What is the most indelible cigar image from the movies? That depends on how you judge. Does it belong to the actor whose screen image is most closely associated with cigars? The obvious answer then is Groucho Marx, who made his cigar an almost inseparable part of his persona—first on film, then on television and in real life.
Then again, it could belong to Clint Eastwood. Now an Oscar-winning filmmaker, he rode into cinematic history with a cheroot plugged into the corner of his mouth in the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. Beginning with A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, he kept the cigar through most of the westerns that charted his career rise. It became as much a part of his image as his trademark squint and unshaven jaw.
Or maybe you judge a cigar’s impact based on a specific moment—the way it makes you practically smell a cigar when you recall that scene. Think Robert De Niro puffing away in a movie theater in Cape Fear, and Steve McQueen being offered his first cigar after his prison escape in Papillon. Those scenes don’t work without the cigar.
Sometimes the cigar is a prop that perfectly telegraphs a character: the aggressive swagger of Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in Scarface, for example, or the huckster confidence of W.C. Fields as he mutters to a child trying to interrupt his sales pitch, “Go away kid—you bother me.”
If you examine the most famous movie moments involving cigars, you find themes that tie them together.
Cigars can be symbols of power, whether wielded by crime kingpins (De Niro in The Untouchables) or business magnates (Michael Douglas in Wall Street). Yet there’s also a scrappy, blue-collar element to a stogie gripped happily in the corner of the mouth of a working guy, sleeves rolled up. Think of George Kennedy playing TWA mechanic Joe Patroni, using common sense to avert disaster with a cigar clenched in his jaw in 1970’s Airport.
The ultimate large-and-in-charge, on-screen cigar smoker is based on a real person. Winston Churchill smokes in the movies dozens of times as Cigar Aficionado documented in the June 2018 issue. The Gary Oldman portrayal in Darkest Hour even had the prime minister enjoying a breakfast-in-bed smoke.
Macho honchos of filmdom often wield cigars as scepters that signify their stature as leaders of men: the muscled Arnold Schwarzenegger as the head mercenary in Predator; Ron Perlman as a long-suffering and good-hearted demon in Hellboy; or Hugh Jackman as the Wolverine in no fewer than nine films. Each chomps down on a cigar as they kick ass and take names.
Then come the sophisticates: the movie characters who make a stogie look dashing. In their hands, cigars become accessories of the well-heeled man, whether it’s Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon or McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair.
The cigar was the smart-aleck punctuation to the wit of Groucho, just as it was with Fields, the perfect accoutrement to the snide hustler that he inevitably played in all of his films. Fields’ cigar could function as a baton, with which he conducted business, or as a shield meant to ward off indignities.
Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb offers one of the great cigar smokers in cinema: Gen. Jack D. Ripper, played by Sterling Hayden. In this dark sendup of the Cold War, Ripper enthusiastically smokes a Churchill as he launches an unauthorized nuclear attack on Russia to prevent what he imagines is an international Communist plot “to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.”
Mel Brooks found a way to make cigars monstrously funny in Young Frankenstein. He parodies a famous moment from Bride of Frankenstein in which the monster is taught civilizing manners by a blind hermit, with the monster puffing delightedly on a cigar while saying, “Good! Good!” In Brooks’ version, the monster (played by Peter Boyle) receives similar schooling from another blind hermit played by Gene Hackman. However, this character is hilariously inept, casually lighting the monster’s thumb on fire.
Cigars meant something different in the comedy of Charlie Chaplin, whose Little Tramp lived a life on the fringe, where a cigar—even a discarded butt of a cigar—was a treasure. In the right comic actor’s hands, cigars become emblems of rebellion, at times contributing to joyously crass bits of business. The cigar stuffed into the corner of the mouth (along with that dangerously cocked eyebrow) lent a note of crazed bravado to John Belushi’s Capt. Wild Bill Kelso in 1941. A long, slim cigar added to the rule-bending, rakish air of John Candy in Uncle Buck.
The movies also have their share of a certain kind of working-stiff cigar smoker. Jack Nicholson had a blue-collar swagger as the stogie-smoking sailor forced to bring a confused young seaman to the brig in The Last Detail. So did Lee Marvin as a Depression-era hobo in Emperor of the North and Will Smith as the alien-blasting pilot in Independence Day.
In Papillon, McQueen plays the title character, a thief wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to Devil’s Island. During an escape attempt he lands at a leper colony where he is captured and taken to their leader (Anthony Zerbe). His face a mask of disfiguring growths, his fingers mostly stumps, the leper chief tells Papillon that his people tend to kill intruders, then puffs on the cigar he is holding and says, “Do you like cigars?”
“When I can get ’em,” Papillon replies.
“Try this one,” the leper chief says, leaning into the light to reveal his horrifying face and extending the gnarled remains of his hand, holding out a half-smoked robusto. McQueen’s eyes flash with fear that is quickly overtaken by his defiant urge for freedom—and he wraps his lips around the cigar and puffs up a storm. Amazed and amused at his audacity, the leper asks how he knew his leprosy wasn’t contagious, to which Papillon replies with contained fury, “I didn’t.”
