Paris Blues is an interesting little drama from Martin Ritt who would collaborate with Paul Newman on many films including this one. It’s been pretty much forgotten but deserves a reappraisal and is very welcome in BFI’s Black Star strand which is celebrating the range, versatility and power of black actors throughout the history of cinema. Newman’s co-star was his good friend, fellow actor and civil rights activist Sidney Poitier.
Newman and Poitier are American Jazz musicians living in Paris partly because they have a good steady gig in the smokey Jazz bars of the city of love. However for Poitier’s Eddie his residence is more personal reason because the racism he faces back home is pretty much non-existent and he can be taken seriously as a musician. They meet some girls Connie (Diahann Carroll) and Lillian (Joanne Woodward) and quickly fall in love but the men’s hearts are still in Paris.
It’s a document of a time when American Black musicians especially Jazz musicians would escape from the racism at home and live like superstars in Paris. It works well at that and for the most part Poitier and Newman has about equal screen time even if the end focuses more on Newman’s Ram. Despite Joanna Woodward being Newman’s real life wife I think it would have been more interesting if he ended up with the black girl Connie instead of the white girl. This might have been a step too far for the studio behind the film at the time however.
It moves with a jazzy beat through it’s breezy 99 minutes and the ending isn’t the copout it could so easily have had. It was shot by Christian Matras who was the DP for Jean Renoir, Luis Buñuel and Max Ophüls to name just a few and the film contains some extraordinary tracking shots which is reminiscent of his work with Ophüls. Duke Ellington supplies the score which pulses through the film and Jazz legend Louis Armstrong even has a role as the fictional jazz star Wild Man Moore which is also a title of Ellington tune.
The film’s director Martin Ritt was blacklisted during the ’40s and most of the ’50s so he often made films which tackled oppression of some kind. His first film was the noir Edge of the City which tackled race and even had an interracial relationship and starred Poitier as well. He would direct Newman in one of his best roles in Hud a few years after Paris Blues.
Overall Paris Blues is a solid drama from a underappreciated director who was more forward thinking than many of his contemporaries. Newman and Poitier are great as usual as are Carroll and Woodward. BFI has done a new HD restoration on the film and it looks great. The features are sparser than normal for them but it includes a commentary by Adrian Martin along with an isolated score, stills gallery and the theatrical trailer. To round-up the package it contains a booklet with essays by Nicolas Pillai, Rashida K Braggs and Philip Kemp.