Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch / U.S., 1932):

"Beginnings are always difficult," the trick is to make it all look effortless. Heaven needs garbage men, too; the celebrated opening gag dumps a pail of slop on a Venetian gondola and glides over to the aftermath of a burglary. (On opposite sides of the palazzo, the unconscious victim and the resplendent culprit are connected via an impossibly mellifluous camera movement.) The Baron (Herbert Marshall) and the Countess (Miriam Hopkins) meet for dinner and drop their masks after a bout of pickpocketing, they’re larcenous swells made for each other. "My little shoplifter," he coos, and a dissolve from the couple in embrace to a vacant divan is all that’s needed for the rest of the night. The Parisian perfume heiress (Kay Francis, posed like a Klimt model) figures in their big score, a three-way valse on deco floors. "Steal, swindle, rob," pleads Hopkins. "But don't become one of those good-for-nothing gigolos." Seduction and role-playing are the inseparable ingredients of human relationships in Ernst Lubitsch’s matchless comedy, one abstraction of suavity after another. Marshall’s yearning for moonlight and champagne, Hopkins' filched garter, Francis’ half-lidded air of sex. A diamond-encrusted purse occasions the foreplay and safecracking evokes the consummation, binocular views of the opera house suggest silent-film irises. (Amid this luxury, a Trotskyite spits out a few words: "Phooey, phooey, and phooey!") A tiny mustache twitch unsettles Charles Ruggles’ absolute poker face, Edward Everett Horton at the garden party straining for a memory just out of reach is a master class in eunuch double-takes. Europe as a purring studio reverie, all aplomp and one-upmanship until melancholy emotion intrudes: "You wanted a hundred thousand francs, and I thought you wanted me." The distillate of Lubitsch’s cinema of insinuation and evanescence, façades and objects (a ringing phone unanswered before a locked door, intertwined shadows thrown on a silk mattress) in crystalline fusions of style and significance. The Earrings of Madame de..., To Catch a Thief and The Pink Panther flow from here, then the characters become Resnais’ phantoms in Last Year at Marienbad. Screenplay by Samson Raphaelson. Cinematography by Victor Milner. With C. Aubrey Smith, Robert Greig, and Leonid Kinskey. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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