Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Kevin Rafferty is one of the filmmakers behind the 1982 hit The Atomic Cafe, a documentary in a then new 'advocacy essay' style. Rafferty filmed no new material and used no narration or inter-titles. Instead, he edited stacks of government films and newsreels about the Cold War era into a devastatingly entertaining exposé of the Doctor Strangelove years. While government spokesmen talk tough, 'educational' films spread official lies and misinformation to make us think that nuclear war is no big problem. For his soundtrack, Rafferty used little-known pop songs of the era with 'atomic' themes. The overall effect of the film is of a country living in an insane state of denial while preparing for doom.
The Last Cigarette attempts to do the same thing for America's smoking habit, and is less successful only because the available film clips have less variety. Rafferty's basic structure is built around a 1994 Health and Environment Subcommittee hearing by the US Congress, chaired by Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California. In the hot seat are four C.E.O.s. from the major tobacco companies, wealthy businessmen who realize quite well that the televised event is an attempt to discredit them and their industry. Waxman fires questions that presume that the tobacco bigwigs are unfeeling liars marketing death to America. Well versed in the art of public image making, the confident C.E.O's answer every question in apparent earnest, neither mocking their inquisitors or at any time acting incensed. No, they don't believe that nicotine is addictive, and they present a scientist who proceeds to narrowly redefine the concept of addiction. No, they don't think that cigarettes cause all those cancer deaths. No, they don't market to children. The tobacco executives refuse to acknowledge "inconclusive" scientific evidence, deny any wrongdoing and hide behind the notion that smoking is an issue of personal freedom.
Highlights of the hearing are inter-cut with an enormous volume of old 'found film' visuals: television commercials, educational films crusading against tobacco use, tobacco industry propaganda, and feature film clips. The show begins with an extended movie clip showing Fredric March as Christopher Columbus, discovering that the Indians of the New World smoke a strange weed. The entire history of post-WW2 tobacco attitudes is then laid out before us, starting with a glossy montage of glamorous stars lighting up in famous movies like The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Smoking and romance go hand-in-hand in a clip from Love is Many-Splendored Thing, where sharing a cigarette on a Hong Kong beach seems a necessary prelude to intimacy.
The TV ads are eye opening for those who barely remember them and nostalgic for those who do: "Call for Phil-lip Morr-ris!" In commercial after commercial, full-screen titles claim that cigarettes are safe, even good for you. Sultry Julie London purrs out a torch song that all but equates smoking with the sex act. Editor Frank Keraudren gets across his messages with simple juxtapositions. We see John Wayne in an old western, finishing a smoke before stepping out for a gunfight. Instead of a gunslinger, he confronts a parade of anti-smoking advocates marching in gas masks. The Last Cigarette assumes that we know that Wayne later contracted cancer. Several other stars that became lung-cancer victims are shown, including Gary Cooper and Edward R. Murrow.
Many of the TV clips are funny, if only because we've forgotten how smoking was once portrayed in TV commercials. Handsome men and beautiful women promoted the idea that smoking is an essential part of adult life and reinforced the habit with every puff. The only hint of negativity comes in an ad that touts the miracle of filtered cigarettes, which get rid of that 'dry throat' feeling and bring back the joy of smoking that 'you remember when you started.'
In The Atomic Cafe the filmmakers had plenty of old government films that could be classified as propagandistic, purposeful lies meant to sell the public on big military spending for an atomic future. The only old film clip about cigarette marketing in The Last Cigarette shows an advertising mogul explaining how he came up with the cowboy themed Marlboro Man campaign, the one that used the music from The Magnificent Seven. This introduces the reactionary movement that claims that tobacco smoking is a constitutional right, and that anti-tobacco lobbyists are trying to restrict a sacred American freedom.
The only way that director Rafferty can get the tobacco industry's perspective into his movie is to use the subcommittee hearing. Even though the subcommittee hearings show the nature of the beast, they're not very good theater. Worse, the committee's bitter, badgering attitude makes the prevaricating executives seem sympathetic by default. I've never been convinced that the 'cute camel' cigarette ads were meant to sell tobacco to children. The C.E.O.'s easily slough off the congressional accusations about the ads. They'e much better poker players and none of them look even the slightest bit contrite. It's the New America: people that don't act guilty, aren't.
Rafferty must stretch his film resources in a way that dilutes the impact of his message. Almost every piece of film in The Atomic Cafe is historically relevant, but Rafferty repurposes scenes from the old thriller Kansas City Confidential to illustrate the tobacco industry's notion that, if tobacco prohibition is enacted, 'risky' cigarettes will be smuggled into the country from Canada. A 'tobacco' nightmare is bookended by Jack Webb material pulled from the unrelated political hysteria film Red Nightmare. Sometimes one can be too clever.
The Last Cigarette is good but it stumbles by including extraneous material. In clips from a modern 'tobacco porn' video, fully dressed women smoke in close-up while talking seductively to the camera. The Last Cigarette lacks a needed focus because it splits its efforts between a serious exposé and a fascination with the images of smoking in the media.
The film's most affecting clips show experimental animals smoking, even rabbits and a frog. The single most traumatic image is of a tiny mouse from an anti-smoking educational film. With what looks like a horrified, "Oh no!" expression on its face, the mouse is held by the scruff of the neck and eye-droppered with a hit of pure nicotine. It suffers and dies like a torture victim on a meat hook, so the announcer can declare soberly that nicotine is a deadly poison. It looks more like a rodent snuff film to us, and The Last Cigarette presents it without comment.
The New Yorker Films's The Last Cigarette is a good transfer that varies only with the quality of the surviving film clips. The soundtrack makes heavy use of movie cues by Bernard Herrmann and others, and is entertaining in itself. At one point, an animated cigarette ad meshes perfectly with the nightmare music from Vertigo. A full evaluation of the disc is hampered by the fact that the review copy provided is a special pre-pressing and not final product. The only extras are some promos for other New Yorker releases. The track is in English and no subtitles are present.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Last Cigarette rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: promo trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 2, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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