What do cigarettes add to the noir film?
Although people are always arguing whether film noir should count as a genre or not, there is no doubt that cigarettes (and cigars) played a big part in noir films. Whether as a visual element or as an indispensable prop, cigarettes could be seen in almost every classical noir film, helps to depict and reflect character’s emotion, power, or desire. The erratic, mysterious smoke wreathing in a dark scene, hovering between man and woman, reflecting by dramatic lighting, all made a well-known symbol of film noir. It has almost become a signature of “noir style”. As Roger Ebert mentioned in A guide to film noir genre: “Everybody in film noir is always smoking, as if to say, ‘On top of everything else, I’ve been assigned to get through three packs today’.” 1
Cigarettes work as weapons: Meeting scene in Out of the Past
When talking about smoking, the first film that comes to my mind would be Out of the Past. Like Roger Ebert says: “The best smoking movie of all time is Out of the Past, in which Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas smoke furiously at each other. At one point, Mitchum enters a room, Douglas extends a pack and says, ‘Cigarette?’ and Mitchum, holding up his hand, says, ‘Smoking’.” 2 This so-called “one point” is happening when Whit (Kirk Douglas) meets Jeff (Robert Mitchum) at his luxurious big house. Considering how Jeff lied to Whit about finding his mistress Kathie, how Jeff betrayed Whit and slipped away with her, this reunion scene is full of tension and uncertainty. But ostensibly, the two men act like a couple of old friends. Jeff even helps Whit light his cigarette. Underneath this harmonious surface, their body language suggests differently, especially showing how they are holding and smoking their cigarettes.
In this fascinating scene, the cigarettes they both hold in their hands and the smoke they exhale turns into a new form of weapon. Just like they both hold their swords, defending themselves and probing the rival at the same time. As Roger Ebert puts it: “Few movies use smoking as well as this one; in their scenes together, it would be fair to say that Mitchum and Douglas smoke at each other, in a sublimated form of fencing.” 3 There is no doubt that the cigarette added more layers and details to the scene, along with Mitchum and Douglas’ acting. This also made the scene an all-time favorite.
Cigarettes work as weapons in Out of the Past: The conversation between Jeff and Whit.
The lighting cigar scenes: Personality and relationship in Double Indemnity
When we take a closer look, we find that the scenes of Neff lighting a match for Keyes are carefully designed. The lit match action happened 7 times total in the film, and have been attached to (also ends) every single scene that Neff and Keyes have face-to-face conversations. Including the last scene in which Keyes lights Neff’s last cigarette. This design has several functions for the movie.
The first function is to imply the power relationship between Neff and Keyes. According to classic psychological theory, a cigar or cigarette could be interpreted as a phallic symbol. Thus, to help someone light his cigar could mean, “help to erect”. This action suggests that Neff plays a stronger role in the relationship between them. Because Keyes is not man enough to light his own cigar, putting him in the weaker position. Such a relationship is also emphasized by the comparison of their height. When it comes to the last scene, their roles are reversed: Neff is dying from his bullet wound, he is too weak to light a match for his last cigarette. Keyes has to take over the match from his hand and light it for him.
The lit match action and the comparison of their height in this scene both imply the power relationship between them.
The second function is to imply and emphasize the different personality of Neff and Keyes. In every scene involved with Neff and Keyes, the scene ends by Keyes pulling out a cigar and patting his pockets for a matchstick. Then Neff has to come to his rescue with a quickly lit match. Actually, there is a scene they talk about why Keyes never has a match (although the seller gives matches for free.) Because according to Keyes line: “Don’t like them. They always explode in my pocket.” If we considering that their job is all about evaluating and taking risks, we could see that Keyes is the one who doesn’t want to take the risk of the matches blowing up in his pocket. Comparatively, Neff is the one who is willing to take that risk. It also partly explains why Neff setup the whole plan of murder, because his personality is willing to take the risk and “play with fire.” By presenting the different ways Neff and Keyes treat matches, the film shows the contrast of their characteristics, in an elegant and super subtle way.
Lastly, the third function is to show the friendship between two men. According to the film, the relationship between Neff and Keyes is complicated. But apparently, there is friendship between them. We could read their friendship by the lighting cigar scenes: When Neff lit a match for Keyes, he is usually smiling and says, “I love you too.” When it comes to the last scene, Neff tells Keyes why he couldn’t find the real murderer, because “The guy you were looking for was too close, right across the desk from you.” And Keyes replies to him: “Closer than that.” Then Neff realizes what he means and says one last time: “I love you too.” By watching that scene, we could simply imagine that there will no longer be anyone lighting a match for Keyes like Neff does. (Since he will be arrested for murder.) Such an ending emphasized their friendship and brings more sadness to the whole story.
The last scene of Double Indemnity: Witness the reverse of roles and the end of their friendship.
All in all, if we compare how cigarettes work in the two movies we discussed above, it clearly shows different usages and purposes. In Out of the Past, the burning cigarettes and ascending smoke between Jeff and Whit depict a special combat: smoking is the way they dueling. Representing conflict without a physical fight. On the other hand, in Double Indemnity, the symbolic value of the lighting cigar scenes helps to depict the personality of Neff and Keyes, representing the intimate relationship between them. As a prop, cigarettes serve different roles in two films and both work amazingly well. There are a lot more of creative usage of cigarettes in other remarkable noir films such as The Big Sleep, Pickup On South Street, etc. Cigarettes help to make countless, unforgettable characters and scenes. No wonder, when discussing smoking scenes in film noir, people would say: “Smoking isn’t added trivially. Instead, it serves as a punctuation mark.” 4
- Roger Ebert, A guide to film noir genre, January 30, 1995, point 4.
- Roger Ebert, Great movie reviews – Out of the past, July 18, 2004.
- Flashback/Backslide website, Film Noir: Defining a Genre, May 29, 2014.