*½/**** Image B Sound B Extras C+
starring Carole Lombard, Robert Montgomery, Harry E. Edington, Gene Raymond
screenplay by Norman Krasna
directed by Alfred Hitchcock
by Walter Chaw Even a cursory glance at Alfred Hitchcock's favoured themes would find the idea of rules--particularly as they're expressed by written forms of communication--to be the ineffectual rein seeking to subdue the protean tumult of human identity, greed, and passion. The way that books hide the body in Rope, for instance; the newspaper headlines discovered too late in Shadow of a Doubt; the contracts and penny dreadfuls of Suspicion; Norman Bates's hotel book; the profession of Foreign Correspondent; Carlotta's engraved headstone and Mozart's mathematical structure in Vertigo; Melanie's birthday wishes in The Birds; the beckoning empty cages in Rutland's house in Marnie; or how the lines of a ledger page predict North by Northwest's astonishing play on humans reduced to numbers before a brilliant bit of business involving a message written inside a matchbook cover. In Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Hitchcock pairs with good friend Carole Lombard (on her second-to-last film before a plane crash ended her life), a prototypical Hitchcock blonde for whom the term "screwball comedy" was invented, to produce what's widely seen as an anomaly in Hitchcock's career: a slapstick romantic imbroglio. And indeed, the film is different from nearly anything Hitchcock ever did (though it shares a similar plot with Rich and Strange and a similar antic energy with The Trouble with Harry), but not because it deviates from his themes. Rather, Mr. and Mrs. Smith seems to be a film that outlines what it is exactly about rules and written communication that Hitchcock perceives to be so fundamentally unstable and misleading.
Consider the engine of the narrative. Mr. David Smith (Robert Montgomery) answers truthfully when his wife Ann (Lombard) asks if he'd marry her again if he had it to do all over. That afternoon, a man with a piece of paper tells Mr. Smith that because of a technicality, he's not actually married. This leads to Mr. Smith trying to seduce the suddenly very desirable Mrs. Smith, and to Mrs. Smith (who by the conventions of this sort of film has found out about the snafu) being outraged that Mr. Smith would seek to sully her virtue. In reality, the source of her anger is that Mr. Smith has neglected to renew their marriage license, thus affirming what Hitchcock scholar Lesley Brill refers to as his "dominion" over her. Mrs. Smith is Mr. Smith's possession by some kind of concomital Deed of Trust, a state referred to constantly by Mr. Smith: "You're mine and you belong to me." The idea of a renewal of society is common in Hitchcock's work (even The Birds, his most nihilistic piece, finds Melanie eventually supplanting the mother and taking her catatonic place as the broken, passive, utterly domesticated housewife), but in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the standard sunny resolution to the screwball master plot doesn't land with a hint of irony--the suffering in the picture is the couple's joy. Misery doesn't love company in Mr. and Mrs. Smith--it's the glue that binds Mr. and Mrs. Smith together.
The crossed ski-tips that end the film become like the family seal of the quarrelsome Smiths: swords in conflict and union. But neither side has sacrificed anything for the resolution, particularly Ann. As a Hitchcock blonde, she would have been expected to at least sacrifice her individuality and strength at the altar of the questionable prize of domesticity, marking the world of the picture as Hitchcock's perhaps German Expressionist-inspired nightmare of automatons ruled by arbitrary rules and social systems. It's those rules and systems, after all, that consistently place Hitchcock's protagonists in the role of outsider, fugitive, wrong man... In Mr. and Mrs. Smith, they are the Big Brothers, and what fun is that, really? With Hitchcock flourishes like food fetish, hat play, and a scene at a carnival (to say nothing of the picture's brilliant central image of Mrs. Smith shaving Mr. Smith with a straight razor as an expression of spousal devotion (and an echo of scraped toast)), Mr. and Mrs. Smith is serviceable and workmanlike, occasionally obviously the work of a genius. What it isn't, however, is very funny, very manic, or particularly current. It shows its age in a way that most of Hitchcock's pictures don't: it's all about the order of the patriarchy instead of the chaos of carnal night. When all's said and done, the most that can be remarked about it is how odd it is that this Hitchcock picture is so very predictable. The things we'll do for love.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith's b&w DVD transfer is commendable, although it demonstrates harsher grain and more streaking artifacts than the other films in Warner's "Alfred Hitchcock: The Signature Collection" do. The centre-channel Dolby mono sound is clean, though there are a few moments where the score undercuts the dialogue, leading to a little choppiness that dates the source. Laurent Bouzereau does his typical (fine) job producing the supplementary documentary for Mr. and Mrs. Smith, "Mr. Hitchcock Meets the Smiths" (16 mins.), which assembles the usual suspects: Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell, Bill Krohn, TCM's Robert Osborne, Peter Bogdanovich, and so on. O'Connell is animated and full of anecdotes (the saddest of which here involves the impact of Lombard's untimely demise on the Hitchcocks), but the rest are basically retreads of the opinion (shared publicly by Hitch) that the flick is a minor curiosity. Disappointing that more scholarship wasn't expended on the film regardless of whether the assessment would echo mine. The film's original theatrical trailer rounds out the presentation. Originally published: November 29, 2004.