HITCHCOCK MASTER OF SUSPENSE #26: MR AND MRS SMITH [1941]

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HCF REWIND NO. 183: MR AND MRS SMTH [1941]

AVAILABLE ON DVD

RUNNING TIME: 90 min

THE HITCHCOCK CAMEO: Walking with a cigarette past David Smith in front of his building where he lives with wife Ann

REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic

 

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David and Ann Smith are a married couple living in New York who, though happy, often have fights that last for days before they lovingly reconcile. One morning, Ann asks David if he had to do it over again, would he marry her? To her disappointment, although he is very happy with her now and wouldn’t marry anyone else, he answers that he would not. Later that day, they are both told individually that, due to a jurisdictional mishap, their three-year old marriage license from Idaho is not valid. Neither one tells the other. The two go out to have a meal, but afterwards Ann is outraged when she realizes he, too, knows they aren’t legally married and intends taking “advantage”. Furious, Ann tosses him out of their apartment….

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Mr And Mrs Smith was the only post-1934 Hitchcock film I hadn’t seen before in the course of ploughing through his films for this series of reviews, and I can’t say that it was really worth the wait. Hitchcock himself often said he didn’t like it and that he: “Just photographed the scenes as written”. Indeed you can only see Hitchcock occasionally in this film and the average viewer probably wouldn’t know it was a Hitchcock movie at all if he or she didn’t know. It was Hitchcock’s stab at the screwball comedy, that subgenre of comic films popular in the 30’s and 40’s usually involving battling sexes, fast-paced repartee and farcical situations. His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story are three good examples which still seem fresh today. Mr And Mrs Smith though, one of several screwball comedies revolving about the subject of remarriage, is seriously lacking in spark and is just mildly amusing rather than hysterically funny. A strange thing perhaps, considering Hitchcock’s films often contained comedy and much of it executed very well. Mr And Mrs Smith passes the time well enough, but it never catches fire and can definitely be filed under minor Hitchcock. It’s certainly his weakest work since Waltzes From Vienna.

After Foreign Correspondent, David O’ Selznick decided to carry on making money from Hitchcock while doing nothing with him by loaning him out to RKO. Plans got underway for a film of Francis Iles’s novel Before The Fact, about a woman who thinks her husband wants to kill her, but the project proved problematic and stalled. Carole Lombard, one of the top female comedy stars of the day, asked Hitchcock to direct her latest film and he agreed. Norman Krasna’s script, originally titled Who Was That Lady I Seen You With and then No for an Answer, had already been written and was intended for Cary Grant, but he turned it down despite it being a perfect role for him, so Robert Montgomery replaced him. Hitchcock only changed a small number of things in the script, mostly things of a personal kind, like a reference to a shipboard proposal which seems to echo Hitchcock’s own proposal to his wife Alma. Hitchcock often liked to shock his cast with crude humour and bad language, but found Lombard was even more foul-mouthed than him, while his playing tricks on people also met its match in Lombard who, in response to Hitchcock’s statement that “actors are cattle”, put on set a small corral with three calves with tags round their necks containing the names of the three lead cast members. Hitchcock responded by putting up idiot boards so Lombard forgot all her lines, but Lombard went one better. She asked to direct Hitchcock’s cameo, but kept making him do it over and over again. A shame that the immense fun on set didn’t result in a better film. Maybe it’s why it didn’t. The critical response was mixed but moviegoers flocked to it. Lombard sadly died a year later in a plan crash.

