Out of the Past, a classic Film Noir from 1947, offers viewers a trip to the past with an alluring femme fatale, a detective caught in her web, and an over-abundance of cigarettes. Out of the Past‘s Kathie Moffat, heralded as a quintessential femme fatale of the Film Noir canon had power in her ability to fell men; yet even she is no match for the genre, and perhaps Hollywoods, powerful leading lady: cigarettes.  

Smoking not only communicated messages of might and sexuality in the mid-1900’s, cigarettes possessed significant power as a cultural artifact. In the mid-1900’s, smoking cigarettes was not only prevalent in films, it was part of the movie going experience (Szczepaniak-Gillece), and perhaps even more notable, a requirement for actresses and actors alike who had any desire to land a major role in the film industry. The 1947 film, Out of the Past, heralded as a quintessential example in the film noir cannon from the 40’s and 50’s (Feaster et al) serves as a prime example of the central role that cigarettes played in films and the film industry as a whole. The power of cigarettes over the lives of the actors was not limited to the film but extended into and impacted their lives well beyond the 1947 Film Noir classic.

This dark drama rarely cuts from one scene to the next without one of the characters, most often a lead male, breaking for a smoke. The chemical-laden nicotine rolled into neat paper packages played several main roles in the film alongside the femme fatale Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) and doomed ‘detective’ Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum). Cultural and communication studies scholars examine how artifacts such as cigarettes are imbued with meanings and communicate a variety of messages about a culture as well as the subcultures and individuals within that culture. At the time of Out of the Past, even before the now infamous Marlboro Man came to represent the hyper-masculine human-chimney, cigarettes were a male-centered commodity and the use of cigarettes was linked to power and masculinity (White et al).

This link between smoking, masculinity, and power is clearly visible in Out of the Past. A 1992 New York Times review of the film by Aljean Harmetz reflects on the power play between characters hashed out through smoking, “…the smoke rings of yesteryear encircled a different world, where manliness was invoked by the subtle cue of blowing smoke in an antagonist’s face…Perhaps better than any other movie, “Out of the Past” demonstrates the use of cigarettes as a symbol–and instrument–of power…In scene after scene, whoever has control of the cigarettes dominates the others in the room,” (Harmetz). This cigarette jousting is played out in scene after scene as characters maneuver their way through the film.

Jeff Bailey (left) and Whit Sterling spent the movie in a power struggle, at times marked by who did or did not a have a smoke. Photo courtesy of IMDb

It is noticeable when Jim (Richard Webb) tosses his match on the deaf “Kid” (Dickie Moore) to assert his dominance while summoning the kid’s attention. Other power-displays through cigarettes communicate a more equal power relation. In one scene, Jeff Bailey enters a room and his ‘employer’ Whit Sterling, who is already smoking, offers him a cigarette to which Jeff asserts his own power by holding up his stub and quips, “Smoking.” This interaction, mediated by the cigarette, demonstrates the more complex dynamic between the lead males, Jeff and Whit; throughout the film, both men exert their power to varying degrees of success over the other and yet both are doomed to the same grisly fate, brought to their death by femme fatale Kathie Moffat.

While smoking communicated power for a man that was respectable, it was a risky business for a woman to light up. Women smoking had power, but that power came with the label of manipulative temptress such as Kathie Moffat. In an obituary recounting Jane Greer’s career, Ronald Bergan writes on the role of the femme fatale:

“They were the dames. The dolls. The femmes fatales. The beautiful but deadly leading ladies of the shadowy, cynical, hard-boiled films noir of the 1940s and ’50s. They made smoking look sexy and suggestive, and they could lure the toughest lug into their evil web with a flick of their wrist and a wave of their long curly tresses.”

In Torches of Freedom, the authors note that smoking for women was closely linked to a lack of morals and “doubtful sexual behavior.” In Out of the Past, only two women smoked, both of whom were involved in plotting, including Kathie who was single-handedly responsible for the death of three men throughout the film.

Although messages of power and sexuality were not the only meanings associated with cigarettes at the time, they played a particularly powerful role in defining the relationship between characters and the perception of the character of a person in the hit Out of the Past. Yet the power of cigarettes extended beyond the screen. Both Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum passed away from cancer and both were long-term smokers. Particularly relevant is to note that Greer did not have any interest in smoking before developing an interest in acting. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times:

“Greer begins the conversation by pointing out that at 18 she was ordered by her drama teacher to learn how to smoke for her film roles…Jane Greer: I said, ‘I don’t smoke.’ She said, ‘You’re an actress. You have to learn to do it. If the director says light up a cigarette, what are you going to do?” So I learned to do it. I got dizzy the first couple of days every time I took a puff. But eventually I got over that and began to smoke. Unfortunately, I got hooked.”

Smoking not only drove narratives of film, it directly shaped the lives and livelihood of individuals in Hollywood. Greer’s message is clear: cigarettes held a position of power in pop-culture; to be successful, you had to play by the rules–for better or worse.