In Smoky Praise of Benoit Blanc, Cigar Aficionado

The stogie-chomping Knives Out/Glass Onion detective subverts the typical cigar smoker archetype in the most refreshing way.

In Smoky Praise of Benoit Blanc Cigar Aficionado

Photograph: Netflix; Collage: Gabe Conte

I was introduced to cigar smoking when I was around twenty-four, but was only an occasional smoker until several months into the pandemic when I became a full-fledged smoker because nothing else was cutting it when it came to easing all the tension. I went into it knowing that cigars aren’t a beloved sight nowadays, and I squarely place the blame at the feet of Bill Clinton, which is ironic as the early years of his administration actually marked the peak of the 1990s cigar boom after a rocky ‘80s.  Two decades of the Cuban embargo and a lack of quality cigars coming from the other major cigar-producing nations had depressed demand in the U.S., and sales stayed stagnant at around 100 million cigars a year. But after the Bush I recession, the industry began to rebound in the early ‘90s along with Clinton’s economy. In 1992, Cigar Aficionado first hit newsstands, giving celebrity cigar smokers the glossy treatment, and by 1995, cigar imports had more than doubled to around 240 million cigars a year. That prompted more people to get into the business, which led to another shortage of quality product, and a few short years later, the boom was on its way to a bust. This late-‘90s speedbump coincided with the nation learning about Clinton’s White House affair, most salaciously illustrated by a story in which a cigar played a prominent role. That, I believe, was the moment that cigars moved from being associated with celebrity and cool to the sleazy and unsavory. 

Culturally, the appearance of a cigar smoker has always represented wealth, villainy, or tough- and wise-guy machismo. On the wealth/villain side of the spectrum, there were charismatic moguls like Gordon Gekko and Tony Montana, or fat-cat cartoon characters like the Monopoly man. But then there were the stogie-chomping, squinting heroes like any Clint Eastwood character in the 1970s or George Peppard’s Col. “Hannibal” Smith on the A-Team. But post-Clinton, cigars have solely been a signifier of capitalistic internal rot. On TV there was Tony Soprano, the quintessential anti-hero who made us reconsider our glorification of movie mobsters. And in real life the only people caught smoking a cigar were real-life villains like Roger Ailes, Rush Limbaugh, Rudy Giuliani, and Joe Rogan. The popular misogynist and accused rapist Andrew Tate, who believes smoking cigars raises your testosterone, recently appeared in a video responding to Greta Thunberg’s scathing diss with a cigar in handThe promotional art for Netflix’s docuseries about Bernie Madoff spotlights the smiling Ponzi schemer sucking on a glowing cigar.

But a character has finally arrived to rehabilitate the cigar’s image: Benoit Blanc, the Knives Out franchise’s detective played by Daniel Craig. I love whodunnits (I’d like them more if they didn’t always involve police in some capacity, but I digress), but I especially like Blanc because he’s such a departure from the more recognizable cigar-smoking tropes. He’s not a greedy one-percenter: Yes, he’s well-off (as evidenced by his Park Avenue penthouse seen in Glass Onion), but his finances don’t compare to the smug, uber-wealthy villains he’s tasked with catching. And his heroism never involves violence, unlike the only other real cigar-smoking hero of recent memory, Wolverine. His power lies in his brain.

The most obvious corollary would be Peter Falk’s Columbo, but “cigar” and “detective” is their only superficial overlap as characters. Columbo favored short, green cigars—the color of inexperience—which he constantly puffed, chewed, and waved around in performative ignorance. His smokes were a distraction, same as his ill-fitting suit and shabby shoes, meant to dupe the suspect into believing the detective on their case had a mind as unkempt as his appearance.

Benoit Blanc is the opposite; he’s a sophisticated, stylish, southern (and, we now know from the second film, queer) gentleman who leads with his superior intellect. The cigars could be an accessory added by writer/director Rian Johnson  to further signify Blanc’s southerness, otherwise exemplified by his over-the-top and non-specific accent: For a number of reasons (cultural history, slower pace of living, open space, more favorable tobacco taxes), cigar smoking is more prevalent in the south.

But Blanc seems to smoke when he needs to do his most important thinking—when parsing incongruent stories and motives, and contemplating his own professional malaise in Glass Onion. His cigar serves as his ruminative aide. He prefers large sticks (not Cape Fear large, but large) that require extended time to consume. He doesn’t smoke socially, tending to do it alone and, when with others, he never offers one to anyone around him. He is the kind of cigar smoker I find most relatable—the kind that thinks of smoking as part of their intellectual practice. 

It’s about time that cigars became the tool of the deep thinker again. Pipe smoking has the greater reputation as the domain of the intellectual—the image of the tweed-jacket-sporting academic puffing a pipe is a recurring image in culture—but cigars have an intellectual and artistic tradition all their own. Karl Marx smoked through a bunch of cheap cigars while he worked; Mark Twain said, “Eating and sleeping are the only activities that should be allowed to interrupt a man’s enjoyment of his cigar”; Ralph Ellison kept a lit cigar hanging. Legendary filmmakers like Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard, and Melvin Van Peebles partook in the habit, as well as German philosopher Herbert Marcuse and father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud. Yes, it’s an overwhelmingly male indulgence (even now the number of women cigar smokers in the U.S. is less than one percent of the total female population), but the French novelist George Sand (pen name of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin de Francueil), herself a noted cigar smoker, once said, “The cigar is the perfect complement to an elegant lifestyle.”

The character of Benoit Blanc is not, by any stretch, an intellectual or artist on par with any of these figures, but it gives him a similar mystique as he taps into logic, deductive reasoning, even creativity. He will solve the puzzle, but the contemplation required to do so starts with sparking up a long, thick cigar.

Far be it from me to lend virtue to vice. Cigars may not carry the same risks as cigarettes; you don’t inhale them and they aren’t laden with all the chemicals that go into a cigarette’s reformed tobacco. But they’re not exactly good for you either. The pleasure, for me, is found in the quiet, the calm, the easing of my anxiety, and the ability to focus my thoughts in ways that have benefitted my work.

All I mean to suggest is that cigar smoking is not the strict province of the most rotten among us—the gangsters with no regard for human life, whether in the underworld, media, or government—as the majority of our cultural depictions might lead us to believe. Benoit Blanc offers us a new lens to think through cigar smoking’s appeal, especially for those of us in need of an intellectual justification for continuing our bad habit.

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