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Everyone I know learned to kiss from the movies. My first kiss came after a high school date to the movies; I tried to recall the rough, sure moves of Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and combine them with the nonchalance of Bogart in To Have and Have Not that caused Lauren Bacall to remark, “It’s better when you help.” I managed a rough, sure, nonchalant smack right on my date’s nose. And it didn’t get better when I helped.

Of course, looking back, I see that I had an excuse. It’s odd that when people talk about erotic moments in movies, they rarely mention kisses. They remember the famous ones, many of which are shown here, but most often the exciting image is of the star alone: Mae West slowly slurring lines, Bogart smoking, Monroe just walking, or Mitchum, without his shirt, lazily surveying a room. Besides, look at the movies I had to learn from when I was growing up in the fifties. The glory days of movie kissing, the thirties and the forties, had passed, although I was trying to catch up with them by watching late shows on TV. The one great moment of the fifties—Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity—introduced a style of kissing that would reach its logical, though extreme, conclusion in beach party movies. Meanwhile, Doris Day antiseptically kissed her way through the decade in chaste comedies like Tea for Two. And in Some Like It Hot, Tony Curtis kissed Marilyn Monroe every chance he got, only to confess later that it was “like kissing Hitler.” About the same time, foreign films like La Dolce Vita caused a rebirth of long, lustful kisses. Unfortunately they all looked painful and usually ended with people doing indiscernible things under a sheet. This was my heritage.

Recently, however, the kiss has been coming back into its own, in films such as The Electric Horseman and Starting Over. These kisses are short but passionate, and who knows what that will mean for the next generation of Americans. As for me, I finally found a role model in Alan Ladd. I would take my girl’s head in my hands and slowly guide our lips together. Later I learned that Ladd had a reason for kissing so deliberately: he was so short that he played love scenes standing on lifts or a box and he had to be careful not to fall off. I’m sure glad I didn’t know that at the time.

Louis Black studies film at the University of Texas in Austin.