Paris Blues Review
Though it's perhaps less than the sum of its parts (and what parts!), Martin Ritt's 1961 feature Paris Blues retains a mood of coolly idyllic fantasy for would-be American expatriates even several decades since it was made. Like Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier, the film makes it all look so deceptively easy and any struggles seem, if not surmountable, then of limited importance. The idea of sleeping until noon and stumbling into the night air of a Paris jazz club almost defines escapism. When you throw in the chance meeting and subsequent romancing of Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll you have, well, a movie.
Paris Blues operates on the most threadbare of plots, instead more inclined to allow its leads to roam around the city like movie stars playing regular people. The advancement of the thin story feels like a distraction from the sights and sounds of Paris in black and white and scored by Duke Ellington and an uncredited Billy Strayhorn. Merely tossing up Newman, playing another of his heels, as the improbably named Ram Bowen, a jazz trombonist with his sights set on more classical compositions, and having him fall for Woodward's Lillian is a remarkable non-narrative that expects the viewer to instead accept the audio visual magic as pacifier. This for an hour and a half plus that features very little character development or story and shuffles Poitier into the background. He'd win an Oscar just two years later, but gets third billing here and makes surprisingly little impact. Poitier's still up on Diahann Carroll, who's credited after Louis Armstrong despite the jazz great's brief pair of scenes and billboard occupancy ranking significantly behind her screen time. The main cast is capped off by Serge Reggiani as the drug-addled guitarist Michel, though the actor is given an "introducing" lead-in that assumes audiences weren't familiar with films like La Ronde and Casque d'or.
Though Paris Blues doesn't boast any truly signature performances, Newman's character is positioned as the protagonist and given far more personality than either Poitier's saxophonist or the schoolteacher tourists. I think Newman here shows both why he was a movie star of the highest order and probably the main reason his acting ability was applauded without being rewarded for so many years. The thing you most take away is that he's a joy to watch even while doing nothing particularly special. He didn't actually play the trombone that's heard during his performances, but the scene where he and Poitier join in with Armstrong's Wild Man Moore on "Battle Royal" still sparkles. You smile, you grin, and only the grouchiest of viewers can't get past whose breath is really propelling the horn. Even as a cad or while playing underdeveloped characters, Newman was magnetic. He could be somewhat brooding as he is here while still making the audience believe a character like Woodward's would be attracted to him. Movie star charisma is the slipperiest of intangibles, but he had it in spades, and if you don't believe it just watch one of his more flawed characterisations like in Paris Blues.
I don't think the movie would work as well as it does, and I'll admit to a deep affection for the film despite its shortcomings, without that star power emitted by Newman and Poitier, and, to a lesser extent, Woodward and Carroll. Ultimately, to fully get behind a picture that wears its flaws well and is never as great as you want it to be, you have to forgive the narrative failings, possibly even deciding they aren't failings at all. It's very un-Hollywood for a movie to meander along without much semblance of a plot. Had Paris Blues been made in another language then perhaps its reputation would be far more lofty. As it is, the movie has little recognition, a fate I think shortchanges its place in the world of jazz on film. During the fifties and sixties, Hollywood became slightly obsessed with injecting a jazz score into films not set in the world of jazz. There's obviously nothing wrong with borrowing jazz for Sweet Smell of Success or Anatomy of a Murder, but it somehow feels more deserved to have the music be a focal point when jazz is used. Paris Blues is music, through and through, gliding on a special rhythm even when the score is silent . Newman's character comments that his life is music and the moments spent elsewhere are basically an extended intermission.
You can absorb jazz through many, many movies, both in and out of the English language, but few films show any sort of reverence to the art form as what we see here. Louis Malle's excellent Elevator to the Gallows features a Miles Davis score that knocks the viewer out, but it's secondary. The same with The Man with the Golden Arm or I Want to Live!, two fine films that use jazz but give it little reverence. Paris Blues actually bows down to Armstrong, Ellington, Strayhorn and their ilk. The life of the American expatriate in Paris is what's explored, but the brilliance of jazz is never once forgotten. It seeps through the entire film and exists in laudatory terms. Ritt's picture could have gone further in illuminating the importance of jazz as both an American invention and an equaliser of race, but I do think it still plays its part to timed precision. When Newman's character is faced with rejection and the opportunity to start life anew in New York, he still chooses the jazz clubs of Paris. It's a life and it's the life for him.
It's a bit interesting that the film, during the few times he's actually featured, decides to let Poitier apparently go off in a different direction. As time has passed, the indications of behind the scenes goings-on has cast Poitier in a somewhat difficult light. One could chalk certain things like the apparent affair between the married Poitier and the married Carroll during their filming of 1959's Porgy & Bess up as gossip. However, it's difficult to deny that a re-teaming of the two actors might have created some uneasiness on the set, possibly resulting in compromised performances. Carroll claims in her recently published autobiography that she and Poitier once again rekindled their affair and promised to leave their spouses only to have him get cold feet. As it is, neither actor stands out either positively or as a negative. We can't be sure if the internal tension helped or hurt, but rarely has Poitier registered so little on film.
Some of that is the limited screen time of the character. Some of it too is Poitier's nonthreatening commercial viability. If ever there was an actor charming enough to make Sidney Poitier seem irrelevant, it was Paul Newman. Nonetheless, I'm entirely happy to have both men starring in the film. Replacing either would mean taking away a good portion of the enticing quality found within the movie. The star presence elevates the entire film into something higher than where maybe it should be. I happen to enjoy the wandering nature of Ritt's picture, and it really does give the film an odd feeling of separation from the traditional Hollywood narrative, but there's a fairly established audience that may feel differently. Most viewers will probably wonder where the story went. In response, I'd say someone, either the screenwriters or the studio people, found the actors more interesting than the characters. The original novel that was adapted for the film didn't even feature Newman's character and instead focussed solely on a black jazz musician. With racial inquiries largely eliminated, we're left with a couple of icons to carry a picture absent any compelling plot. Whether they succeed is largely up to the individual viewer, but my own fondness remains both entirely earned and giddily within a desire to not only hear, but to also see jazz celebrated on the screen.
As I've become more acquainted with Optimum, I've realised that the label has no real intention of presenting most of its releases with any care beyond the barest of minimums. You get the movie, possibly a trailer, and that's it. Enjoy and don't expect anything else. Paris Blues receives this same basic treatment in its single-layered R2 debut. The film is still unreleased in R1 so there should be a definite interest in this edition. Unfortunately, Optimum has provided just a trailer and failed even to give consumers anamorphic enhancement. The film is presented in unenhanced 1.66:1 and looks okay, if not totally cleaned up. There are frequent instances of white speckles, but detail is largely good and there is no further damage in the print. Contrast is certainly acceptable. The image overall could be improved, but isn't a detriment to those thinking of a purchase.
Audio is given the English Dolby Digital two-channel mono treatment. It starts off a bit on the low side, rendering dialogue hard to distinguish, but things even out as the picture progresses. Both the jazz score and the dialogue are easily heard for the most part, and in a clear and basic track. This isn't exactly a strong mix, but it nonetheless gets the job done without incident. The lack of subtitles is always a disappointment, but seems to be the norm for Optimum.
The only extra is the trailer (2:42), which doesn't really present the film in the most accurate light.