It would be difficult to imagine film noir without the smoking. The cigarette is a visual element of the films as quintessential and recognizable as the fedora or the silhouette.
One reason for this is the clever way in which directors used cigarettes for elegantly crafted character moments. In Jules Dassin’s beautiful film Theive’s Highway, Valentina Cortese produces a cigarette she hopes Richard Conte will light for her. He declines. Ignoring the fifteen or so matches that have been lit and held out to her by hopeful male patrons, she takes the cigarette from his mouth and suggestively lights her own smoke off the burning end of his. These are the moments that characterize film noir. It would be difficult to imagine the stalwart noir detective without a burning cigarette firmly planted in his countenance. The same goes for the lusciously villainous femme fatale. What else is she going to do with those sexy, gloved fingers?
But what would it look like if you were forced to remove the cigarette from the noir film? Humphrey Bogart walks into a bar from the street and takes a seat alone amid the swirling maelstrom of greased hair and wild dresses. There is a rhumba band playing and people are dancing but he is too solitary and world-weary to dance. The bartender brings him a glass of dark dark liquor as he surveys the room for the crook he’s tailing, all the while looking out for the girl who’s tailing him. He is a man at once within and detached from the room. To calm himself he reaches into his jacket pocket and casually pulls out his pack of… gum. He lets a stick dangle coolly from his lips, tastes the soothing menthol soon to fill his mouth with minty freshness… sounds silly doesn’t it?
My point is that to take the cigarettes out of film noir would be like taking the color gels out of a theater. You could get along fine without them, but the aesthetic of a lot of plays would likely feel very awkward. However in this city, as in many others, they’ve taken the smoking out of everything. Including the theater. See a production of Glengarry Glenross and the masculine, hard smoking real estate agents (if they’re lucky) will be exhaling electronically controlled water vapor or (if they’re not lucky) thin rolls of bubble gum candy wrapped to look like Marlboro Reds. Because Heist Play is inspired and informed by the world of film noir, to remove the smoking from the world of the play would have felt somewhat unjust. Thusly, we’re forced to find creative ways to portray smoking, and you’ll have to forgive us for any gaps in the authenticity of our substitutions.
Personally, I am a stickler for authenticity when it comes to things like this, but I can’t bring myself to argue with the reasoning behind this obstacle. There are many good reasons why so many major cities have instituted smoking bans. There are many good reasons not to smoke. Noir films were made at a time when smoking was a much more accepted and universal habit. Today, children come out of the womb familiar with the inherent health risks. There are, however, those of us who still enjoy it, and the culture of smoking today is much different than in the days of noir. In non-smoking cities like this one, smokers gather at regular intervals outside public buildings in small congregations. At once within and detached from the population, these congregations meet to talk about nothing in particular. They are united only by the individual enjoyment they get from partaking in a particular vice, an enjoyment not unlike the kind I feel watching noir movies, films populated by lonely characters whose flaws and personal interests set them apart from the public at large.
Desire for a particular vice sometimes forces you to be creative when it comes to getting your fix. It is this desire that occasionally sends me on extensive searches for hard to find noir titles. It sends smokers out of doors to find small, secluded corners where they can smoke among those who share the same interest. Vice breeds a strange congregation, but it’s a congregation that, like most, is ever willing to welcome a newcomer. Smokers light smokes for other smokers today the same way they did in the days of Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe.
And so when Heist Play opens on Sunday, you will find me standing outside the Side Project Theater smoking to calm my nerves during the act breaks with a handful of people who find enjoyment in the same silly activity as myself. That cigarette will end, the way all cigarettes do, and I will head back inside to take my place among a crowd of people united only by the strange enjoyment they get from watching a cast of actors tell stories onstage with fake liquor, plastic pistols, and bubble gum cigarettes.
Come see Heist Play. The space is small and tickets are going fast.