Has there ever been a film that so blatantly stuck out like a sore thumb in a director’s career as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 screwball comedy, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”? I certainly can’t think of any. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that there is anything wrong with the film, it’s just an extremely different kind of movie for Alfred Hitchcock to make. For example (and I suppose a bit of a spoiler), this movie has very little violence, no real mystery, and absolutely zero murders! That’s right folks, not one character in the entire film finds themselves at the mercy of a ruthless killer, and what makes it even more shocking… I don’t think these characters are even thinking about killing each other. I almost can’t understand what’s happening.
There is, however, quite a bit that is going on that is worth mentioning in this delightful film. David and Ann Smith (Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard) have been happily married for the last three years. He’s a successful lawyer, they seem to enjoy each other’s company, and they live in a nice apartment prominently situated in New York City. After a trivial argument, Ann asks David if he would still marry her, given the chance to do it all over again. David (perhaps too hastily) says that he doesn’t think he would- not because he doesn’t love her, but because being married gives up a certain amount of freedom that he misses.
And then comes the twist. At work later that same day, David is visited by a government official from the city where he and Ann were married, informing him that their marriage isn’t “technically” real because of a discrepancy in state and county lines. David is told it’s no big deal, but just to make everything legal, he is advised to get “re-married” to his wife. David chuckles and smiles, seeming to rather enjoy the fact that he isn’t married, but he does not, however, embrace his freedom and go gallivanting off into the single world again. He also neglects to inform his wife of their precarious circumstance, but don’t fret… that same government official (who knew Ann as a child) takes it upon himself to seek out Ann and explain the situation to her.
Ann expects that David will “fill her in” that evening, but as the hours roll by it becomes increasingly clear he has other things on his mind. Having sex with an “unmarried” woman seems to be at the top of his list. Ann has finally had enough, and in a fitful (and understandable) tirade, throws him out, vowing to be done with him forever.
Now David is on the outside, trying desperately to win his wife back, but her anger (and childish attitude) might be more than he can fight- especially once David’s law firm partner (Gene Raymond) seizes the opportunity and tries to marry Ann himself.
Alfred Hitchcock: The Master of Suspense… I mean The Master of the Screwball Comedy. It doesn’t really have the same ring to it, but is still true. If “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” accomplishes only one thing in the career of the great Hitchcock, it’s that he could do more than just suspense films; he just doesn’t seem to enjoy it as much. I’m not saying he could have had the Lubitsch Touch, but he still had a feel for the style. The story, credited to Norman Krasna, is far-fetched and at times ridiculous, but that’s what we love about screwball movies, right? The witty rapport between Montgomery and Lombard is divinely entertaining, with each and every scene attempting (and accomplishing) to outdo the last. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing Lombard play these types of roles, mostly because she did them so well, but Montgomery is a bit of a surprise here. His ability to dig deep within and pull out such a comedic performance is surprising.
“Mr. & Mrs. Smith” is a film that works because its stars make it work. It’s their effort and dedication to being as laughable as possible that keeps the audience smiling. Case in point- the scene where David takes Ann to the restaurant where they used to eat before they were married. Things have changed, and change doesn’t look very good. Ann spends the meal trying to get David to tell her that they aren’t married, but David is so bewildered by his surroundings that he’s barely listening. Lesser actors could have played this as just one of many scenes in a comedy film, but not these two. They pull out all the stops, slowly pacing themselves so that the scene can be enjoyed to its fullest. Slow and steady wins the race, and Lombard and Montgomery have proved it in this scene, and this picture.
It is refreshing to see Hitchcock branch out a little from his typical mystery and suspense films, yet his talents do feel somewhat wasted. Occasionally you’ll see some great shot or an impressive lighting technique that grabs your attention, reminding you who directed this film, but for the most part he seems to have made it with a very straightforward approach. It’s not that he doesn’t do a good job, it just doesn’t wow or amaze the way so many of his other films have. The best part about watching “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” (especially with someone who has never seen it before) is to see the look on the viewer’s face when they realize that they are watching a Hitchcock movie. Inevitably the question that comes from them is always, “This is a Hitchcock film?” “Yes, it is,” I say,” Now stop talking while the movie’s on.”