No Smoke

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I got intrigued by COLD TURKEY when I saw Joe Dante had programmed it as part of his diverse selection of features screening at BAM in New York to compliment a retrospective of his own work. The only film directed by US sitcom supremo Norman Lear, it proves to be quite Dante-esque in its abrasive satire.

An approach to a small town. Every major local business seems to be permanently shuttered. We’re following a dog, shambling along. The dog stops at the town sign and urinates, solemnly — and the camera abruptly takes off in a helicopter. An ambitious start, showing one of the key things about the movie — it’s determined to throw off the shackles of TV.

I never saw Sanford & Son or All in the Family/Archie Bunker’s Place, though I believe Channel 4 did show the latter at one point. I’m probably too familiar with the British originals to appreciate them. But based on COLD TURKEY, Lear obviously has a distinct sensibility.

This small town takes up a bet, publicised by a cigarette company, to give up smoking for a month, with a prize of $25,000,000. PR man Bob Newhart has convinced senile tobacco magnate Edward Everett Horton (!) that he can have a Nobel-like legacy by one well-publicized philanthropic deed like this — and it is assumed that probably no town will take up the challenge and certainly no town will succeed.

But town padre Dick Van Dyke sees this as an opportunity to escape his awful parish, so he galvanizes the community, even with threats of violence, and soon has them either taking part or leaving town. Local libertarian wingnuts are enlisted as a kind of anti-smoking militia. The town unites in a spirit of cooperation and adventure — and then falls apart in a welter of madness as mass withdrawal kicks in. Then, as the town becomes famous via the TV news, commercialism takes over and the pseudo-noble dream is corrupted. The image grinds into slomo as DVD watches a troupe of kids run by, all wearing Dick Van Dyke masks. Terrifying.

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Some very strong material — good gags, many emerging from manic montages, just making an impression before they’re swept away. No sympathetic characters, which bothered me slightly but also seemed kind of bold and admirable. TV seems to have given Lear a boundless contempt for his fellow Americans who are, according to this: sick; venal; gross in their bodily excrescences; deeply stupid about politics; respectful and craven before nonsense like religion and TV news; neurotic; brutal; selfish. Nobody is spared.

Fascinating to see DVD’s chirpy persona buried in the character of a louse, who browbeats his wife with tender compassion, and is motivated only by worship of the Great God of Self. His moment of horror at the town’s corruption passes swiftly once he realises he stands to gain from it, and the church approves.

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The ending leaves three major characters shot in the street, and doesn’t even bother to let you know if they live or die. And you don’t care.

If this sounds like your kind of thing, the chances are it’s your kind of thing. I found it a wee bit harsh. I admired it, but in a slightly aghast way.

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6 Responses to “No Smoke”

  1. I remember it chiefly for what I remember to be a fairly hilarious turn by Tom Poston, and as the first occasion on which I heard the inimitable moan of Randy Newman.

  2. Robert Downey Sr. was a.d. and created several of the gags.

  3. Bob and Ray are also very good here, playing satirical versions of famous newsmen (as seen in the photo above). It’s interesting that you’re coming to Norman Lear through this. Growing up in the 1970s in the U.S., his shows were the background of my childhood, and he definitely has a distinct sensibility, especially seen in “All in the Family.” That show was groundbreaking in its day and still looks pretty groundbreaking now.

  4. I must look at some of his TV stuff. The Brit shows he adapted were also groundbreaking, but he must surely have taken them in radically different directions to suit American sensibilities of the time.

    The film does have something of the feel of Robert Downey (a prince) about it.

    Also featuring: the beyond-great M. Emmett Walsh.

  5. I have to think the dog getting kicked over the roof was Downey Sr.

  6. Yes, that seems plausible — it’s the kind of thing second unit would do, anyway. There are so many fast montages in the film, RD would have been kept pretty busy, I think.

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