Notes From the Ashtray

Tobacco: The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

Dylan Gyles

Tobacco lit cannot be discussed without considering film noir. Crime Fiction in the 1940s romanticized tobacco in an irreversible way. Despite everything we now know about the harmful effects of cigarettes, people still smoke them because they want to look like Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.

Early crime novels, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries, had an upbeat sense of adventure. The hero was good, the villain was evil and righteousness always triumphed. In the late 1930s, with the looming threat of WWII, audiences no longer bought into that kind of idealism and turned to authors like Dashiell Hammett and his hard-boiled detective, Sam Spade. In Hammett’s stories the hero is jaded and hate-filled, the villain is ruthless but shrewd and there is never a happy ending. Sherlock Holmes and his mighty Calabash pipe, was replaced by Sam Spade and his small, cheap cigarettes.

In A Guide to Film Noir Genre, Roger Ebert lists ten key features for any noir story. Number four reads:

“Cigarettes. 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.’ 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.’”

Noir films adopted the visual style of German expressionist filmmakers like Fritz Lang. They were almost always black and white, with low-key lighting that made subjects pop and backgrounds dissolve into shadow. This had the effect of giving tobacco smoke the solid, dense look of clouds, like smog pouring out of a steam engine. An actor with a cigarette in his hand left a distinct trail as he made his way across the screen and his close-ups were framed with a border of fog. Even in a pitch-black room, a femme fatale could be seen silhouetted by smoke and the burning ember of her cigarette, as she waited for the detective to walk in. The best film noir cinematographers always framed their shots with space for an extra character, a billowing ghost of cigarette smoke.

Film noir hit perfection with the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon. It set the bar for smoking on camera with cigarettes, pipes and cigars. Every character smokes non-stop throughout the film, though it wasn’t scripted that way. Jack Warner of Warner Bros actually wanted to minimize the film’s smoking for fear that audiences would grow restless and leave the theatre to have a smoke of their own. The film’s stars, Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre, were in a fight with Warner at the time and as a prank, they convinced the other cast members to join them in a chain-smoking marathon throughout the final confrontation scene. Warner was furious when he saw the daily rushes and forced them to re-film the scene without cigarettes, but director John Huston realized the smoking, however exaggerated, added amazing atmosphere and convinced Warner the smoking had to stay.

Actors have been imitating Humphrey Bogart’s smoking style ever since his first appearance on screen. You can’t picture a grizzled detective, without seeing Bogart in a trench coat and fedora with a cigarette tucked in the corner of his lips. Like all the great smokers, the cigarettes caught up with him eventually. He died of cancer at the age 57. Here’s looking at you, kid.


Dylan Gyles

Dylan Gyles is a writer and barista. He writes short fiction and creative non-fiction. He is originally from Winnipeg and now lives in Vancouver.


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