Functions of the pipe in The Stranger (1946)

Thanks to Andrew Elliott for checking the English version (a really tough work, I imagine …)

This text is an excerpt from a conference paper given in November 2013 at the Department of Aesthetics, Kyoto University. The paper was entitled “Codes of tobacco in film noir.” It was originally given in Japanese for an academic audience, but the Spanish and English versions have been modified in translation, furnishing a more informal tone befitting of the blog format. The text presented here is taken from section three of the original paper. It contains spoilers for Orson Welles’ The Stranger (1946), so I recommend to watch the movie before starting the reading.

Pipa Magritte

In the picture on the left we can see a reproduction of one of Magritte’s most famous paintings: Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe, 1926). The pipe is a recurring motif in the work of the Belgian painter, but as there are so many works by Magritte on this theme I’m not going to discuss it on here; for an in-depth analysis I recommend the reading of This is not a pipe by Michel Foucault. Rather, at the moment, I wish to suggest that the pipe as an artistic motif (as well as the clever decision to pick the pipe as a theme) wasn’t an arbitrary choice on the part of the painter. In those days, the pipe was a common item that could be seen frequently in the streets and even offered a certain air of distinction (hence in movies we can see how the pipe is a vice much more suitable to judges, inspectors and serene entrepreneurs than to hard cops, criminals and laborers, these latter being much more disposed to the cigarette, a symbol of anxiety channeled). Of course, there are also those artists that use the pipe in an attempt to foster, despite the empty stomach, just this eminent image; so sometimes it was only a pose. As with snuff, the pipe was everywhere, even in fiction; there we see the pipe held in silence, gripped in the mouth of the modern, rational and thoughtful man epitomized by Sherlock Holmes, the paradigm of intellectual distinction and deductive thought. Seen thus, the pipe poses a dilemma: to deduct (puffing the pipe) or to speak the deducted (gripping the pipe in one’s hand). We can say, then, that the pipe is no longer an object, but rather a gesture, a living gesture whose meaning evolves in a social and cultural context where it stops being pipe and starts being sign; to cease being form and be transformed into function.

In Magritte’s painting, through the gap between image and word (even if they share the same space of the canvas), the mechanism of deception that forms the basis of all traditional painting is revealed, the demand that words be identified with things and representation with the represented (the real object) through the magic and primitive process of the analogy. But this separation which Magritte enacts, would it have been just as effective with any other object? No, in my opinion. Because as I said, the pipe is not just a thing, but rather a gesture, a function, and that is where its strength lies as a painting. A painting that, in contrast, lacks movement: the drawing does not allow the pipe to breathe and it appears to be dead, thus dictating the accompaniment of the written word, either outside or inside the canvas. A word, explanatory or not, that gives the object an additional breath; it animates the object. Without the magic word, the object would die as object: it would be lost in the midst of other common bric-a-brac.

To give up the word one must turn to the image of the image: the animated image. The animation of Magritte’s pipe will be the task of conceptual artist Marcel Broodthaers, who transformed the canvas into an old film projection in which the word has become the smoke of the pipe. But here the pipe, just as in the canvas, inexplicably floats in the air (where the brushstrokes have been substituted by clouds), motionless as a sinister statue. We know that the pipe is alive only when we see the smoke flowing from it. Cinema has replaced the word trick by the smoke trick, the trick of movement. But who is smoking? There is no mouth. This is fake breath, without air or aroma—indeed, there is no tobacco either.



Marcel Broodthaers, Cinéma Modèle, 1970

Magritte’s painting, besides being an unraveled calligram (as Foucault would put it) is a tomb for a gesture, the death of the gesture. But what is a gesture? Is every gesture an object with breath? And in that case, a gesture of what? In real life or in motion life (let’s call this latter thing cinema), as in the canvas, the pipe is not a pipe. What should it be then? If the pipe is not its own representation, what does it represent? To answer this, we have to appeal to the magical art of analogy, extending the boundaries of the canvas with the screening of a film.

