When a villain meets his match, it’s time to reach for the lighter

Too many movie baddies smoke, says a new study. But when your every plot is doomed to fail, you need some solace – and that’s why they call it the evil weed

A disturbingly high number of villains in Hollywood movies are smokers, according to a study by the American College of Chest Physicians. This, it adds, is setting an example – whether good or bad is a moot point – to aspiring young hooligans.

Before examining the implications of this research, it is worth noting that in medicine, as in many other walks of life, there are chest men and leg men. (There are no doubt chest women and leg women, too, but of them I know little.) Of the two, the chest men have greater scope to stretch themselves and therefore, one suspects, have more fun.

Since the connection between tobacco and respiratory disease was first established beyond doubt in the 1950s, the chest men have extended their activity far beyond the hospitals and laboratories and into the realms of politics, economics, sport, media, and, as this latest study shows, the arts. By contrast the leg men must glumly ply their trade, pausing the while to cast an envious eye at the breadth and range of the chest men’s influence. For it is not possible to chill the blood or grab the headlines by warning of the dangers of knock-knees or bandy legs: disagreeable though these conditions are, they are not life-threatening, nor can they be attributed to the callous greed of a third party, such as the tobacco manufacturers. How the leg men must yearn for a causal link between smoking and mildewed calves, but they yearn in vain.

Not for them the summons to the television studios or the opportunity to compose such warnings that cause the hair to stand on end and whiten, the marrow to chill within the bone and the heart to palpitate like castanets.

On the other hand, too much specialism has its own dangers. Well-intentioned though the American College of Chest Physicians was in instructing its researchers to watch US movies by the score, was it not aware of the hazards to health that this enterprise entailed? Exposure to even brief snippets of Hollywood’s output has been shown to reduce cerebral tissue to a kind of vanilla mousse and, in many instances, to occasion a loss of the will to live. Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and Richard Gere should each carry a health warning. As one who is unable to watch Hollywood actors and actresses arriving for the Academy Awards without feeling nauseous and desperate, I speak from experience. The chest men should think more carefully before urging others to take unacceptable risks.

That said, what are we to make of the fact that film villains are heavy smokers? At first, this is surprising since the baddies of today have it much easier than the forerunners of their calling and might therefore be expected to feel less strain and less need to smoke.

Today’s villain wishing to do harm to the leading lady simply comes right out with his gat and plugs her in the chest. Contrast this with the complex life of the baddie of yore. When he wanted to do away with the damsel, it was no simple matter of dispatching her cleanly on the spot. Instead, he had to go to the trouble of first kidnapping her, which entailed some messy carry-on with chloroform, and then tying her to a railway line. What with one thing and another, his timing was seldom spot on, and so, just as he was tightening her bonds, the train would come steaming and whistling round the bend. Small wonder that, after completing his work in the nick of time, he steadied his nerve with a soothing gasper.

Other villains put themselves to greater trouble still. First they captured the blonde, then they tied her to a chair before placing her in a cellar and turning on a tap that would eventually fill the place with water. But, plumbing being unreliable, back-up was needed in the shape of a caged crocodile, which would be released when a pulley weighted by a loosely tied sackful of serpents slowly descended from above the heroine’s head.

One can merely guess at the amount of nerve-shredding effort that went into getting all these arrangements in place and the splitting headache that a screaming blonde could cause to even the most equable of souls. In the circumstances, it was understandable that the villain, his work complete, would wrap his black cloak about him, pull his wide-brimmed hat over his eyes, cackle hideously, and retire to some sequestered corner for an ambrosial pipe.

No, when your calling is villainy, or world domination for that matter, you have scant regard for the less immediate risk of lighting up a stogie. Foolish, I know, but we must all take our small pleasures where we may – and that goes for bad guys too.

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