Unlike in real life, in the cinematic world, thieves are usually lovable rogues thanks to their charm, intelligence and ingenuity. I blame Ernst Lubitsch. Long before we knew the names of John Robie, Thomas Crown or Danny Ocean, Lubitsch introduced us to the ideal image of a suave international thief in Trouble in Paradise.
Our first introduction to Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) comes just after a wealthy guest in a Venetian hotel has been robbed of 20,000 francs. Gaston, masquerading as a Baron, waits in a nearby hotel room for his dinner date, instructing a waiter on how to arrange the dinner. Before leaving to complete his instructions, the waiter picks a leaf off of Gaston’s dinner jacket. This is our first clue that Gaston is not all he seems.
Cue the arrival of Lily (Miriam Hopkins), a glamorous blonde claiming the title of Countess. She enters bemoaning the gossip of her peers, which will soon disclose her private dinner date with the Baron. But Lily is not what she appears to be either. Over dinner, the two confront each other over their real identities while also preening with pride over their skills as they reveal what they have stolen from each other. However, it’s not just wallets, watches and garters which are stolen this night, but hearts. It seems light fingers serve as an aphrodisiac. Gaston and Lily are instantly smitten.
Lily and Gaston are perfectly matched both in their careers and in their personal lives. They happily steal their way across Europe which only strengthens their partnership. However, all is not perfect in their paradise as their newest caper will prove.
When Gaston ingratiates himself with Madame Colet (Kay Francis), heiress to a Parisian perfume company, cracks begin to appear in his and Lily’s relationship.
While Gaston acts as Madam’s personal secretary, Lily acts as his assistant. This gives Lily a front row seat to Madame Colet’s seduction of the irresistible Gaston. Lily begins to wonder what is being stolen, Madame Colet’s wealth or Lily’s man! But it’s a toss up what is the most valuable in this love triangle; jewelry, money or hearts. And it is anybody’s guess who will end up with which valuables.
THIEVES HAVE NEVER BEEN SO SOPHISTICATED…OR SEXY
There are so many things to love about Trouble in Paradise, not the least of which are the names attached. Lubitsch was a famed and respected director who excelled in sexy comedies and musicals which pushed the boundaries without descending into poor taste. This is one of his first comedies after a long string of musicals. As usual, his genius at suggestive scenes without actually showing anything offensive is well displayed here beginning with the opening credits which shows the title Trouble in (Paradise)hovering over a bed.
Then of course there the actors portraying the various characters in the film. Joining Marshall, Hopkins and Francis are two of my favorite character actors, Edward Everett Horton and Charlie Ruggles. These two men are competitors for Mariette Colet’s affections before the arrival of Gaston Monescu. Horton also happens to be a victim of Monescu’s earlier robbery in the Venetian hotel. But Gaston’s blasé manner of hiding in plain sight keeps Mr. Filiba (Horton) guessing as to why the thief’s face looks so familiar. It also gives Horton the opportunity to do what he does best, stumble and bumble through his conversations while also doing some great double takes. Ruggles plays against his usual stereotype as a rather acerbic man who eventually joins forces with his nemesis to protect the object of their affection from the suave Gaston.
But of course it is the three main stars which really make Trouble in Paradise so enjoyable. Miriam Hopkins has never been more beautiful or more charming as Gaston’s love interest and fellow thief. She is much more emotive than Kay Francis and they provide a nice contrast to each other. One with dishonest tendencies, but who wears her heart on her sleeve. The other (Francis) a wealthy sophisticate fascinated by a man so unlike her. But this socialite well understands the rules of the game she plays. Mariette Colet uses her feminine wiles to seduce, while Lily is not nearly so subtle in her attempts to hang on to her man. It’s not just a love triangle they are entangled in but a heist of the heart. Lily stole Gaston’s heart when she lifted his wallet. Now she is trying to out-think a much more seductive kind of thief.
I personally think Herbert Marshall is a genius casting choice as the sophisticated and charming international thief who falls into his own trap when he falls for his mark. Marshall is a personal favorite of mine and I don’t think he receives enough credit for his roles. Gaston is the type of character that Cary Grant or William Powell could play with ease and eventually did (Powell in Jewel Robbery and Grant in To Catch a Thief). But this is pre-fame for both of them. Thankfully, Lubitsch thought outside the box in choosing his irresistible robber. This is a man so smooth that he can look a former mark in the face and remain anonymous. A man who can confess he is stealing from a woman and have her admire him for it. It doesn’t hurt that he knows how to wear a suit and take command. Or that he is able to expose a long time family friend of Madame Colet’s as a thief himself. After all, it takes a thief to catch a thief.
Because Lubitsch is a master of suggestion, every time I watch Trouble in Paradise I notice something new. The last time I watched this was the first time I noticed the early suggestion of Gaston’s profession when the waiter picks the leaf off of his dinner jacket. In a foreword on the DVD, director and Lubitsch admirer, Peter Bogdanovich points out that though this is a story about thieves, we never actually see anything being stolen. It is subtle touches like this that make Lubitsch such a famous director. And while I’m a big fan of most caper/heist/thief films, it is Trouble in Paradise which first stole my heart.
This as been my contribution to the “It Takes a Thief” Blogathon hosted by Moon in Gemini.