It may no longer be as welcome, but smoking has had a place on screen since the medium began. It’s synonymous with the black-and-white era of cinema with screen giants like Humphrey Bogart and James Dean stealing scenes with the simple puff of a cigarette. But, even if it’s to a lesser extent, modern cinema has retained the tradition of depicting smoking on screen. Here, we’ll take a look at some of the most iconic smoking scenes across movie history.
Humphrey Bogart’s Oscar-nominated turn in the all-time classic ‘Casablanca’ included plenty of scenes of him smoking at the bar. After uttering the immortal line “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine”, his character Rick Blaine stares into the distance forlornly, only pausing to take a smoke. Bogart was able to use smoking as a subtle expression of emotion, whether laid-back cool or heartbreak.
James Dean was one of the original bad boys of cinema, and his 1955 film ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ was a foundation stone in building his mythos. The images of him sat astride his motorcycle with a cigarette hanging loosely from his mouth represented a fierce rebuke to the reserved sensibilities of the 1950s. The very title of the film crystallised smoking as a symbol of rebellion amongst the contemporary youth and formed part of James Dean’s timeless cool.
One of the most famous humorous smoking scenes in film came in ‘The Graduate’ as Dustin Hoffman’s character Benjamin Braddock leans in to kiss Anne Bancroft’s Mrs Robinson. Braddock appears confused at Mrs Robinson’s lack of mutual desire, only to realise after pulling back that she hadn’t had the chance to exhale first. This also ties into the use of smoking as a symbol for sex during a time in which depicting the act on film was still taboo.
Fast-forward to 1992’s ‘Basic Instinct’, and the taboos surrounding sex on film have most definitely dissipated by the time of Sharon Stone’s famous uncrossed legs scene. During this scene, Stone lights up her cigarette and dismisses the warning that she is in a non-smoking building with sarcastic derision, “What are you gonna do? Charge me with smoking?” Sharon Stone is reported to have since given up smoking in real life, one of many who have either quit or turned to alternative methods of enjoying tobacco in recent decades. For instance, there is a website that delivers to the UK the increasingly popular snus, a traditional Swedish tobacco product that is smokeless.
Uma Thurman gave smoking a sexy, hard edge right before her iconic dance scene with John Travolta in ‘Pulp Fiction.’ She featured on much of the film art and DVD releases with a cigarette in hand, and her role in Pulp Fiction demonstrates how cigarettes have been used in film as an act of seduction for women, whereas, for male characters, they perhaps more frequently are expected to give them a sense of cool and a quality of being rough around the edges.
Smoking continues to be a useful cinematic tool in modern media, whether that be as a vehicle for nostalgia in shows like ‘Mad Men’ or as a reflection of contemporary culture in modern cult classics like ‘The Pineapple Express’. Its impact on cinema is undeniable and acts as a useful indicator of the zeitgeist of the periods in which these films were made. No matter that we don’t see smoking depicted in film as often as we used to, it has become an icon of cinema in its own right.