Billy Wilder had a sign in his office that read “How would Lubitsch do it?” This was both a tribute to his friend and mentor Ernst Lubitsch and a practical tool for day-to-day film-making. There’s an elegance and economy to Lubitsch that very few directors match: every shot, every line of every picture delivers new information to the story, yet his films don’t feel either rushed or facile.
Trouble in Paradise is the the story of legendary thief Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall), “the man who went to the Geneva peace conference and stole everything but the peace”. With his beautiful accomplice Lily (Miriam Hopkins) he sets his sights on the slinky, self-confident cosmetics heiress Madame Colet (Kay Francis) — but will he have the heart to rob her once he’s under her romantic spell?
The dialogue in the film, by Samson Raphaelson, glitters like the diamonds at its heart (“Marriage is a beautiful mistake that two people make together”), but there’s a diamantine hardness too. Everyone in this picture has an angle, and everyone else knows it: as Monescu says to Lily about Madame Colet, “As far as I’m concerned, her whole sex appeal is in that safe!” This is high society, all right, but it’s also a society of cynics, and there’s a pleasing edge of satire too: when Madame Colet tries to protect an ageing but criminal associate, Monescu says, “I see. You have to be in the social register to keep out of jail. But when a man starts at the bottom and works his way up, a self-made crook, then you say Call the police! Lock him up!“
Trouble in Paradise has the same romantic cynicism — or cynical romanticism — as Wilder’s own work, sparkling on the surface but as hard-boiled as any noir beneath. It has pace, charm and a happy ending, but there’s no doubt about its view of human nature: every man or woman for themselves. There’s no room for sentimentality here, and while there may be love there’s little honour among thieves. But as Wilder’s office sign suggests, it’s a masterclass in snappy story-telling. So here’s Wilder’s own explanation of what he called The Lubitsch Touch: