Hip to Be Square

Melissa Anderson on Paris Blues

Martin Ritt, Paris Blues, 1961, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 98 minutes. Ram Bowen and Wild Man Moore (Paul Newman and Louis Armstrong).

WHEN THE DIRECTOR MARTIN RITT DIED in 1990 at the age of seventy-six, the headline for his obituary in the New York Times damned him with faint praise, labeling him a “maker of socially conscious films.” That’s certainly one way to categorize many of Ritt’s best-known movies, such as Sounder (1972), about black sharecroppers in Depression-era Louisiana, and Norma Rae (1979), a chronicle of a single mother’s efforts to unionize her fellow textile workers. This well-intentioned, often starchy nobility also marks Paris Blues (1961), a more obscure work by Ritt focusing on two American jazz musicians—Ram (Paul Newman) and Eddie (Sidney Poitier)—gigging in the French capital. But puncturing the film’s earnestness—a burden that fell upon Poitier to carry, as he had to do in so many of his films from the 1950s and ’60s—are moments of saucy, slinky mischief.

Paris Blues opens wordlessly, and promisingly: At Marie Séoul’s, a club privé on the Left Bank, Ram (on trombone), Eddie (on sax), and their band play “Take the ‘A’ Train,” one of many Duke Ellington compositions on the sound track. The camera pans across the boîte’s multiracial, hopped-up patrons, lingering on one intergenerational couple: a fiftyish, corpulent woman possessively hanging on to her ephebic lover’s hand. Behind them, two soignée women discreetly nuzzle each other. These atypical jazzhead dyads, however, soon give way to the film’s more conventional twosomes, starting with the bickering buddies Ram and Eddie; the former takes umbrage when his pal impassively notes that the melody of his latest composition is “too heavy.” That assessment also applies to the treatment of the respective romances that develop between the performers and two vacationing women from the States, friends Lillian (Joanne Woodward) and Connie (Diahann Carroll).

Lillian, as we learn during her morning-after chat with Ram in his garret, is a small-town divorcée with two kids. Though she coolly tries to pretend otherwise at first, she would like nothing more than to be the trombonist’s helpmeet, a wish that only amplifies Ram’s insistence that music is his sole mistress. However wearying, this back-and-forth at least rings as somewhat natural dialogue, unlike many of the lines Poitier and Carroll must deliver to each other. Connie, a schoolteacher back home, upbraids Eddie, a five-year resident of Paris—a place where he can “sit down to lunch without getting clubbed for it”—for abandoning the “cause”: “This is not your home. This is a place you’ve run to.” (The frequently on-the-nose screenplay, based on a 1957 novel by Harold Flender, was cowritten by Walter Bernstein, whose most famous collaboration with fellow Hollywood blacklistee Ritt was 1976’s The Front.)

Yet despite how square this movie about hepcats seems—if only from the admittedly unfair vantage point of more than five decades on—expressions of raw emotion stir Paris Blues to life. Among the transfixed clubgoers listening to Ram play “Mood Indigo,” none seems more turned on than Lillian; the look of pure, dreamy pleasure on Woodward’s face gives a hint into what sustained the actress’s long, happy marriage to Newman, then in its third year. Just as memorable is Eddie’s farewell to his returning countrywomen: Poitier’s tender embrace of Woodward, followed by two passionate kisses of Carroll, reminds us just how rarely black men on screen—whether big or small—were allowed any displays of affection during that pivotal decade.

Paris Blues is available on Blu-ray and DVD beginning July 29 from Kino Lorber.