Ever since the era of silent films, smoking has had a major part in film symbolism. In the hard boiled film noir crime thrillers, cigarette smoke often frames characters and is frequently used to add an aura of mystique or even nihilism. One of the forerunners of this symbolism can be seen in Fritz Lang’s Weimar era Dr Mabuse, der Spieler, 1922 (Dr Mabuse, the Gambler), where men mesmerized by card playing smoke cigarettes while gambling. Women smokers in film were also early on associated with a type of sensuous and seductive sexuality, most notably personified by German film star Marlene Dietrich. Similarly, actors like Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn have been closely identified with their smoker persona and some of their most famous portraits and roles have involved a thick mist of cigarette smoke. Hepburn often enhanced the glamour with a cigarette holder, most notably in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Smoking could also be used as a means to subvert censorship, as two cigarettes burning unattended in an ashtray was often used to ‘suggest’ sexual activity.
Since World War II, smoking has gradually become less frequent on screen as the obvious health hazards of smoking have become more widely known. With the anti-smoking movement gaining greater respect and influence, conscious attempts not to show smoking on screen are now undertaken in order to avoid encouraging smoking or giving it positive associations, particularly for family films. Smoking on screen is more common today among characters who are portrayed as anti-social or even criminal.