I noticed in the Hitchcock Consensus thread on RT that there were a number of people giving Mr. and Mrs. Smith a very low rating, even calling it his worst film (though I was surprised and pleased to see that there were several people giving it good ratings). Mr. and Mrs. Smith is certainly not Hitch’s worst movie. In fact, it’s one of his best. So I thought I should write this up so everyone could see why.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith stand alongside films like The Philadelphia Story and The Awful Truth in a subgenre of romantic comedy called the “remarriage comedy”. In traditional comedy, the story generally begins with the “meet cute”, where the boy-meets-girl set up is established, and the characters clash in order to give the growing romance conflict. In most remarriage comedies, the leading couple has not only already met, but already have an established relationship. The conflict and structure isn’t to get two characters together, but rather to get them back together. It was a structure that became quite popular after enforcement of the production code to cleverly insert the issue of adultery into comedic storylines. A married couple splits and divorce, and then one (or both) parties have a flirtation/relationship with other people. Since the couple is divorced, it cannot technically be considered adultery.
In Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Hitchcock plays with the conventions of the genre, as he usually did. Instead of having a couple divorce, we discover that they were never technically married in the first place. Hitchcock cleverly combines the conventions of traditional comedy and remarriage comedy. The story structure is set up as a remarriage comedy. The Smiths are a couple that already have a well established relationship. But since they were never actually married, the storyline is subtly heading in the more traditional direction of a marriage rather than a remarriage. Structurally, it’s kind of like a reverse of The Lady Eve, in which we get a boy-meets-girl opening, only to lead to a form of remarriage comedy.
By doing this, Hitchcock slyly gets to play around with the production code. He’s basically using the guise of remarriage comedy to trick the Code. Without the pair being legally married, they’ve actually been involved in a sexual relationship without marriage for several years. Throughout pretty much the whole movie, Hitchcock is winking at the audience, proving he’s much smarter and more clever than Joseph Breen and the censors.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith may be Hitchcock’s only straight-up comedy, but his touches are definitely there – not just visually, but psychologically. One of the things that separates this film from other in this genre is the high amount of pain and suffering the couple puts each other through, both physically and emotionally. There is a large amount of deliberate deceit and actions taken specifically to hurt the feelings of the other. At first glance, these things might seem cold hearted and distancing. But both characters delight in both giving this pain and receiving this pain. It is, after all, what brings them back together in the end. It’s an integral part of the relationship, it helps them to thrive. The film both begins and ends with the conclusion to a huge argument. And that gives the feeling that “The End” isn’t really the end and that “Happily Ever After” isn’t really happily ever after. Their relationship will remain largely the same and just keep going. This is because we aren’t necessarily being show a relationship that needs to change. We’re simply seeing a thriving relationship that’s had a misstep. So many of Hitch’s film relationships are about the incompatibility of me and women, even if they end up together forever. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is no different. In fact, it may highlight that theme better than any of his other films.
While the film is one of Hitch’s best romance stories, it is perhaps one of his least “romantic” films (intentionally so). In other films, like Notorious and Vertigo, the passion in the relationships come from sexuality and romance. In Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the idea that romantic passion is needed to maintain a relationship is thrown out the window. The couple is generally unsentimental, and when they try to be, like when they attempt to go to the restaurant from early in their relationship, the attempt fails. Their relationship and love is held together by structure, rules, and the passion that comes from their antagonism, not their romantic ideas or sexual desire for each other. Rather, their sexual relationship generally arises from their conflicts and antagonism, and though fighting is foreplay.
Hitchcock’s heroes and heroines often inflict more pain onto themselves than the outside forces do. (Alicia Huberman’s alcoholism, Maxim DeWinter’s inability to let go of what happened to Rebecca, Scottie Furguson’s guilt manifesting itself in vertigo). Hitchcock parodies this idea himself. Throughout the film, the characters do tend to hurt themselves (and each other) with their own actions. But Hitch has a great scene which physically embodies this idea. In order to get himself out of an embarrassing date, Robert Montgomery attempts to give himself a bloody nose by beating on his own face. This is only one of several very clever moments that Hitch creates in the film.
Even with the somewhat complicated relationship and the non-traditional (even cynical) view of marital relationships, in the end Hitchcock still treats us with the idea of the perfect couple. At the end of the film, we see that they are meant for each other and no one else. Because nobody else would be able to put up with the rigidity of rules, the obsession with technicalities, and the childishness of their antagonism.
It really is a much richer film thematically than most people realize. But even outside of the themes, it’s an extremely funny comedy. Hitchcock did a wonderful job with screwball, striking the perfect balance between dialogue and situation driven comedy and slap stick comedy. And Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery were the perfect team. The had extremely similar approaches to comedy. The could deliver dialogue smartly and sharply, but the were neither afraid nor ashamed to make themselves look ridiculous, which worked brilliantly in both the smaller moments (Lombard trying to zip up an old dress that no longer fits, wondering why a dress would shrink) and the larger moments (the aforementioned scene in which Montgomery tries to give himself a bloody nose). Their chemistry was so strong. It takes a really special kind of chemistry to achieve a convincing romantic comedy about two people who are truly in love, but extremely contentious. It echoes Montgomery’s film from a decade prior, Private Lives with Norma Shearer, which is pretty much the grand-daddy of remarriage comedy. If Lombard hadn’t died so soon after making this movie, they could have made so many more wonderful romantic comedies together.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith is simply a great movie. Hitchcock was a brilliant director, and this is just further proof of that. It shows he could step outside the box and handle a genre he didn’t typically handle, and it showed he could take the conventions of a genre and cleverly play around with them in ways that nobody else could. Definitely a wonderful film.
By Katie Richardson