According to Hollywood legend, famed studio head Jack Warner hated smoking in his movies so much that in 1941 he sent out a memo declaring that the practice should be kept to a minimum in all Warner Bros. films from that point on. In response, the story goes, Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, and John Huston, then hard at work on their adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, decided the best thing to do would be to smoke as often as they possibly could onscreen, a schoolboy prank that drove Warner crazy and had the added bonus of enhancing the film's mood of tension and suspense, helping to make it a proto-film-noir classic.
This Saturday, the Alamo Drafthouse's Rolling Roadshow will screen The Maltese Falcon in all its smoky glory in the only place smoky glory is allowed anymore: the outdoors. In the spirit of stylized, smoke-laced, suicidal sophistication, they'll be setting up a screen under the stars so smokers can light up to their hearts' content, thereby enhancing addicted viewers' enjoyment of one of the greatest films of all time; spitting in the eyes of all those meddling souls who've conspired over the past 20 years to push smokers out of doors, down dark alleyways, and into the poor house; and easing Warner's greatest fear when he wrote that memo nearly 60 years ago.
His fear was that the consumption of cigarettes onscreen would inspire the consumption of cigarettes off, meaning smokers in the audience would constantly be getting up from their seats and going to the lobby to satisfy their habits. Speaking as both a smoker and a movie lover, I have to say the old studio boss' instincts were sharp; getting through cigarette-heavy movies like Breathless, Blue in the Face, and The Big Sleep requires feats of Benedictine self-denial on my part. (I count watching Francis Ford Coppola's gargantuan, Marlboro-saturated, 202-minute Apocalypse Now Redux in the theatre as one of the most harrowing experiences of my life.) So, in an act of rebellion against the forces of health-obsessed neo-puritanism currently plaguing our culture and as a loving tribute to a dying age, the Alamo is giving Warner's spirit a chance to rest in peace at last, secure in the knowledge that no shot of his film will go unseen by viewers too weak not to give in to their addictions.
Normally I'm not a fan of these Alamo Roadshow events. They always sound too clever by half: Come watch Open Water while floating in an inner tube in Lake Austin! Marvel at Deliverance in the woods after floating down the river in a canoe! Enjoy The Mosquito Coast while we inject you with malaria! But somehow this Saturday's screening feels different. There's something more mystical going on, something more meaningful. It feels like an Irish wake, a requiem mass, a defiant celebration, a dying gasp, with lifelong chain-smoker and cancer victim Humphrey Bogart as our memento mori. It's a last-chance communion of a soon-to-be-extinct tribe, before we're blotted out of society altogether and consigned to the history books.
After years spent suffering the disapproval of nonsmokers (the nasty looks, the melodramatic coughs, the exhausting appeals to common decency), we smokers will be able to lavish in our deviance and self-destruction with our own kind, if only for one night. One last shot before 1) we're not allowed to smoke outdoors anymore, and 2) they stop making movies with smoking in them. Sounds awful, but we're almost there. Los Angeles already doesn't allow smoking in city parks. And two years ago, the Motion Picture Association of America decided that smoking does enough social harm to justify using its presence to give movies R ratings, just like they did with nudity, violence, cursing, and other societal bugbears. Which is just further proof that we smokers are becoming modern-day lepers, doomed to wander civilization's outskirts until we vanish altogether.
One day, not long from now, kids will be able to go into the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and see, next to the display of Neanderthals hunting saber-toothed tigers, a wax tableau of Saturday night's screening: people smoking to their hearts' content in a public space, blissfully unaware that their time will soon be over, that they're standing on the edge of oblivion, like those poor preserved corpses in Pompeii.
Rolling Roadshow presents Smoker's Theater: The Maltese Falcon on Saturday, April 25, at 8pm. Fumée Cigar Lounge will provide complimentary cigars. For more info, visit www.originalalamo.com.
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