“Paris Blues” is a small movie with large ambitions. The producer Sam Shaw conceived of it as a tribute to jazz (Duke Ellington’s music is pervasive; Louis Armstrong has a rambunctious cameo jamming and jiving), as well as a love letter to Paris and the ideals of the French Revolution. It was also a vehicle for its married co-stars, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, directed by their close associate Martin Ritt (“The Long, Hot Summer,” 1958).
Newman plays a brooding trombonist whose popular combo includes his fellow expatriate Mr. Poitier on sax. Ms. Woodward is a suburban divorcée in Paris on a vacation with her schoolteacher friend, Diahann Carroll. The four pair off predictably along racial lines, after Ms. Carroll rejects Newman’s crude advances and Ms. Woodward boldly throws herself at the trombonist. Newman is the diffident sex object whom she hopes to lure back home to Westchester County. Her overly optimistic sexual bravado, reinforced by several postcoital tiffs, makes for the movie’s most affecting performance: “You’re never going to forget me,” she warns him. Right.
Ms. Carroll, the only musician among the principals (and who soon starred in the Paris-set Broadway musical “No Strings”), barely deigns to keep time as the hepcats wail. She is, Mr. Poitier sarcastically notes midstroll around the Île de la Cité, “one of those socially conscious chicks.” Her function is to recruit his character into the battle for civil rights. Newman gets to play the self-indulgent artist. Ms. Carroll’s and Mr. Poitier’s characters are somewhat stilted grown-ups who deliver the movie’s didactic message: His character has experienced the French respect for American culture; now it’s time for him to reclaim his birthright and fight for respect back home.
High-Def Digest notes:
Ritt steers the movie in such a way that it develops the semblance of a plot, but really the film just becomes a collection of loosely connected moments that establish a thematic framework set around the pursuit of happiness, and how that, for good or bad, sometimes means not merely venturing off the beaten path, but actively avoiding it all together.
This notion of art and music as an indulgent stimulant that's worthy of someone's obsession (and even their dependence) is given credence in the film's liveliest moment: when famed trumpeter Wild Man Moore – played by famed trumpeter Louis Armstrong – crashes Ram and Eddie's club for a friendly, impromptu challenge/celebration of jazz and music itself. As if an appearance by Armstrong wasn't enough, the film continues its exploration into the love of music by also featuring a score by the famed Duke Ellington (for which he received an Academy Award nomination).
Ellington's score is another sign that “Paris Blues” may hold all the standard trappings of a romantic feature – having two of the most attractive male stars of the time in leading roles will do that for a picture – but it isn't really interested in telling a conventional romance at all. This is a film that features characters who are in love with the idea of love, a construct that's no less intangible than their seemingly impossible hopes and dreams.
In the end, “Paris Blues” suggests the truest love isn't necessarily found in another person, but rather it is found in that which you simply cannot live without.
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