In the vein of co-director Kevin Rafferty’s 1982 sleeper “Atomic Cafe,” “The Last Cigarette” is a mordantly amusing documentary that examines a monumental instance of fraudulent public-health propaganda — in this case the tobacco industry’s ongoing one — entirely through found footage. While a tad repetitious and overextended, clever package is attractive fare for rep-house and campus markets, as well as a solid broadcast item.
A vice that has always had its noxious as well as pleasurable qualities — not to mention minor health consequences that were obvious well before the major ones became medical fact — requires careful marketing. Thus the longtime double-think emphasis on manufactured tobacco products’ “cool,” “clean,” “smooth” and “fresh” auras, as seen here in umpteen vintage TV commercials. (A ‘ 50s advert even boasted, “Doctors have proven that pipe smokers live longer.”) When filtered cigarettes were first mass-produced they were considered less than manly — thus was born Philip Morris’ ingenious tactic of using cowboy imagery asa counterploy. Sales for hitherto “sissified little brand” Marlboro shot up posthaste.
More ads as well as numerous Hollywood feature clips (reaching back as far as the 1903 Biograph “Her First Cigarette”) limn the curiously erotic, even romantic qualities inherent to this oral fixation — when Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner light up in tandem, the act is as charged as a clinch, just as onscreen puffing heightened the worldly, macho or hip iconography of stars including Bette Davis, John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart. Most extreme extension of this allure is seen in current fetishy “smoking porn” videos — wherein sexily (but fully) clad babes inhale lasciviously while smirking at us, “I can’t stop smoking … I can’t stop teasing you … and you can’t stop watching!” Clips from classroom and scientific reels (including one in which a lab mouse instantly convulses and dies from one drop of pure nicotine) provide familiar unpleasant truths in opposition to all this smoldering glamour.
But docu’s primary recurrent juxtapositions are against C-Span footage of 1994 congressional hearings in which a panel of leading U.S. executives exhibit world-class fudging to deny all accusations — that cigarettes are addictive, that Joe Camel–type advertising targets youth, that nearly a half-million Americans die annually from tobacco-related illnesses (according to the surgeon general). How can nicotine be a “drug,” goes one argument, if, unlike alcohol or heroin, it doesn’t cause extreme intoxication? Given the willful absurdity and obfuscation of their statements, said execs maintain a strikingly cool — even fresh and smooth — composure under such discomfiting pressure.
Much of the feature is consumed by deft wordless archival montages, wryly scored to classical or film music, including Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores. But the fun in seeing so many kitschy old clips, not to mention pic’s overall thrust of sardonic accusation, is rather overtaxed at 82 minutes. Nonetheless, “The Last Cigarette” is certainly an entertaining — if not terribly hard-hitting — cautionary tool.
Co-helmer Frank Keraudren’s witty editing highlights a well-turned tech package; 35mm transfer from vid original is adequate.