After Hours
with Richard Armstrong


Fritz Lang’s M


Fatty Lohmann and the Smoke-Filled Room

A Christmas Tale

By Richard Armstrong


    It was Yuletide 1992 and seasonal cheer struggled against men’s darker impulses and the unforgiving night minima. As if someone had predicted how Christmas would feel, there was a season of Fritz Lang going out late on BBC2. I was trying to give up smoking and I was struggling. I deliberately hadn’t brought anything to smoke for the duration. But as the season wended through the Berlin classics and arrived at M, my brother and I witnessed that astonishing moment as the city fathers address the burgeoning disorder and decide to deal with the killer, the room acrid with the fog from countless pipes, cigars and meerschaums. Watching these corpulent men sucking in great gouts of monoxide and spewing out plumes that hung like a thunderhead over the room, something relented in me and I chose monoxide over air. My brother had some herbal cigarettes. They were foul, but they made me feel party to Lang’s God-less universe. As we picked our way through the plastic darkness of Lang’s American city—Man Hunt, Hangmen also Die, Ministry of Fear, The Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street—termites of sin gnawed at this young man’s soul.
    Several years later as the millennium turned, my buddies Nick, Barny and I trudged through another dark freezing city clutching the treasured recording of M that I had made that lonely Christmas. In the sanctuary of Barny’s warm loft we were swaddled by Lang’s ghastly account of hysteria. As the city fathers debated, the apprehension of pain—modernity’s final bugbear—grew in our minds to the rhythm of the marijuana fumes that began to fill the ringing air, clinging to the low places in our hearts. The following morning and forever more wherever we are, an incubus still visits us in our sleep: “Fatty Lohmann, Fatty Lohmann, Fatty Lohmann…”
    There is a literature on smoking in the movies. Its stylishness, its oppositional cachet, its sexual symbolism have been widely rehearsed. But hardly anything has been written about the image smoke makes. Older movies are saturated with smoke. In the classical decades it was simply there, a fact of the realism of a scene just as it was a fact of life outside the cinema. The sets of films noirs in particular must have been acrid. In Josef von Sternberg’s Marlene Dietrich cycle, smoke was an aesthetic virtue, key to the kitsch effect von Sternberg was after. In the scene with the city fathers, Lang was conceivably after a moral analogy. But no-one ever writes of smoke as smoke.

Bogey and Baby puff tuff in The Big Sleep

    In 2006 The Big Sleep reaches its 60th anniversary. It is written that director Howard Hawks, even the screenwriters, were perplexed by what was going on in this dank thriller. I first saw it on Christmas Day 1977. It is perhaps symptomatic of the film’s notorious impregnability that I felt distracted that night. I am fond of The Big Sleep and have long since got over my embarrassment at being unable to figure out the plot. There is a mannered and studiously rehearsed quality about its dialogue and performances that makes for spectacle enough when you don’t know what’s going on. Such mannerism gets increasingly finished with every viewing. If you have seen The Big Sleep enough times you can recall the dialogue and each turn by heart. Something you cannot do after seeing a Cassavetes film because in Cassavetes the dialogue and the performances are still growing. We return to movies like M and The Big Sleep for certain scenes, particular moments, expected frissons. We are like smokers returning for that fix of dopamine as the moment hits the receptors in the brain. This is why we label such movies ‘classics’. Because their example never changes, never gets exhausted, but never grows. They are fixed: we should not call them ‘classics’; we should call them ‘aspics.’
    So on Christmas night I found myself noticing other things. There is a lot of smoke in The Big Sleep. It trails through the air in Marlowe’s first conversation with Eddie Mars. It swirls in the draught as Vivian Sternwood opens Marlowe’s door to leave. It banks like fog behind Vivian in a nightclub. When Marlowe and Vivian sit together before his shootout with Canino, the stream of gas from Marlowe’s cigarette seems to putter at each phrase he utters. Humphrey Bogart’s plosive diction causes it to fragment into tiny wisps like those left in the air by gun shots, or by burning rubber. Bogart manages to make his cigarette smoke resemble the incendiary phrasing of his lines.
    Yet my attempt to interpret smoke drift as character, however oblique its relation to plot, feels far-fetched even as I write. While we know that Bogart, Hawks, a screenwriter perhaps, a continuity girl, the cinematographer, a grip, made this scene happen, cigarette smoke is uncontrollable. It is the only part of the image that is unrehearsed. Even talking about the metaphor for spiritual perdition that smoke seems to evoke in Lang does not exhaust the sheer avant-garde epiphany smoke puts before the eye. Like birds startled by traffic, it has a dreamy quality which can be soothing to follow. Yet there is more still.
    Long before cinéma-vérité, it is a vérité event from the day the scene was shot that survives into the day I watch decades later. Part of the reason why we watch old movies is that they are old. The clothes, the cars, the buildings, the manners and mores are of another time, another place. Like junk shops, old movies are exotic. Whilst we realize that the rest is contrived, rehearsed, aestheticized, at some performative remove from the actual moment the movie was shot, we also realize that the smoke just happened like this that day. Smoke guarantees authenticity. As the patter of narrative forges ahead, smoke hangs in the air, its presence fissuring the rehearsal, its olfactory curlicues making me want to smoke again.