For decades, alcohol was the crutch of fictional PIs. Times have changed, maaaaan.
What do you picture when somebody mentions “noir” to you? There’s likely a private detective who’s much more brilliant than he lets on, a woman (or a dame, or a bird, or whatever you want to call her) with a dark backstory she doesn’t want to tell, and, maybe most notably, drinking. Booze plays a big part in the noir setup, from Philip Marlowe drinking Gimlets in The Big Sleep to how every classic film-noir seems to involve an ensemble cast of functioning alcoholics. Think of Key Largo from 1948: while Bogie, Bacall and the rest of the cast are stuck in a hotel during a storm, most of the film’s action takes place in a bar. This is not unique: Martini glasses, Champagne flutes and half-emptied bottles of whiskey adorn the sets of almost every black-and-white film that involves a murder and a femme fatale. For decades, it was hard to watch or read any crime fiction without wanting a bourbon neat by your side.
More recently, something changed. A greater cultural shift happened. I’m not exactly sure where or when it took place, but the 1973 Robert Altman adaptation of The Big Sleep had something to do with it. Chinatown coming out a year later probably did as well. Both those films are hazy, slower-paced. They look cloudy. There’s something almost, well, stoned about them. But calling them stoner movies might be a bit of a stretch; having weed in your films in the early-1970s usually connected your movie to the counterculture in some way, and that wasn’t always the desired impact some filmmakers wanted, so the blazed hero didn’t really become a thing until Cheech and Chong went looking for weed in 1978’s Up in Smoke.
That movie had an interesting effect on the world of cinema: afterward, you started seeing joints smoked by everyday people, and not just hippies and burnouts. Kids would smoke weed in movies about debauchery at a summer camp. The hot girls walking down the hall in Sixteen Candles shared a joint. Dennis Quaid hopped out of the shower in Postcards from the Edge and took a few quick puffs. By the 1990s, it felt like every third movie had weed in it. It was still illegal, of course, but seeing it in a film or reading about it didn’t really carry the same shock value it might have in previous decades.
That brings us to today. Only a handful of states haven’t legalized, decriminalized or, at the very least, made medical marijuana legal. I can walk out of my apartment in Brooklyn, rip a bong hit in front of a cop and I won’t get arrested. It’s weird as hell, but weed is pretty normal now.
Published: June 30, 2021
Founder & Interim Editor of L.A. Cannabis News