A couple of months ago, I contributed to the Guardian’s Clip Joint feature, suggesting five moments of nicotine-based greatness and remarking that smoking femmes fatales (yes plural, because this is French) were such a prominent trope that they deserved their own clip joint. Luckily, along comes the Park Circus Film Noir Blogathon as the perfect excuse for me to fulfil that promise and recycle my early notes.
Vamps and cigarettes are the sublime combination of two indispensable ingredients of any self-respecting noir, and if the number of YouTube videos dedicated to sensual legends of Hollywood’s golden age lighting up is anything to go by, this is already quite a common film deviance.
Without further ado, let’s brace ourselves for some fetishistic viewing, from classic noir to neo-noir via L.A Noir, proto-noir, kind-of-noirish and any other shade of black you care to think of.
Let’s kick things off with this slick POV shot of the best of them all, Lauren Bacall, inhaling suggestively while eyeballing the camera. Sorry – what was she saying again? (also, if someone can name the film from which this excerpt has been taken that’ll be great. There’s a metaphorical cinephile cookie to win.)
Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932)
Yes, I know, Shanghai Express is not in the strictest sense a film noir, and Marlene Dietrich’s character is not technically a femme fatale – but the seeds of the genre are here; it’s the birth of a filmic cliche.
Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946)
Gilda smokes too much because she’s one of these “frustatred, lonely people”. Yeah right.
Faye Dunaway in Chinatown (1974)
I could not omit the brilliant Chinatown from this list, with its smorgasboard of holders, unfiltered cigarettes and post-coital fags.
Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (1991)
Admittedly it’s not the smoking that stayed in the public’s mind after watching this notorious scene from Verhoeven’s sleazy take on LA Noir, but rather Stone’s invisible knickers. Still, it works as a postmodern reinterpretation of the iconic tobacco-fuelled innuendo (“what you gonna do, charge me with smoking” she asks) reaching back in time to the flappers of the Roaring Twenties using smoking as the ultimate gender/sexual transgression. Or something like that.
Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction (1994)
Linda Fiorentino’s career defining turn (for the best and the worst really, as this sort of doomed her career): Wendy Kroy is the most sex-crazed, nicotine-addicted, machiavellian femme fatale, bar none. Like a sultry version of Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel, Fiorentino amped it up to 11 on all levels in John Dahl’s cult neo-noir…
Helena Bonham Carter in Fight Club (1999)
In his nihilist post-noir cult classic, David Fincher introduces the women at the centre of Edward Norton’s inner menage a trois with an ominous slo-mo on Marla Singer lighting up then slowly releasing the thick smoke off her lungs dressed as the archetypal black widow. Can’t really do darker than that.
Renee French in Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)
Jim Jarmush plays with the visual codes and conventions of the genre in this sketch showcasing the beauty and charisma of comic book artist Renee French: an empty New York cafe with checked sheets on the tables, a mysterious women sitting alone, sporting a beehive that’ll make Amy Winehouse jealous whilst holding a fag, having a coffee and browsing a guns’ catalogue – pitch perfect.
Scarlet Johansson in Match Point (2005)
Scarlet Johansson’s pinacle? “Who’s my next victim?” she asks, though she’s only talking about ping-pong, before taking one of the most dangerously sensual inhalations immortalised on film. If her character only knew what she walked into at that precise moment. Ah, sweet tragic irony.
Eva Mendes in We Own The Night (2007)
Last but not least, and possibly my favourite of them all, the most striking three-second insert of recent cinema. The Clash in the background, the dangling fag, Eve Mendes’s effortless swaggering strut, the chriasoscuro, the frame-within-the-frame provided by the narrow corridor: a glimpse of absolute film greatness in a sadly flawed thriller, courtesy of James Gray, who indeed has his moments, as is the case here.