Paris Blues may not be the greatest jazz film ever made, but it remains for me a good deal more interesting many of the film critics I have read will allow. Of course, I may well say that, as it is the film sparked my interest in jazz, I like it a lot more than it deserves to be liked.
A few films I saw around the same time as I saw Paris Blues – Anatomy of a Murder and Sweet Smell of Success come readily to mind – had, I thought, wonderful jazz scores, but I considered the scores first and formost and the jazz afterwards. They. for me, happened to be either in the jazz idiom or underpinned by what wre jazz riffs.
As soon Paris Blues came along I began to think of the jazz first. In fact, so besotted was I with the film, that I attended three of of the four showings it got when it came to my home town in the west of Ireland. I should add, by way of explanation, yhat even if you did like jazz, the opportunities one would have of hearing it were few. A friend of mine who owned a record shop did stock a few jazz recordings, but they were, as I recall it, of jazz singers rather than of jazz music.
The plot of Paris Blues wafer thin, in all probability deliberately so. Trambonist Ram Bowen (Paul Newman) and saxophonist Eddie Cook (Sidney Poitier) live in Paris and play in the same jazz band. Ram is studying music and attempting to become a “serious” composer, whilst Eddie is escaping American racism by living in a city which ignores the colour of his skin and admires him as a musician. American tourists Connie Lampson (Diahann Carroll) and Lillian Corning (Joanne Woodward ) are on a two-week holiday in Paris and begin a casual romantic fling with the two jazz men. Things begin to take a more serious as the days go by and the two couples get to know each other. The plot hinges on the question whether or not Ram will leave his music to return home to be with Lillian and whether or not Eddie also return home because his love for Connie is so great. And that’s about it as far as plot goes. This drama never quite gets off the ground, but the players Newman, Poitier, Woodward and Carroll, all in their prime at the time, make this slight plot convincing.
The big pluses are a wonderful score by Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong’s amazing rendition of “Battle Royal”, a nicely used version of Ellington’s “Mood Indigo”, Christian Matras‘s luminous black and white cinemaphotography and a perless cast that brings to the project the needed bite that the script may occasionally lack.
Matt Zoller Seitz’s Jazz on Screen: The Sparks are Electric article (April 13, 2008) for The New York Times sums up the film’s strengths and weaknesses as well as any I’ve seen.
…. less daring features have their lyrical, pure-jazz moments. Martin Ritt’s Ellington-scored 1961 movie, “Paris Blues” — a nearly plotless account of two American musicians (Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman) in Paris that is essentially an advertisement for jazz and French tourism — would rather marinate in cool than hustle toward catharsis. Good thing too. No moviegoer in his right mind would take a drum-tight plot at the expense of a dreamy-slow cover of “Mood Indigo” that could be hold music for an opium den, or the shot of Mr. Poitier and his lover (Diahann Carroll) strolling arm in arm toward the Arc de Triomphe at dawn, Ellington’s score imploring them to get a room.
Paris Blues, as I’ve already said, may not he greatest film ever made about jazz, but it is, I believe, a gem that has been all too often unfairly dismissed.
Louis Armstrong’s “Battle Royal” in Martin Ritt’s Paris Blues
During the time I was writing this it was announced that one for the stars of Paris Blues, Paul Newman, had passed away.
The Observer’s film critic sums up Newman’s contribution to cinema whenhe says:
James Stewart once said that film actors give their audiences ‘pieces of time’. While Newman’s best pictures hang together as creative entities (there is a kind of perfection to The Hustler and to the western Hombre), as with other actors it is unforgettable moments and sequences that come to mind and revive memories of being moved to laughter, tears, reflection, self-examination. We recall the illiterate Billy the Kid learning to read in The Left Handed Gun (a film based on a TV play by his close friend and fellow liberal, Gore Vidal); the wounded pool player’s tragic interlude with the crippled alcoholic (Piper Laurie) in The Hustler; the eponymous anarchic outsider in Cool Hand Luke engaging in an egg-eating contest with his fellow prisoners on a southern chain-gang; Newman and Redford pausing on the cliff, a posse breathing down their necks, in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the freeze frame of them running out to confront the Bolivian police in the same picture; Newman and Redford shaking down Robert Shaw on the train from New York to Chicago in The Sting, that necklace of cinematic pearls; his heartbreaking scene with the treacherous old friend played by James Garner in Robert Benton’s undervalued elegiac thriller Twilight.