Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

What is the famed "Ernst Lubitsch touch"? One answer comes from the opening shot to his breathlessly charming and sophisticated 1932 romantic comedy Trouble In Paradise, a sterling precursor to the screwball classics that would arrive later in the decade. Instead of establishing Venice with the usual wide shot of the Canal Grande, Lubitsch opens at night with a garbageman picking up the trash in front of an ordinary doorway, then dumping it into a gondola and cheerfully belting out a stanza from an Italian opera. The scene is pure Lubitsch: unexpected, elegant, cinematic, and subtly pointed, a gentle class reminder before the film heads up to the royally appointed suites of high society. At 83 minutes, Trouble In Paradise is a model of tight, graceful construction and maximum pith, flowing from one hilarious comic setpiece to the next without a moment wasted on windy exposition or sags in the action. Lubitsch's cool precision befits his three romantic leads; each member of the trio cares about style above all, and each acts like he or she is the cleverest person in the room—with good reason. The irresistible premise pairs Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins, two world-class thieves who fall helplessly in love by robbing each other blind over dinner. (When Hopkins admits she lifted Marshall's wallet, he replies, "I know, you tickled me, but your embrace was so sweet.") Looking for a big score, they meet their match in Kay Francis, a beautiful and cagey perfume-company heiress who hires Marshall to be her secretary, agreeing with his snaky advice that she should stockpile a substantial part of her fortune in a personal safe. Meanwhile, Francis toys with two amusingly dimwitted suitors (Charles Ruggles and Edward Everett Horton), but her attention is drawn inevitably toward Marshall, complicating his plans for a heist. In his introduction to the sharp new DVD transfer, Peter Bogdanovich describes the "Lubitsch touch" as an almost invisible mastery, a way of dealing intense attraction through a kind of offhand suggestion that no other director has been able to duplicate since. Produced shortly before the Hays Code was enforced, Trouble In Paradise raises a few obvious red flags (criminals getting away with it, singles sleeping together), but its sexuality seems unforced and cosmopolitan, a chemistry that radiates right along with the dialogue. Like its master thieves, the film is so effortlessly seductive that it could charm the valuables off of anyone.


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