Saturday, June 7, 2014

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                              Writer: Norman Krasna
Film Score: Edward Ward                              Cinematography: Harry Stradling
Starring: Robert Montgomery, Carole Lombard, Gene Raymond and Jack Carson

Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a bit of whimsy from Alfred Hitchcock, or should I say a bit more than usual. For the master of suspense humor has always been an important part of his films, but the only real suspense in this film is of the domestic kind as he makes a one-time excursion into the realm of the screwball comedy. Though Carole Lombard was very adept at comedy, most film historians believe that she probably would have appeared in a Hitchcock thriller had she lived. She had the look, and she probably would have done a great job. The two were, in fact, good friends. When the Hitchcocks made the move to the United States from England she offered them her home to stay in until they found one of their own. And while the film would seem miles from what Hitchcock is best at, the fact that he use humor so often in his film not only makes it less mystifying that he would have taken on the film, but understandable how he did such a good job.

The film begins with Robert Montgomery playing cards in his bedroom surrounded by dirty dishes. Carole Lombard is underneath the covers in bed. The maids are running out of dishes and William Tracy from his office needs a signature. Three days they’ve been there and the audience learns that once before it had been twelve. It turns out that it’s one of Lombard’s rules, that they can’t leave the bedroom until they’ve made up after a fight. Another rule she has is that they must tell the truth, and she makes up a hypothetical question and asks if he’d marry her all over again. When he says no, she’s upset, but understands his explanation. At the office, however, Montgomery learns from Charles Halton that their wedding wasn’t legal. Unfortunately, Halton also stops by their apartment and tells Lombard. Montgomery takes her out that night, to a restaurant they went to before they were married and she assumes he’s going to tell her, and propose again. But when he doesn’t, she thinks he doesn’t ever want to. She kicks him out of the house, takes back her maiden name, and the rest of the film is about Montgomery trying to marry his own wife.

Clearly this is an anomaly in the Hitchcock oeuvre and has almost no relation to his other films. In an interview with François Truffaut he claims to have taken on the film as a favor to Carole Lombard who wanted to work with the director. He essentially followed the screenplay by Norman Krasna and felt no need to do more. It’s an amusing premise from Krasna and Hitchcock was in good hands as the screenwriter would go on to pen other romantic comedies like the brilliant The Devil and Miss Jones and Indiscreet--starring, interestingly enough, Hitchcock regulars Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant--as well as his Academy Award winning Princess O’Rourke. And there are some interesting things to note about the film. Some critics look at the piece as a critique of society, but I find that to be less compelling than the relationship between the two leads. While Montgomery might say he wouldn’t marry her again, he allows Lombard to shave him with a straight razor, indicating unconditional trust, an action repeated in the predictable conclusion.

While it would seem impossible to identify the director of the film if one didn’t already know, Hitchcock does indulge in a couple of notable identifying shots. One is outside the apartment building of Montgomery and Lombard, and when Montgomery and Gene Raymond emerge from the front door the camera pulls back quickly all the way across the street; this is also the shot in which the director makes his cameo. The other is a rather high crane shot looking down on a crowd when Lombard and Raymond are going up on a carnival ride. But beyond that, the deft touch and complete confidence of all the shots make it clear that a masterful director is at the helm. Mr. and Mrs. Smith may not be a great screwball comedy, but it is well above average and certainly rewarding for fans of the genre in general as well as fans of Lombard in particular.

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