Alfred Nobel had a problem. He was responsible for countless deaths having invented dynamite, but he did not wish to be remembered for that down the ages, so he created the Nobel Peace Prize which became his most celebrated legacy. This has been noted by tobacco giant employee Merwin Wren (Bob Newhart), who proposes an idea to the head of the Valiant company (Edward Everett Horton): they don't want to be infamous as a corporation which has caused millions of deaths, so how about a contest to make them look like humanitarians? How about they give twenty-five million dollars to the town which can give up smoking for a whole month?
Wren reasons their product is so addictive, their money has to be safe, and for a while there in Norman Lear's pointed comedy that appears to be the case, but when one town in Iowa which could really do with the cash manages to sign up with the residents' agreement, maybe the company's plans could backfire. Lear was mostly in films during the sixties - Cold Turkey was completed in 1969 but belatedly released two years later - though it is his pioneering sitcom work he will be most recalled for in the seventies, revolutionising the form for the decade with his mixture of social issues and character humour, and you can see strong indications of the way he was heading in this.
It has to be said as far as satire goes the material in Cold Turkey was something of a blunt instrument, yet precisely applied if that made sense, with broadly drawn personalities occupying a well nigh cartoonish world, especially when the condition of the title begins to kick in. Before that the town's local Reverend Clayton Brooks (Dick Van Dyke, one of many sitcom reliables past and future who starred among this movie's ensemble) has whipped up the area into a frenzy of inspiration, seeing to it that everyone there signs the petition and persuading the town drunk (Tom Poston) to leave for the duration because there's no way he has the will power to contribute.
One of the most successful running gags features the doctor (Barnard Hughes) who is so addicted to the cancer sticks that he represents the biggest liability: there's an amusing scene where he has to be practically wrestled to the ground in the operating theatre because he's found a cigarette from somewhere. That somewhere might be from Wren, who does his best to sabotage the drive but is continually foiled, that is until his final push - you're never quite sure of which way this is going to go, as it's such a black comedy that either result is possible, though the actual conclusion is far darker than you would likely anticipate. Mix in a bunch of montages of the population losing their tempers big time, and this was a comedy with a lot of laughs.
Though only if you were willing to go along with the kind of humour that satisfied in the way that pulling your underwear out of the crack of your ass on a hot, sticky day satisfied, it was that sort of tone that Lear was aiming for, practically rubbing the audience's nose in the grimier aspects of life and making them palatable for humour because they were so unpleasant they became ridiculous. And yet, he had a clear-eyed view of the foibles and failings of modern society, where they would rather indulge in something that was likely killing them because the alternative was all too uncomfortable: getting through lives without something to soothe the pain that an addiction can assist with. They do say giving up the coffin nails is more difficult that giving up heroin, and watching this lot you can believe it, brought to vivid insanity by a great cast, including Pippa Scott as the Reverend's almost silent wife or Judith Lowry as the foul-mouthed little old lady of the libertarians. By taking in such wide targets, Lear was unexpectedly exacting. Music by Randy Newman.