The first thing noticeable about Mr And Mrs Smith is its rather forthright sexuality for the time. Sex seemed to be accepted slightly more in comedies than serious films, but it’s still surprising to find a film which opens with its lead couple, who have a rule that if they row, nobody leaves the bedroom until they make up, having spent three whole days and nights in a bedroom and have obviously made up very well indeed. Their relationship is clearly volatile but very passionate. Later on, when David is told that his marriage to Ann isn’t legal, the smug man is thrilled by the possibility of ‘having’ an unmarried woman and clearly tries to go to bed with her, something obvious even if one misses the symbolism of Ann spinning their champagne bottle in the ice bucket and then, remembering that she’s not married, letting go of the bottle like it was on fire. Later on, Ann’s mother clearly begins to tell her to not have sex with him unless they’re married, thinks Ann and David have been living in sin for three years [which, in a sense, they have], Ann clearly tries to get Jeff drunk hoping he’ll try it on with her and, best of all, a scene added by Hitchcock has the sound of people talking being drowned out by the plumbing shaking in the room above. In fact, it was originally supposed to be the sound of a toilet flushing, but such a sound was taboo, so the sound editor altered it, and made it even funnier and more daring.

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Unlike most screwball comedies, Mr And Mrs Smith is rather casually paced, something which would be fine if the dialogue was strong, but it mostly lacks the required wit and only occasionally results in laughs. It doesn’t help that the two main characters are both very self-centred and immature, something that may make them different to your average screen couple but doesn’t make you care enough to want them to be together. Often in these films there’s one childish person [usually the woman] and one more serious or sensible person, but here, while the manipulative and even rather cruel Ann comes off worse than then David and there are bits where, despite Lombard’s beauty and radiance, I came close to hating the character, he’s not too pleasant either. Part of the reason for me is Robert Montgomery, a light performer I’ve never warmed too and always found cold. Cary Grant would have greatly improved the role [and film]. Of course true to form David tends to be the one bearing the butt of the jokes and is constantly made to look foolish and inadequate. Probably the best sequence occurs about a third of the way through where Ann goes to a club with her new beau Jeff [who happens to be David’s best friend], only for it to the same place where another of David’s friends has tried to set him up with some vulgar floozies. Of course Ann tries to make David jealous but David’s attempt to do the same by pretending to talk to the pretty girl sitting next to him just makes him feel even more awkward. He tries to extract himself from the embarrassing situation by giving himself a bloody nose – not an easy task, it requiring that he bop himself in the face a few times.

Sadly though, the script’s half-arsed attempts to raise laughs tend to fall flat and to be honest not much happens that is interesting. You think you’ll going to have some hilarious adventures occur on-screen as David tries to win back Ann, and scenes like David turning up where Jeff and Ann are, pretending he’s been on a bender, will raise a smile, but that’s usually it. The whole thing’s just too muted, even the climax, which should be riotous and is instead almost non-existant. Directorially, Mr And Mrs Smith is flat and dull [this isn’t helped by the print on the R2 DVD looking very faded and even out of focus at times], except for one scene where Jeff and Ann get trapped on a broken-down Ferris wheel. Because it seems to come out of nowhere, the viewer suddenly feels very vertiginous and there’s a great bit of camerawork when we look down at the ground and the camera shakes about, getting across the dizzy and sick feeling the characters have. Note for many modern directors: this is how shakycam should be used, to enhance a sensation, rather than all the bloody time. Anyway, enough about that here, though the fact that I’ve felt it necessary to say it should tell you that I didn’t find Mr And Mrs Smith very interesting and I’m struggling to find  things to say about it. One intriguing thing is that it’s the first of quite a few Hitchcock films where a character is asked to gulp down alcohol, here a very full glass of brandy, and is either told: “It isn’t alcohol, it’s medicine”, or is told: “It’s more like medicine”. Throughout his long career, Hitchcock was well known for preferring that type of medicine to any other.

Edward Ward provides a fun score for the picture with some amusing themes and a nice romantic one, though it often seems like it’s trying too hard to raise laughs when they aren’t much in evidence elsewhere and ends up grating somewhat. Mr And Mrs Smith certainly isn’t unpleasant to watch. It’s easy-going light entertainment, but should be much better than it is, even if one has to admit that Hitchcock was, to be honest, out of his depth in its world. Someone like Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges would probably have made a much better film of it. As it stands, it’s little more than a curio which proves to be not actually very worthy of curiosity when you watch it. If you want to get a good overview of Hitchcock’s work without seeing every single film, this is certainly one you could miss.

Rating: ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆

Dr Lenera
About Dr Lenera 2701 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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