Here we will see a selection of sequences extracted from The Stranger (1946), directed by Orson Welles. I selected this particular work because the pipe appears not only in its capacity as object, but functions as a key element in both the identification of character and the development of plot. The pipe here becomes a unifying element in the narrative itself and furthermore helps in identifying the film generically as film noir, a genre particularly difficult to classify, especially during the 1940s. Through the example of the pipe, I will show the potential of analyses of a particular object (in this case related to tobacco) both for the semiotic analysis of cinematic expression and a textual reading of the genre in question. We will see, in short, how the object, being a sign, contributes to the coherence of the narrative and becomes an integral part of the fiction. At the same time, the reading of these signs will offer some clues for the interpretation of the plot.

The first scene of the film takes us to a meeting of the United Nations War Crimes Commission. Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), one of the investigators, talks while gesturing with a pipe in his hand. The pipe is unlit. He is explaining to the other members of the commission his plan to catch one of the most-wanted Nazis still on the run: to let an accomplice escape from jail, in the hope that he will lead them to where their fugitive is hiding.



Mr. Wilson, waving his pipe in the air, visibly exasperated, exclaims that “This obscenity must be destroyed!” Suddenly he hits the pipe on the table and the pipe splits in two. Like the title of the Magritte painting, Mr. Wilson’s sentence begins with a demonstrative (“This”) that causes ambiguity. In the case of the picture, “this” is not a pipe; here, “this obscenity” refers to just what obscenity? Mr. Wilson means, of course, the war criminal whose whereabouts are unknown; he also means, by extension, the obscenities committed by the Nazis during the war. But is it not the pipe that is broken? Is it not perhaps that they have to destroy “this obscenity” that is the pipe? However, why would a pipe be obscene at all? It is difficult here to resist the temptation for a psychoanalytic reading: the pipe as a phallic element satisfying the immediate impulses of an adult man. But let’s repress this urge and leave the obvious for later. At this point we should be more interested in the connection between the speech of Mr. Wilson and the object he is handling. We are in fact witnessing the union of two different levels: the level of discourse and the plane where objects exist. The speech, abstracted, is first specified through gesture and then materialized in the pipe. The rupture of the object involves, paradoxically, the conjunction of these two different levels of (in this case, fictional) reality. That union also helps create in the spectator some narrative coherence. From the moment the pipe is divided in two, the object (pipe) and the subject (Mr. Wilson) will be closely linked in the mind of the spectator. Moreover, through this characterization, the viewer will experience absolute identification with the character, unconsciously adopting his point of view, adopting even his moral values. From now on, we, as spectators, will not just witness the Nazi hunt, but we will share the protagonist’s ideals of justice, ideals already implied in that first demonstrative: “This obscenity must be destroyed!” Mr. Wilson, whose identity is defined by the omnipresence of the pipe, will become our advocate for justice, the hero able to resolve the plot in order to fulfill what we all know will happen. And it’s precisely because we know it will happen that we expect it to happen: the ultimate destruction of the obscenity, a destruction announced presciently in the fate of the pipe (pure poetry if we listen to Bachelard—”Poetry gives to an insignificant event a meaning of destiny”).

Thus, what appears to us as random, a pure accident caused by an excess of passion in Mr. Wilson’s speech, turns out to be an essential gesture—whether we realize it or not—that will guide us for the rest of the film.



In this scene we see the wounds of obscenity. The pipe, transformed by metonymy in “this obscenity,” symbolizes the tragic consequences of war: the wounds symbolically concretized in a physical body, and the tape fixing the pipe like bandages. The pipe brings together cause and effect, giving matter to a pain that was still abstract in the viewer, a pain that for a moment had seemed over. And though the pipe is restored (like world peace), the tape reminds us that the wounds are recent and will not close until the hunt for the fugitive Nazi is over. The hunt has already begun: the pipe, activated, gives off smoke in a close-up. The smoker is not revealed, although we all know who he is: the tape confirms it. The identification between Mr. Wilson and the pipe is complete: they are now one and the same. So from now on the pipe can function as a sign of something else. In this case, as a hidden sign, a secret code indicating to the female spy that she should follow the suspect. The taps of the pipe on the railing indicate the start of the plan, the beginning of the plot: the pipe has regained its strength. However much the pipe is hit, it is not likely to break again. Justice imposes its rules firmly. In the following scene, the link between Mr. Wilson and the pipe will be strengthened, just in case some spectator is lagging behind due to an earlier lapse in attention.



