“… it won’t be the nicotine that kills you!”

smokin’ spies

A part of the appeal of spy films is watching agents live the high life. They live the life we’d all like to live. With the exception of ‘saving the world’ their lives have very few consequences. They are always in the most glamorous places, with the most glamorous people and, of course, doing the most glamorous things with little regard for the price they may have to pay – both emotionally and financially. Unlike real life, an agent is never short on cash, or seen sweating over the outcome of a roll of a dice or a spin of the wheel in a casino (an enemy agent may, but not the hero). An secret agent’s rent is always up to date and the phone company is never chasing him over a delinquent payment. I assume these everyday expenses are picked by the agency.

A secret agent always has an excellent wardrobe. No ‘off the rack’ shopping for them, male or female. The clothes are always tailored impeccably, even if they will date badly in years to come (the baby blue towelling jumpsuit the Sean Connery wore in Goldfinger springs to mind).

So they look good and aren’t encumbered with the burdens that everyday people encounter. Sure they may have to disarm a nuclear weapon in ten seconds but how often do those situations arise? Not very often. This leaves our operatives with plenty of leisure time. How do they chose to use that time? By indulging in all manner of vices.

Now back in the sixties and seventies these vices were seen as the height of sophistication. They were notches on your gun belt. A good spy would smoke at least two packs a day, down a good bottle of scotch, and then go to bed with a beautiful, willing sexual partner.

While drinking and sex are still socially acceptable (well maybe not in the main street – but you know what I mean), smoking is now particularly scorned upon. Now it is not the purpose of this blog to condone smoking in any way, but obviously it is a motif than runs heavily throughout espionage movies, particularly in the sixties, and one that bears further investigation. First some examples.

Smoking scenes in espionage movies:

In You Only Live Twice James Bond (Sean Connery) has finally been captured by his nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Locked down in Blofeld’s impregnable control room, Bond asks for a cigarette. Blofeld insists that “… it won’t be the nicotine that kills you!” Bond takes a drag and counts to three. The cigarette houses a tiny rocket which kills one of the guards, giving Bond the opportunity to attempt to escape. He fails.

Murderers’ Row, starring Dean Martin as Matt Helm, features a cigarette that fires a poisonous dart into an enemy (similar to above, hmmmm?) Helm then throws the empty pack onto the dead man revealing the Surgeon Generals warning in an attempt to get laughs.

• Deano is at it again in The Ambushers. This time, Matt Helm is facing a firing squad. He requests a final cigarette. His request is granted, but his cigarette emits laughing gas rather than the usual smoke, allowing him to affect his escape.

• In The Quiller Memorandum, one of the code phrases is, ‘do you smoke this brand?’ as George Segal as Quiller holds out a cigarette to a fellow agent.

• In From Russia With Love, Connery as James Bond uses the code, ‘do you have a match?’ again with cigarette in hand.

All the five films above are from the sixties. So, back then, smoking was presented as a perfectly acceptable behavior. Or on the flip side, In Dr. No and enemy agent swallows a cyanide pill hidden in a cigarette, and in Deadlier Than The Male, an oil executive has the back of his head blown off after drawing back on a Corona Corona cigar. So maybe smoking was presented as dangerous, but not quite in the fashion that the anti-cancer council would appreciate.

That’s the sixties, but popular culture’s view on smoking hadn’t changed much in the seventies. Smoking was still okay. Yul Brynner, famous for his anti-smoking campaign after his death, is clearly seen lighting up in Night Flight From Moscow. In fact, he complains that the cigarette he is offered may be too mild for him. Roger Moore as James Bond in Live And Let Die lights himself a large stogie while shaving.

By the eighties and nineties things started to change. On screen heroes became more physical, mainly due to the success of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. With their physicality came a healthier body attitude.

So in the new millennium, smoking isn’t presented as being glamorous any more and is not looked on so favorably. In fact, during Timothy Dalton’s tenure as James Bond (mid to late 80’s), he had to fight to smoke in the films, believing it to be true of the Character he was playing – a man living on the edge and indulging in all life’s pleasures and vices. But Dalton’s successor, Pierce Brosnan chose not to smoke. In the opening sequence on Tomorrow Never Dies, Brosnan as Bond is seen clobbering a smoking soldier after offering him a light. To cap it all off Brosnan’s Bondian quip as the man falls to the ground is, ‘Filthy Habit’. Now we have to travel back in time to the sixties or seventies to view secret agents with a cigarette in hand. Times have changed.

It was fascinating to see the reversal in the recent French comedy, OSS 117 – Cairo Nest of Spies, directed by Michel Hazanavicius. Secret agent, OSS 117 Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, as portrayed by Jean Dujardin is almost embarrassed that he doesn’t smoke. Shamefully he confesses that he has been trying to taking up smoking but with little success – he just doesn’t have the taste for it.

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