It would be irresponsible, ignorant, and in some instances, completely unethical for Criminal Complex to encourage the dangerously unhealthy habit of cigarette smoking in others.
So that is exactly what we will do right now.
Hey, look, you’re intelligent (and damned attractive, if you don’t mind me saying so). You don’t need us to tell you that despite the facts that smoking can lead to a litany of health problems, that a full Nazi battalion is more welcome in a public place than a single smoker, and that the smell is on par to many with raw sewage, smoking is still the number one way in which a person can look cool. As intelligent as you are, you can argue against smoking however you please—cigarette manufacturers are the most manipulative, morally bankrupt businesses in America, if not the world; the money spent on cigarettes in a single year could be used to miraculous results if funneled instead to education or health; the ash, smoke, and used butts of millions of smokers contribute significantly to the chokehold pollution has on our environment.
But all of that is trumped by our true gods: movie stars.
As long as these seven films listed below exist, we’ll always have a reason to smoke up, Johnny.
1. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Start with the easy one. Quentin Tarantino likely still gets a Christmas card from the Altria Group for all the bad, bad Leroy Browns he has depicted in his films with cigarettes in their fingers. This seems especially true in his early films, though I could just be remembering that differently. I do recall that when I was 18, my friends and I went to a double feature of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, and the sight of all those smokers only made us crave one even more, so that intermission could not come fast enough. You don’t have to be a genius to figure this out in Tarantino’s work; the guy is heavily influenced by the tough-guy action films of the ‘60s and ‘70s where everybody smoked. Imagine Mr. Blonde or Mr. White without a cigarette. You can’t, can you? And in the stressful world of diamond heisting and being infiltrated by undercover cops, even Mr. Pink has to light back up after having quit. When you live a gangster’s life, something else is gonna kill you before the emphysema does.
2. Fargo (1996)
I’ll tell you, I’ve been a pretty active smoker for years now, and it still makes my lungs hurt to watch Peter Stormare do his chimney act in this film, even more so than De Niro in Casino. I think Stormare’s character, Gaear Grimsrud, is yet another testimony to the Coen brothers’ superior film-making skills. A lesser director would have let Gaear’s chain-smoking define him simply as a bad guy, but then when Jeanne Lundegaard bites him while he’s trying to kidnap her, he immediately stops in the middle of committing a federal offense and searches for unguent for his bleeding finger. A guy who so clearly has little regard for his health and the health of others, except in a tiny, innocuous incident such as this, does not only herald the Coens as some of the funniest guys in the business, but as guys conscious of the basic contradictions of human behavior. No cartoon characters in this movie, no matter how unintentionally hilarious (on their part) they might be.
3. Adiós, Sabata (1971)
There is probably not a single spaghetti western that does not prominently feature a tobacco smoker. Not only does the era in which these films take place inform this, the era in which they were made does as well, since smoking didn’t really start to be thought of as a public health hazard until about the 1980s, I’d say. But the thing about Adiós, Sabata is that it adds a new wrinkle to the term “coffin nail.” In the film, Yul Brynner plays the title character and his weapon of choice is a sawed-off Winchester rifle that uses what’s called a harmonica cartridge. Apparently, this was not a real rifle, but was in fact based on actual firearms of the era, such as this one:
As you can see, rather than the rounds revolving within the chamber, they’re pushed manually through. Sabata in this flick uses this seemingly rather inconvenient weapon to great effect. And to add to that effect, he saves a cigarillo in the last round. Nothing like ending a shooting spree with a trip to flavor country.
It should be noted that Yul Brynner died of lung cancer at the age of 65, and after a lifetime of excessive smoking, Brynner became an aggressive anti-smoker. One of his final interviews was even made into a public service announcement:
It’s a sad thing that the guy died before he could make even more great films. But if I could take it all back, you know what I would do? Become Yul Brynner. His legacy, even how it ended, is still way better than most people’s wasted lives.