The pipe, which marked the time in earlier scenes (not with smoke like an ethereal and vertical sandglass, but with a few taps) rests now on the chest in a hotel room, next to a lamp and a phone, on top of The Clock Book, a title which significance will not be revealed until later in the film. The phone rings and Mr. Wilson answers. The phone seems incompatible with the pipe. Both are means of communication: phone through speech, pipe through gestures, so they cannot be used simultaneously. It would be too naive to think that, being an old phone, Mr. Wilson has no choice but to leave off the pipe smoking just because he needs both hands to operate it. No, none of that: later on it will be proved that it is physically possible to smoke a pipe and talk on the phone at the same time. But that is allowed because in this future moment the pipe is no longer a communicative resource, and its meaning is somewhere else. In the scene that concerns us here, both objects are incompatible, because the communicative function of the pipe, as has been shown so far, overlaps with that of the phone, that is, to send a message. And this incompatibility will be the reason for a close up on Mr. Wilson’s face with the phone next to his ear, without the pipe: one or the other, never both. But of course, the pipe is jealous of the phone. The pipe has guided us to this moment in the film; It has been our means of visual transport and has marked the tempo of the narrative, thus it will not be defeated so easily by a vulgar piece of junk like the telephone, a piece of rubbish that need wires to transmit signs (how little poetry there! Neither metaphor nor metonymy!). So the pipe, that stubborn object, is determined to dominate the subjectivity of the camera’s gaze, forcing the zoom out. The shot opens pulls back from the face of Mr. Wilson until every object fits in the frame: man, bed, telephone, lamp, book and pipe (in an expressionist way, we could say, because we still don’t perceive the whole space of the room, but just the objects inside). The pipe itself seems to force the movement of the camera, since the pipe is the object we must keep in mind. Inertia of the object: the object that draws in the eye to create perspective. An object that continues to claim it is alive and whose personification will have undoubted consequences in the next scene. The pipe, Mr. Wilson’s identifier, is still jealous of the phone. It wants to be herself (let’s make it female, like in Spanish or in Baudelaire’s poem), to live her life, to move at will. To the extent that she attempts to betray her master, her alter ego. While the viewer shares the secret code that identifies “this obscenity” with the pipe and the pipe with Mr. Wilson (the representative of the law), to reveal that principle to the suspect would drag the plan (and the plot) to perdition.



In the previous scene the suspect realizes, through the treacherous pipe, that a man, Mr. Wilson, is following him. Both, while recognizing the other as enemies, dissimulate, until the taboo (dissimulation) is broken, and the chase begins.



Mr. Wilson is knocked down while smoking. The chase ends. The heat of the pipe also extinguished. The pipe seems to correspond with the very breath of Mr. Wilson; the pipe is his breath. And yet, the pipe is also symbol of his pensive figure, the object that generates his deductive thinking. While the pipe had fuel, the coal in this locomotive, Mr. Wilson was able to persevere in the chase. His thoughts, his reasoning, are thus linked to the smoke, which corresponds with his breath. His own essence as a character, as a criminal investigator, depends on such characterization. That is to say, his life in fiction depends on the pipe. But at the same time the pipe betrays him (a kind of death drive). The suspect escapes never to be traced again. The detective, disguised as an ordinary man, fails in his undertaking (mocker mocked, the tables have turned) and might even have lost his life because of it (the breath that encouraged him, the pipe), as is ironically announced by the sign on the gym door: “Anyone using apparatus in this room does so at their own risk”. It is a poster signed by someone named Charles Rankin. Indeed, Mr. Wilson suffers the consequences of his own carelessness: betraying the pipe with a phone. That’s when the suspect, finally safe from the clutches of the law, meets with his Nazi buddy, to whom he explains what happened.



