” in It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), the most underrated of the Kelly and Stanley Donen movie musicals, with wonderful lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

The macho cigarette, cool under pressure: In The Godfather (1972), Michael Corleone is standing in front of the hospital where his wounded father lies unprotected. Enzo, the baker, has chosen this moment to visit with flowers, and Michael enlists him to help stand guard. The two men are to stand there, impersonating gun men, in an effort to deter the hit men driving by. Enzo, understandably nervous, needs a cigarette. Hand goes to pocket, pulls out cigarette. But his hands shake, he can’t work his lighter. Michael calmly takes the Zippo and lights him up. The ruse works. Michael has displayed initiative and imagination, and the signature of that moment is his icy demeanor when firing up Enzo’s lighter. By contrast, the unfiltered Camel that Michael smokes at the end of The Godfather II (1974) is a mark of his aloneness. The cigarette is his only friend as he sits and broods on the end of an ethic, a family, a film.

The royalty of cigarette smokers are Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The Big Sleep (1946) ends with the two of them in a car. She “guesses” that she’s in love with him, and he “guesses” that he’s in love with her. Says he: “What’s wrong with you?” She: “Nothing you can’t fix.” And next to the words THE END, there is an ashtray with two smoldering cigarettes in it.

Ah, cigarettes. What a wonderful prop. So sexy! Too bad they cause cancer.

“The Last Cigarette” is adapted from The Mysterious Romance of Murder: Crime, Detection, and the Spirit of Noir, contributing editor David Lehman’s new book, published by Cornell University Press on May 15, 2022.

[1] Each puff, Klein writes, “baptizes the celebrant with the little flash of a renewed sensation, an instantaneous, fleeting body image of the unified Moi.” Richard Klein, Cigarettes Are Sublime. Duke University Press, 1993.

[2] An emeritus professor at the University of Washington advances the theory that “smoking represented for Svevo the muffled resistance of the Jewish writer toward the world of work and bourgeois Catholic respectability, just as it constituted for Zeno the major ‘resistance’ to his psychoanalytic healing and normalization.” Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, “Svevo on the Couch,” Raritan, Summer 2020, p. 87.

[3] Roger Ebert, “200 Cigarettes,” February 26, 1999.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


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