4. Truth or Consequences, N.M. (1997)
This little seen picture was the directorial debut of Kiefer Sutherland, who also stars along with such names as Vincent Gallo, Mykelti Williamson, Kim Dickens, and Martin Sheen. Despite this, the film did pretty poorly, going almost straight to video after a very limited theatrical run. And really, it’s not that good. Remember, this was during Kiefer’s down period, post-Lost Boys but pre-24. But there is one shot in this movie that I’ve never forgotten. It’s a longer take, out in the desert, and the camera pans slowly down to this trailer our band is hiding out in. Sutherland steps out the front door, puts on his shades, looks around at the breaking dawn, and then flips a cigarette up into his mouth, butt-first, without looking. If you’re a non-smoker, then I’m willing to bet you have no idea how difficult that is to pull off or how goddamn cool you look doing something like that. And for a long take, I can’t imagine they did it a hundred times, but even the possibility that they would have to proves to me how dedicated Sutherland was to pulling such a seemingly inconsequential scene off. Try doing that with a carrot stick, see if your directorial debut does any better.
5. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
There is little to dislike about this movie, Shane Black’s directorial debut. Black made his bones writing such blockbuster screenplays as Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, but I certainly wouldn’t hold that against him. With Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Black is free of any sort of studio interference, and his successful attempt here at meta-detective fiction only goes to show that the suits in Hollywood are as empty as my bank account. This movie also features fun Val Kilmer, which you don’t get to see too often anymore since he seems to think he’s like a real actor or something. And it also features a newly sober Robert Downey, Jr., who was no slouch when he was drugged up, but who has also done most of his best work since he hopped on the wagon, this film very much included. Downey’s character, Harry Lockhart, is also a big smoker, and there’s a scene towards the beginning of the film that endeared him and the film to me immediately. Harry is at some Hollywood party, hanging around and feeling completely out of place. He lights up a cigarette (outdoors, I might add), and a group of frou-frou L.A. types begin coughing dramatically and flee with dirty looks. Anything one does to piss off asshole Hollywood scenesters is good—not good for your health, perhaps, but good for the soul.
6. The Departed (2006)
As I hinted at above, the world of crime fiction is a very, very stressful one for its characters. Nearly all of the characters in this film are leading at least two lives, and on top of that, they’re all from Boston, Mass., where I understand kids are issued cartons of Camels upon entering junior high school. So whether you’re a local crimelord struggling to find a worthy successor for your regime while simultaneously pumping info to the feds, or whether you’re a genius-level intellect burrowing deep undercover with the Irish gangsters while simultaneously having an affair with your occupational therapist, you’re gonna need something to take the edge off, and a cranberry juice just ain’t gonna cut it. Also, though Alec Baldwin is not partaking in this scene, smoking is the cornerstone of the most quotable line in this very quotable movie:
7. GoodFellas (1990)
In 1966, Eric Clapton was renowned in his native England as a brilliant guitar player, but was looking to form a new band after having left the Yardbirds, serving only a brief stint in John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. He met up with drummer Ginger Baker, who was tired of playing with the Graham Bond Organisation, and they agreed to begin a new group immediately. They recruited bass player Jack Bruce, who would also take on vocal duties, even though he and Baker had never exactly gotten along. In July of that very year, Cream took the stage for the first time in Manchester, England, and the world’s first supergroup was born.
Oh, and also: Cream sucks really fuckin’ hard.
Never mind the fact that Eric Clapton is hugely overrated in general, any band that names themselves Cream as in “cream of the crop” can take a long walk off a short fretboard for all I care. On top of that, if you grew up in a semi-rural suburban wasteland as I did, you must have heard “Sunshine of Your Love” more often than you heard your parents tell you they love you. But then Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro came along and rescued that bloated ol’ pop corpse. And they couldn’t have done it without a cigarette:
The notion of looking cool is really something we all should have outgrown by now. But as with comic books and chronic masturbation, it does seem to be one of those habits that are extremely difficult to kick. If you don’t smoke already, then I certainly wouldn’t encourage you to start—it’s expensive and either you’re too young or too old to start anyways. But if you do already, then I figure, the hell with it. We’re all circling the drain here in this miserable, prolonged existence of ours. Might as well look cool while we’re dying.