No matter what you think of it in the real world, smoking is sexy on celluloid. Some of the sexiest scenes in cinema history have included the blue trail of a cigarette’s plume or have been lit by the warm glow of its flame.
Between screen couples, the lighting and smoking of a cigarette can contain a sexy frisson, a cheeky wink about their desire for each other or the intimacy that already exists between them. In films where sex could only ever be hinted at, wreaths of smoke whispered to an audience that relations were literally smouldering.
Think of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. In To Have and Have Not (1944) Bacall lights up in front of Bogie the first time their characters meet. He then lights her cigarette over and over through the course of the film. They do it again in The Big Sleep (1946), which actually opens with a shot of two cigarettes aglow in an ashtray. You don’t need to be a genius to figure out what that’s a symbol of. Here, smoking is sex.
One of the finest examples of sexy puffing comes from the brilliant Bette Davis weepie, Now, Voyager (1942).
There are a lot of cigarettes in this film, but it’s the final scene that has deservedly become iconic. As they discuss the future of his daughter, Jerry (Paul Henreid) lights Charlotte’s (Bette Davis) cigarette. Sounds simple enough, but it’s the way he does it that’s worth pausing to consider for a moment. Jerry takes two cigarettes into his mouth and lights them together before handing one to Charlotte. It is a very smooth cigarette move that takes what is already quite an intimate manoeuvre – man leans in to light woman’s cigarette, she leans in, her fingers brushing his to guide his hand – to a whole other level.
Lighting cigarettes is also a feature of Tom Ford’s gorgeous debut film, A Single Man (2009).
Having dinner with his oldest friend Charley (Julianne Moore), the single man in question, the grieving George Falconer (Colin Firth), performs what she declares to be a ‘very smooth cigarette move.’
Lying on the floor together, after a humorous and drunken attempt at dancing the twist, George takes two cigarettes between his lips and lights them, before passing one to his friend. As George notes, ‘I’ve always wanted to do that,’ even though he hasn’t really smoked in 16 years.
For film buffs, the reference to Now, Voyager is obvious, although the intimacy here between George and Charley is quite different in nature to the relationship hinted at by the gesture between Henreid and Davis in the earlier film.
It’s a lovely touch, especially when you realise that Tom Ford is riffing on classic cinema all the way through A Single Man – exploring, idolizing, and challenging it.
Cinema articulates desire, especially the unconscious fantasies of the audience. I’ll avoid launching into a discussion about psychoanalytic film theory here; suffice it to say that film literally puts our desires up on screen and Hollywood is the industry of desire.
In A Single Man these desires all converge in a sequence that precedes George’s arrival at Charley’s house. Here, the connection between sex and desire and smoking and cinematic fantasies takes centre stage. It’s my favourite scene in this beautiful film.
In the late afternoon, George pulls up at a rooftop car park to buy booze to take to Charley’s. The sun is low, the city bathed in an ethereal smoggy glow, all violets and oranges. He parks in the shadow of a giant Psycho film poster – a close-up on Janet Leigh’s terrified face dwarfs him. The score soars. It’s gorgeous music. If you know Hitchcock, it sounds familiar, like music you’ve heard in Vertigo. Checking the score’s details at the film’s end you see ‘A Variation on Scotty Tails Madeline’ by Shigeru Umebayashi (a Japanese composer best known in the West for his exquisite score for Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love). Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo contains a piece entitled ‘Scotty Tails Madeline.’ Umebayashi’s highly romantic fragment is a fitting tribute.
Ford has created an extraordinarily sensory scene midway into his film – colour and light are rich and transfixing, sound, expansive and enveloping. And it’s about to get a whole lot sexier when George walks into the store.
The camera jumps quickly ahead to his exit, where he bumps into a young man coming out of the phone booth. Stunned by the man’s beauty, George drops the bottles of whisky and gin – they smash, soaking the man’s packet of Lucky Strikes, which have also fallen in the collision. George is quick to say, ‘It’s my fault. I’ll get you another pack.’
They go into the store together and when they exit, the young man – who we soon learn is from Madrid and whose name is Carlos (Jon Kortajarena) – invites George to have a cigarette with him. George’s initial expression of ‘no thanks’ shifts the longer he gazes at what he later describes as Carlos’ ‘incredible face.’ Ford offers the face to us as George sees it, in a series of short, extreme close-up shots, that magnify and frame Carlos’ sensual, full lips, and dark eyes. It’s enough to change George’s mind, and he agrees to a smoke.
When Carlos lights George’s cigarette, their faces are close together (Carlos opposite the camera, George with his back to it). They fill the screen and you can feel the intensity buzzing in the space between them. The camera lingers over, fetishizes even, an extreme close-up of Carlos’ lips as smoke suggestively escapes them. His mouth offered to us as luscious and red; the smoke plume, a breathy promise of something more. The men speak to each other in Spanish. George only takes a couple of puffs – the cigarette just a ruse to concentrate his eyes on that magnificent face a little longer.
As a gay man, you just know that Ford must be relishing the opportunity to challenge the heterosexual bias of Hollywood cinema. And in this scene he allows two men to share a sexually charged moment, fuelled by their burning cigarettes, the way countless heterosexual couples on screen have done before.
Carlos’ profound observation that ‘Sometimes awful things have their own kind of beauty’ (with regards to the strange light created by the sun in the smog) convinces George to extend the pleasure of this man’s company with another cigarette.
They talk about what brought Carlos to Los Angeles – the movies. He tells George that he had his mother cut his hair to look like James Dean before he left, to which George cheekily notes, ‘You’re better than James Dean.’
With this observation, I think the scene comes full circle. James Dean, already dead seven years when the action in A Single Man is taking place (1962), is, like George’s own dead lover Jim (Matthew Goode), no longer mortal flesh. He is a memory, frozen in time, alive only on screen, in images. Dean, himself a prolific smoker of ambivalent sexuality; Dean, who after only three iconic performances and a tragic death at the age of 24, has been the locus ever since of so many of Hollywood’s fantasies and desires.
But, as George notes, Carlos is better than James Dean because Carlos is alive. This brief interlude with Carlos has reminded George that beautiful moments can be found amidst the horrors of everyday life. This is the key fantasy that cinema fulfils for many of us – our desire to encounter other people and other worlds for brief moments in time. And sometimes, if we’re lucky, we get to do this through the gentle, sexy veil provided by a puff of smoke.