Wednesday 16 September 2009

Paris Blues (1961)

Director: Martin Ritt
Stars: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Sidney Poitier
Paul Newman plays the trombone and Sidney Poitier the sax or at least they pretend to and they do a pretty good job of it, for all I know about jazz. They're Ram Bowen and Eddie Cook and they're Americans in Paris, a decade after Gene Kelly's take on the subject took home the Best Picture Oscar. There's a different take here, for sure: An American in Paris featured music by George Gershwin, Paris Blues is full of Duke Ellington and there's more than a little difference between those major names. Add into the mix a character called Wild Man Moore, little more than a pseudonym for the man playing him, no less a name than Louis Armstrong.

Beyond the music and the sights of Paris, this impressed from moment one because of the subtle, almost carefree way that the film deals with race, and you can be sure, this being a Sidney Poitier film, it has to do with race. Bowen and Cook are in Paris to play because nobody cares about their colour, they just care about how what they can do. Marie Seoul certainly doesn't care and she runs the Club 33 where they play on the same stage. Their audiences don't care either and neither do the sassy couple of American girls who meet Ram at the train station and become a firm fixture in their lives, even though they're only in Paris for a two week holiday.
The interesting thing here is that they're a white girl and a black girl which is convenient, but while the couples do soon end up in strict accordance to race, Ram's initial interest is in the black girl. Nobody thinks twice about it, except maybe us given that we know the white girl, Lillian Corning, is played by Paul Newman's real life wife Joanne Woodward. Connie Lampson, the black girl, is Diahann Carroll, no stranger to films full of music given that her first two films were Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess.

Before long, as she and Eddie walk by the Seine it comes up. 'You want to have fun or you want to discuss the race issue?' he asks. She's talking about the race issue back home, of course, not in Paris where there isn't one. Eddie is happy to be there, where he's known as 'Eddie Cook, musician' not 'Eddie Cook, negro musician', but Connie sees it a little differently. She sees the situation back in the States as bad but improving and it can only improve further if there are black people there to improve it, rather than skipping off to Paris to live the easy life where there are no battles to fight. This is the main thrust of the film, however subtly it's played. I know intercontinental love stories, having lived one, but this goes well beyond the more obvious one about which country a couple would stay in if they got together.
The success of this approach is variable. Some scenes are impeccably crafted, others are a little more obvious, though I can't say whether the fault is with the source novel by Harold Flender, or the adaptation by a string of screenwriters. The acting is solid, not the best thing any of these actors has ever done but solid nonetheless and there are scenes where everyone shines. The best is a truly joyous musical faceoff where Louis Armstrong turns up to stir it up in a jovial way, as only he could, and while Newman and Poitier's fake musicianship can't keep up in the slightest, they have a ball trying.

The film was shot in Paris, which adds plenty of flavour and authenticity, and the use of a number of French actors and musicians helps too. Serge Reggiani was both. He didn't get a huge part in La Ronde as Franz the soldier so it's great to see him in a more substantial role as a gypsy guitarist called Michel Duvigne with a serious drug habit. Barbara Laage is great as the clubowner Marie Seoul and it's not surprising to find that Orson Welles originally wrote the Rita Hayworth role in The Lady from Shanghai for her. Most experienced of all is André Luguet, whose screen career went back to 1910, far enough back that he was in at least one of the original Fantômas serials. I've seen him in American movies before, precodes like The Mad Genius, Love is a Racket and Jewel Robbery, but I don't think I've seen a single one of his French films. I definitely still have plenty of catchup to do.

1 comment:

danyulengelke said...

Great review!

We're linking to your article for Paul Newman Tuesday at

Keep up the good work!