De Niro’s cinematic romance with fine tobacco is most often associated with dangerous characters. As Max Cady in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear, he weaponizes a maduro-wrapped monstrosity, firing it up in a movie theater crowded with families as he begins a psychological war with his quarry. His chillingly raucous laughter makes his clouds of cigar smoke seem like poisonous fumes meant to infect the life of his target.
As Al Capone in The Untouchables, De Niro employs a cigar in one particularly memorable scene, when Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness invades the lobby of the hotel where Capone lives, inflamed by the murder of one of his men.
Descending a massive staircase to confront Ness while surrounded by armed henchmen, De Niro’s Capone is dressed like an Italian nobleman: gray suit under a luxurious camel hair Chesterfield coat, white fedora cocked fashionably to one side, a stylish pair of sunglasses (even though he’s indoors)—and a large unlit cigar, snuggled into the corner of his mouth like a pet. When he threatens Ness he clutches the cigar like a tiny version of the baseball bat he so memorably uses on an underling’s skull in another scene in which the hapless victim was the one smoking a cigar.
The original cigar-chomping movie gangster was Edward G. Robinson. From his career-launching role as Rico Bandello in 1931’s Little Caesar, Robinson was identified by a trademark snarling sneer created, in part, by keeping a cigar gripped tightly in a corner of his mouth. Robinson’s distinctive delivery inspired comic impressionists for a couple of generations—and cigars became a Robinson signature, in films as diverse as Double Indemnity and The Cincinnati Kid, in which Robinson played a sophisticated gambler with a taste for commanding smokes.
In the Coen brothers’ gangster flick Miller’s Crossing, a cigar leavens an otherwise chillingly violent scene. Mob boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) is enjoying a cigar before turning in. Alerted that a brace of hit men have entered his mansion, he snuffs out his smoke, puts it in his robe pocket and crawls under the bed. Shooting one of the intruders in the leg, he takes his Tommy Gun and slides to safety down a low-hanging roof. After dispatching the other gunman, O’Bannon riddles the retreating getaway car with bullets. Convinced that his work is done, he calmly retrieves the cigar butt and returns it to his mouth.
When you look a little closer, you’ll find that a lot of the most sophisticated cinematic cigar smokers also had some sort of outlaw streak, whether it’s Paul Newman’s tuxedo-clad con man in The Sting or Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, a gambler and privateer with a heart of gold. Business sharpie and master-thief Thomas Crown favored lonsdales and tailored suits, whether he was played by McQueen or Pierce Brosnan.
The gluttonous Orson Welles, who consumed large cigars by the bushel offscreen, most famously smoked on-screen in his restored masterwork, Touch of Evil. Welles plays corrupt American cop Hank Quinlan, who growls at everyone with a Churchill permanently implanted in one side of his face. In a similar vein, John Huston plays the villain in Chinatown, casually caressing his cigars as he talks about how far a father’s love can go.
Cigars meant different things in the Old West. When John Wayne was seen enjoying a cigar, it usually seemed to be just that: a moment of enjoyment, relaxation or contemplation. Think of the opening scene of Chisum, in which he sits atop his horse on a hill, surveying his domain, unaware of the forces of history heading his way. In this film and several others, cigars were for that moment of kicking back, showing the Duke was just one of the guys.
With Eastwood, the cigar seemed to work as a brake on a temper that was quick to favor violence. With his cigar in his mouth, whether it was his Man with No Name in Leone’s films or the Stranger in his own High Plains Drifter, Eastwood was a taciturn loner not looking for trouble. When trouble found him, the cigar usually came out long enough for Eastwood to explain what a mistake that was—and then returned to his mouth in order to coolly blast the problem out of existence.
Smoking cigars is seen as a macho pursuit, and while women smoking cigars in films are rare, there are some notable examples: Angelina Jolie seducing Antonio Banderas with a cigar in Original Sin; Sharon Stone as a cigar-smoking gunslinger in The Quick and the Dead; Famke Janssen as an assassin who likes a killer smoke in Goldeneye.
The closest thing to a movie that actually celebrates the art of the cigar is the aptly named 1995 film Smoke, written by novelist Paul Auster and directed by Wayne Wang. It is set in the Brooklyn cigar store owned by Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel), who serves as a kind of curator for the stories of his customers’ lives. The film’s numerous storylines include a subplot about a shipment of illicit Cubans but, really, it’s as much about the camaraderie of time and tobacco shared in a comfortable space.
At one point, William Hurt (as Paul, a writer and a regular customer) walks into the store during what Auggie describes as “a philosophical discussion about women and cigars.”
Hurt’s character connects the two subjects to the story of how Sir Walter Raleigh introduced England’s Queen Elizabeth I to tobacco. That leads to the tale of how Sir Walter won a bet that he could weigh the smoke in a single cigar.
“You can’t do that—it’s like weighing air,” one of the cigar-store kibitzers objects.
“I admit it’s strange. It’s like weighing someone’s soul,” Hurt replies.
Sir Walter’s solution? He weighed the unsmoked cylinder, then smoked the cigar, saving the ashes. He weighed the ashes and the butt, deducted the second number from the first and—voila!—the weight of the smoke in a cigar.
“Sir Walter,” Hurt observes, “was a clever guy.”