Hollywood's smokescreen

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The Independent Online

I was looking at a web page devoted to an exhaustive list of scenes of women smoking in films when my browser spluttered and collapsed.

I was looking at a web page devoted to an exhaustive list of scenes of women smoking in films when my browser spluttered and collapsed. "The application has unexpectedly quit" read the error message, which seemed sensible enough in the circumstances, given what we know about the health risks. I just hope it can keep it up. Women smoking isn't my fetish, incidentally - I was just trying to top up my own memory banks with regard to cigarettes on film - but it frankly isn't all that difficult to see why it might get some people smouldering. Just think of any film noir dame tabbing up; the Freudian parting of the mouth, the avid suck on that ivory column, the erotic gape of the mouth and the languid spill of milky vapour over the lips. Careful with that cigarette, my dear, you could easily start a fire.

Naturally there are people who just can't see past the health warning retrospectively stamped on all such scenes. Another website that turned up in my brief rummage for movie dog-ends was one run by the American Lung Association of Sacramento which devotes itself to categorising films on the basis of their depiction of tobacco usage. Finding Nemo, which for obvious reasons has limited cigarette smoking in it, gets a pink lung icon, awarded only to films which ignore smoking altogether or depict it in a righteously negative light. The recent remake of Alfie, on the other hand, gets a disapproving black lung logo: "Alfie will have bigger problems than finding girls if he doesn't put down his cigarettes", notes the vigilant firewatcher who rated the movie. You don't like to think what they would make of the original - which had someone actually lighting up in a TB ward.

These days condemnation is a good deal more widespread than celebration, which largely takes place round the back of the virtual bikesheds. Stubbing out is in the spirit of the times, and this week's announcement of future smoking bans in restaurants would only seem to confirm that the days of the on-screen fag are numbered. And yet, if anything, exactly the opposite seems to be happening. There are probably more cigarettes in movies right now than there were five years ago and the past few months alone must have had the compilers of that fetish website very busy indeed. (They should check out Patrice Leconte's Confidences Trop Intimes if they're looking for some really sultry unfiltered action.)

In quite a lot of cases the cigarettes make their appearance as a period detail. That's what it's come to now: a sign of the times. It actually stuck out rather oddly in the remake of Alfie - set in that pioneer of nicotine prohibition, New York - and it did so because it was essentially a detail that had survived from another era altogether.

It doesn't hurt any that smoking has recovered some of its force as a badge of defiance and danger - something that it originally lost way back in the Forties. Paul Auster's Smoke and Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes are self-consciously acts of resistance, but that's also true whenever a character smokes in a modern Hollywood movie. Essentially the director has decided to light up in a no-smoking zone.

The reason they still do - despite everything - is that a cigarette is just so damn satisfying on screen. Indeed, very few mundane objects can touch it when it comes to poetic potential. What the cigarette venerator Richard Klein described as "a social instrument of beauty, a wand of dreams" is as versatile as a Swiss Army knife. It works as spot-lighting, as psychological warning signal, as a conversation starter and as a smoke machine. And even if you can't inhale without choking you're unlikely to be entirely immune to the pleasures of a cinematic ciggie. What other object can get two strangers to lock heads intimately, and then offer a glowing emblem of the flare of sexual interest that has just passed between them? What other object allows actors to fill the space between them with a ghostly extension of their body so that contempt and attraction can be expressed by smoke alone?

Not so long ago the critic Roger Ebert nominated Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past as "the greatest cigarette smoking movie of all time", mostly on account of Robert Mitchum's virtuoso chain-smoking, which he compared favourably to Ben Affleck's mimsy "suck and blow" technique. Personally I still think that Howard Hawks's To Have and Have Not takes the Golden Ashtray - a film in which even asking for a match takes on an erotic ambiguity. A few years ago I would have believed that the competition was closed due to a lack of new entrants, but I'm not so sure anymore. The cigarette may be down but it's not out yet.