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Smoking Was Cool as Bogie Puffed in ‘Mad Men’ Haze: Commentary

Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Michel, the amoral hood, in "Breathless" by Jean-Luc Godard. Nobody could model a cigarette like Belmondo. Source: Criterion Collection via Bloomberg

If you spend much time watching old movies on cable channels like TCM, you may feel the impulse to open a window and air out the room. No adult, it seems, is without a cigarette, a cigar or a pipe.

Smoking in movies and TV shows has been drastically reduced in the past decade with a few notable exceptions like “Mad Men.” Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, says it would have been “a joke” to do the 1960s period show without a haze of smoke.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that scenes of smoking in high-grossing films fell to 1,935 “incidents” in 2009, down 49 percent from a recent peak of 3,967 in 2005. Still, more than half of all PG-13 movies contain smoking scenes, according to the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education.

There’s no denying, however, that smoking is an important part of movie mythology. It’s hard to imagine screen legends such as Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Bette Davis or Susan Hayward without a cigarette or stogie.

Jean-Paul Belmondo almost always had a chunky, unfiltered Gauloises or Gitanes dangling from his lips. In ‘Breathless,” “Pierrot le Fou” and so many of his other movies, smoking made him seem both tough and nonchalant.

There was an element of self-consciousness to Belmondo’s smoking, as if he were mimicking American movie gangsters. He made this comparison explicit in “Breathless,” where he smooths his lips and reverentially gazes up at a poster of Bogart.

Bogie’s Image

Bogart was wreathed in smoke in his urban tough-guy roles, exemplified by Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon” and Philip Marlowe in “The Big Sleep.” (As a modern-day Marlowe in Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” Elliott Gould’s chain-smoking was a parody and an homage.)

Bogart is equally memorable in “The African Queen,” where his riverboat rat is coupled with Katharine Hepburn’s prim spinster. His smoking in that film, not to mention his drinking, is anathema to her. “The African Queen” wouldn’t be nearly as funny if Bogart never lit up.

Some of Hollywood’s most memorable lines involve smoking.

Who can forget the scene in “Basic Instinct” where a panty-less murder suspect Sharon Stone defiantly lights up in an interrogation room and sneers at police: “What are you going to do, charge me with smoking?”

Or a sultry Lauren Bacall leaning against an open door in “To Have and Have Not” and purring at Bogart, “Anybody got a match?” (Bogart, a heavy smoker in real life, died of esophageal cancer at 57.)

‘Easy Rider’

Then there’s Paul Heinreid in “Now, Voyager,” lighting two cigarettes in his mouth before handing one to Davis. And Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper getting high on weed around the campfire in “Easy Rider.”

Some movies are almost entirely about cigarettes or marijuana. The eclectic list includes the satire “Thank You for Smoking,” the Cheech and Chong comedy “Up in Smoke,” Norman Lear’s “Cold Turkey” and the 1936 anti-drug drama “Reefer Madness.”

In the end, smoking in the movies has always been more about attitude than particular moments. Times change, though. Nowadays, movie actors are far more apt to whip out a Blackberry than a cigarette.

I’m not sure this is such a vast improvement. Whether it’s noise or smoke, it’s still pollution.

(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).

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