Meinike, the name of the man who was released from prison as bait, finally meets the fugitive Nazi, Franz Kindler, in a small town in Connecticut (cut connection?), where he has concealed his real identity under the guise of a high school teacher and the name of Charles Rankin. Yes, exactly the same Rankin who signed that warning in the gym: oh the ironies of life. And the irony, a typically Wellesian touch, continues in the words of Meinike when Rankin questions him about the man who followed him: “He looked like any other man, he was dressed like any other man, he even smoked a pipe”. Clear evidence that at the time the pipe was a common object of pleasure. Mr. Wilson had thus seemingly chosen the perfect disguise. And yet for the viewer it too obviously matches the stereotypical image of the detective. So that which in real life is something ordinary, in fiction is isolated, stressed and becomes sign language: a language whose codes are shared by the viewer. Though not, of course, for the characters themselves. For Meinike, it is impossible to think that such an ordinary man, a man with a pipe, would be hunting him, though he insists that he identified the costume as just that: “I recognized him for his disguise.” For this, Meinike needed a signal, a personified pipe: a pipe betraying Mr. Wilson. Again we can say: “this is not a pipe”. More so if we consider that, thus far, we have not seen, even once, the act of lighting the pipe. Is a pipe that does not need to be lit a pipe? We, as viewers, have been deprived of something so lacking in significance to the plot as the sight of a lit match. An omission that helps produce through our fragmented perception a concrete image of fiction, that place where reality is not necessary for realism. We know without knowing that it is unnecessary to show something as trivial as the feeding of fire to the pipe. If not, films would never end. Thus the characteristic of art, realistic or not: not to show the whole, saving us from the boredom of the quotidian. (That is until Warhol comes along with his five hours and twenty minutes of footage of his sleeping boyfriend). So what happens if you suddenly light a match in fiction? The match! That ridiculous, pointless swab, burning in its greatest moment of glory, just when it becomes fire, just when it gives light (as, according to Barthes, literature: “Literature is like phosphorus: it shines with its maximum brilliance at the moment when it attempts to die”). May it be that even the match is not a match here? Mr. Wilson is speaking again on the telephone. But this time, lesson now learnt, he does not overlook the pipe. The pipe is no longer a device of communication, and thus no longer challenges, or is challenged by, the telephone. Here the pipe is something else: a thing to be smoked with the help of a “real” match.



Here there has been a big leap in the plot. Mr. Wilson, who as we see is not dead—far from it—, had actually met Rankin previously. He had, in fact, suspected Rankin. He had, in fact, been convinced that Rankin was, in fact, Kindler, the very fugitive he was chasing. But then he decides he is wrong, and addresses someone on the phone: “You were right about Rankin. He is above suspicion.” Meinike is gone and Rankin, the prime suspect, is happily married to a village girl; he is an exemplary high school teacher, and seems to have none of the characteristics of a criminal. So Mr. Wilson believes he is innocent. Rankin is no longer under suspicion. Mr. Wilson then lights a match, the first match of the entire film. What does this gesture means? The flame of the match must match the deductive conclusion. The flame, the result of striking phosphorous against surface, is in this case analogous to the resolution of the problem: the case remains open, but Mr. Wilson has come to a dead end in his investigation. There is nothing else to do in Connecticut (again the connection is cut). There is no suspect and the only link that bound him to the runaway, Meinike, has vanished. He has to start over from the beginning, from the beginning of deduction. New life must be breathed into the case like new life into the pipe. Lighting the pipe: simultaneous preamble and conclusion. Is it pure coincidence that the scene takes place in minute 33, a palindrome? Lighting the pipe is a means of expressing satisfaction. Although the case is not resolved, Mr. Wilson has closed one line of investigation. He can now relax and enjoy a good fulsome puff. Unless … something changes his mind: in the village cafeteria remains a suitcase belonging to Meinike, still on the run. It is this that raises Wilson’s suspicions again. Rankin appears with his wife. In the next scene, Wilson and Rankin clash in a dialectical contest of comments and glances.



We have witnessed a duel, a duel in new clothes. The saloon replaced by the cafeteria. The guns replaced by a cigarette and a pipe. Rankin smokes a cigarette, as is common among criminals or the mentally unstable—insecure characters, especially when the opponent is wielding a pipe, the pipe of the law. This is a duel between the pipe (the detective) and the cigarette (the fugitive). But if it is a dialectical struggle, it is clear who will win. The pipe is hard; the cigarette, soft. The pipe is reusable; the cigarette dies just once (I see here also a metaphor of old Europe, the pipe, surviving the speed imposed by the Nazis, the cigarette, fleeting despotism). The pipe expresses a strong psychology; the cigarette, impatient neurosis. Sexually, the pipe is a rigid phallus that contrasts sharply against the flaccid cigarette, quickly spent, premature. And all this, all these features transform the pipe and the cigarette into a proleptic sign: a sign that anticipates the outcome, that is, the inevitable victory of justice (the pipe) over crimes against humanity (in this case the cigarette).

