Friday, September 4, 2009

Tact, Diplomacy & Sex

No doubt Lubitsch would not have approved of the title I've chosen for my review of his greatest masterpiece, but one needs to grab attention somehow. Usually, when I tell people in this day and age that Trouble In Paradise (1932) is arguably the most sophisticated, mannered, comedy ever produced, I draw glassy stares. The truth is: it is that and more. The screenplay, written by Samson Raphaelson, is the gold standard for grace and style in comedy. Every line rolls crisply off the tongue, and yet virtually every statement uttered is a lie or misdirection, calculated to put the rosiest veneer on the most reprehensible con artistry.

The story concerns two crooks -- a man (Herbert Marshall) and a woman (Miriam Hopkins), who meet on the Italian Riviera picking each other's pockets, share a night of lust and fall in love. Seeing as it is the 1930's, all does not end happily ever after. Less than one year after the anniversary of their first date, they find themselves desperate for money and so they target a wealthy perfume heiress as their mark. What transpires is a classic french scandal, but we never once feel scandalized. Director Ernst Lubistch was an icon in his day, renowned for his "Lubitsch Touch" which was light as air and slyly suggestive. Under his guiding hand, the actors deliver their lines with near impossible poise and elegance.

This is a movie where the Great Depression is often discreetly referred to as " times like these," where crooks gain sympathy just by being smarter and classier than their law-abiding counterparts and a strange brand of mutual respect is cultivated between the burglar and the burgled. The movie is a marvel of restraint and subtext, that remains enchanting and provocative some 77 years later. It reminds us of the riches that tact can afford and the astonishing way in which sly repartee can make up for the most vindictive, behavior.

Trouble In Paradise is the ultimate comedy of manners. It makes art out of indirectness, finds humor in cruelty and knowingly reminds us that sex is most provocative when it is imaginatively suggested.

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