Andrew Martin: The vanishing art of smoking

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The Independent Online

The thing is, on reading the news that children who have watched films featuring smoking are more likely to take it up themselves, I tried to think which film had started me off on the habit.

We have to go back a long way, although strictly speaking the first "cigarettes" I "smoked" were sweets. They were called something like "Junior Fags" and were white sticks of sweet stuff with red dye on the end to look like a lit cigarette.

Aged nine, I was on about ten of those a day, and I believe I actually would leave a "stub" and stand on it before entering a friend's house, not that inside wasn't full of adults puffing away.

It was possibly when I saw – late one night on louche BBC2 – Jean Pierre Melville's film, Le Samouraï (1967) that I realised it was time to move on from smokeless smoking to something more carcinogenic. In it, Alain Delon plays Jef, a Paris-based assassin with an admirably minimal lifestyle. When Jef wants a car, he steals someone else's, always going for grey Citroens. In his flat, there is nothing but a bed, numerous bottles of mineral water (Evian), and numerous packets of cigarettes (Gitanes). There is also a bird in a cage as a metaphor for... something or other. I marvelled that Jef really had got life sussed, because that was all you needed, when you really thought about it.

Or was it watching Elliott Gould in Robert Altman's version of The Long Goodbye (1973)? Gould was a superbly adept smoker, and they should show his performance in drama schools because they're going to have to start teaching smoking, just as they teach another anachronistic art, fencing. They should have smoking coaches – rheumy old actors down on their luck. (For an example of completely unconvincing smoking, see Colin Firth in The King's Speech.)

Or it might have been Jeremy Brett who, as Sherlock Holmes, smoked French-looking cigarettes. Of course, Holmes is "period" and you've got to have smoking in period drama. Given that people didn't swear or have sex in the past, there's not a lot left if you take away the smoking.

I generally don't want to see smoke-free art. I recall the relish with which Elmore Leonard said that after writing a conversation, he'd go over it again to "put in the smoking": the pauses, the nuance. Or consider... You are a child at large in a strange world. Who you rather encounter? The Smoking Caterpillar? Or the Non-Smoking Caterpillar?