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Paris Blues (Blu-ray Review)

28 Jul, 2014 By: Mike Clark

Street 7/29/14
Kino Lorber
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated
Stars Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Joanne Woodward, Diahann Carroll.

Though it’s predominantly a jazz-oriented story about Yank musicians in you-know-where, the formerly blacklisted Martin Ritt’s star-powered drama from Marlon Brando’s production company is one of the first movies I can think of to deal even peripherally with the American civil rights movement from around the time the lunch counter sit-ins were commencing. It’s a small narrative gesture only to the extent of a few dialogue asides, but it seems like a bigger deal to me now than then. One of the screenwriters here was director Ritt’s fellow blacklistee Walter Bernstein (later his collaborator on The Front), the kind of activist who would have had grown-up subject matter on his mind back then. This said, the two other writers were just coming off the Tommy Sands-Fabian comedy Love in a Goldfish Bowl (which I just saw for the first time), and I’d certainly be curious to hear about that progression from A-to-B in terms of professional gigs.

Paris Blues wasn’t a hit (it opened two days after lead Paul Newman’s super-milestone The Hustler in 1961), which can probably be attributed in part to its leisurely, though not exactly languorous, pacing and a narrative heavier on atmosphere than “event.” But it’s welcomely adult for the era — can Hollywood really have been making Connie Francis musicals as well around this same time? — and what a cast it has, even beyond Paul-baby: Sidney Poitier, Joanne Woodward, Diahann Carroll and even Louis Armstrong in a non-stretch role as a popular trumpet player named Wild Man Moore.

If Newman doesn’t quite have one of the all-out heel roles he would soon come to perfect at times, the trombonist he’s cast as isn’t among the more likable guys he played on screen (for that, see Slap Shot). He’s so curt and even rude in his relationships that the behavior extends even to fellow bandie Poitier, who’s literally been losing sleep writing charts for one of his buddy’s compositions to scant thanks. Enter a pair of American women on a two-week vacation together: Woodward and Carroll (the one with whom Newman flirts initially before he moves on to the woman he married in real life).

I twice saw Woodward up close in person and thought both times that she was dramatically better looking than her on-screen visage, which may explain why she was mostly cast in roles without much of a hot-cha! quotient. This is a little different; in one scene, Ritt decks her out in one of those black peek-a-boo nightwear jobs where you stand on your head trying to discern whether you’re seeing more than your car. And her character seems mighty liberated for the day: a single mom of two on a Parisian holiday where she quickly shacks up with a guy she’s just met (oh, those jazz musicians). 

Carroll’s character, a teacher, is the one with the social conscience, and it’s here that the movie at least proves mindful of what was happening in the States with race when she chides Poitier for having left his country to bury himself in his craft overseas when she thinks he could be living more of an activist’s existence. This is a judgment call that would rub me the wrong way if made in my direction, and it understandably causes some tension in their relationship, leading to a resolution that more or less fizzles yet is credible in its own way. Trouble is, it isn’t very satisfying as written — or maybe it’s just that it’s not punched up very well to dramatic effect. Thus, this is a movie a lot more interesting around the edges than down the middle.

The edges consist not only of Armstrong’s appearance but Oscar-nominated Duke Ellington scoring (which explains why Newman and sax player Poitier always seem to be playing Ellington compositions); art direction by the great Alexandre Trauner (whose magnificent work for Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is also just out on a Kino Lorber Blu-ray); and a subplot about a coke-addicted jazz-guitar player (Serge Reggiani) — something else you didn’t see in those Connie Francis musicals. Kino’s transfer is decent without anyone’s socks likely to get knocked off, but the big deal here is the movie’s “premiere” status. It has never before been released in any home format, and I suspect its mere existence will surprise some people who weren’t around the time. Matter of fact, I have known this to be true from personal experience.

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