Hitchcock offered suspense. John Ford did Westerns. Ernst Lubitsch had a ‘touch.’
If you’re wondering why critics still use the latter piece of short-hand, Trouble In Paradise offers explanation. One of the most exquisitely timed comedies ever made, its craftsmanship remains precise even 80 years on - a Rolex where most modern romcoms are market-stall knock-offs.
The action begins in Venice, where crooks Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) and Lily (Miriam Hopkins) fall in love while trying to rob each other blind.
Fast forward several months: now in Paris, the duo plans to divest wealthy Madame Colet (Kay Francis) of her fortune, until Gaston’s con-man routine starts to blur into real feelings for his target.
Such a set-up wasn’t unusual at Paramount, the home of Continental glamour in ’30s Hollywood, but Lubitsch sneaks in so much satire the film is almost a joke at the expense of its studio.
It’s a story of shifting identities, in which the idle rich are indistinguishable from the thieves, dishonesty is the key to maintaining a stable relationship, and ‘sex appeal’ lies in money, until you discover the real thing.
The result is subversive and innuendo-packed, but oh-so-discreet. That’s the Lubitsch touch: teasing but tactful as Gaston’s and Colet’s shadows fall across a bed while they’re trading flirtatious bon mots.
The touch is maintained by Samson Raphaelson’s pH neutral dialogue, tart with acidic barbs but balanced by a delightfully alkaline frothiness, and performances that thrive on the contradictions - the central pairing of saucepot Hopkins and urbane Brit Marshall smoulders with unlikely, but undisguised, heat.