The duel is repeated at the end of the film. But this time Rankin has exchanged the cigarette for a pistol (a common enough substitution in film noir). Either way, the die is already cast. The result confirmed.



Rankin, as a last resort to escape justice, threatens Mr. Wilson with a gun. They’re on the clock tower, a favorite place for Rankin, who is a known watch enthusiast (thus Wilson’s reading of The Clock Book in an early scene, the one lead he had on the fugitive Nazi). Yet gun or not, Rankin must lose. The gun, a reflection of power imposed by force, a means to exercise terror through violence, can never best the deductive logic of Mr. Wilson, the common man, the man with the pipe. His words pierce the defenses of Rankin, who is unable to refute the arguments of universal justice. Rankin has no choice but to use the gun. But Mr. Wilson reacts in time and swipes the gun from his hands. As they struggle, Rankin’s wife appears and takes up the gun herself. She is another victim of Nazi deception. She represents that part of Europe (Germany itself, perhaps even occupied France) that swallowed whole the ideals of the Fuhrer. The woman in love with a utopian idea, who later realizes she had been deceived from the very beginning of the marriage. But now, with gun in hand, she has the opportunity of revenge. The woman shoots, wounding her husband. However, that (this rancor) is not enough to kill Rankin. It also requires the hand of justice, international justice, a more precise and rational mechanism. Mr. Wilson steals the revolver from the woman hands. He tries to shoot, but there are no bullets. Why? Simple: because this gun is not a pipe. The gun is, at best, a cigarette. Mr. Wilson is unable to fire because he has no pipe at hand, as he usually does. No pipe, no authority. He is castrated. International justice cannot be exercised using the same violent means as the Nazis. Although the moral goes even further. No one can really beat the Nazis. The Nazis have to destroy themselves. It is their own folly, like the madness of Rankin (being Franz Kindler), which will eventually lead them to ruin. Kindler’s own obsession (the ticking of the clocks) will mark his end. Kindler will fall from the top of a clock tower that no longer tells the time, pierced by the symbolic sword of an angel, the angel of justice.

Once order is restored, Mr. Wilson retrieves his pipe. His role has come to an end. For the second and last time in the film, Mr. Wilson strikes a match and lights the pipe. Again, he seems very satisfied with the result.



“Good night, Mary, pleasant dreams”. With this line, directed at Rankin’s widow, the film comes to an abrupt end. The nightmare started by the Nazis has been terminated. Europe has entered a state of pleasant dreams, everyday pleasures (do not forget that the film was released in 1946). The pipe, a symbol of peace (as for the movie Indians of the western plains) and European Enlightenment (the deductive stereotype), still smokes, producing pleasant dreams among the average citizen. But how long will its tobacco taste sweet? How long the softness of its scent last? We had better not dream too much. To paraphrase Goya, we might conclude that the pipe dream (deductive dream) produces monsters. Therefore, let us keep the pipe awake.


The analysis of more than one hundred films leads me to conclude that the use of matches, cigarettes, pipes, etc. in the so-called film noir transcends mere characterization or decorative setting. Rather, the 1940s sees the peak of a tendency to relate the appearance of such objects in film to “significant moments” of the plot. From the 1950s there is a slow decline in the use of such objects as metaphor or as significant parts of the plot; this coincides with the gradually hardening social attitudes to tobacco as health hazard. In the neo-noir (the new film noir) of the 1970s and 1980s, the function of these objects is limited mostly to pure characterization, mere character or setting, an empty reference to the original tropes of the genre.

It might thus be said that, in neo-noir, there no longer exists a code of tobacco; rather, these objects exist as simulacrum, appearing largely for reasons of simple advertising, something that—though present at the beginnings of the genre—becomes paramount in later decades, abandoning the codes that helped create one of the cheapest but most interesting of Hollywood genres.