Sunday 13 September 2015

Movie Review: Paris Blues (1961)

A potent human drama set amidst the Parisian jazz scene, Paris Blues explores themes of ambition, personal comfort, and unexpected love interfering with programmed journeys.

Ram Bowen (Paul Newman) and Eddie Cook (Sidney Poitier) are American jazz musicians plying their trade at a Paris nightclub. A middling trombone performer, Ram has ambitions to be taken seriously as a music writer, while sax player Eddie finds Europe more accommodating towards Blacks than his native United States. The Parisian jazz scene is abuzz with the arrival of the legendary Wild Man Moore (Louis Armstrong) and his band for a series of performances.

Americans Lillian (Joanne Woodward) and Connie (Diahann Carroll) are good friends and arrive in Paris for a dream vacation. They meet Ram and Eddie at the train station, where Ram is trying to show Wild Man a sample of his music writing. Initially Ram is more interested in Connie but eventually embarks on a torrid romance with Lillian, while Eddie and Connie fall for each other. Both relationships evolve quickly, and difficult decisions about long term commitments will be needed before vacation time is over.

A deceptively simple story directed by Martin Ritt, Paris Blues creates a sense of melancholia and traces sparks of uncertain hope attempting to penetrate the emotional gloom. The film luxuriates in a black and white aesthetic, with most of the scenes at night and many of the club sequences enlivened by jazz music puncturing through the thick haze of cigarette smoke. Ritt allows mood to speak louder than words, his characters comfortable in the shadows created by living life after hours.

Ram and Eddie are rounded into men driven by self-defined objectives. Ram will not easily give up on his dream to succeed as a music writer, and one ray of hope in his life is a forthcoming assessment of his work by a recognized jazz expert. Eddie has decided Europe is well ahead of the United States in its accommodation of Blacks, certain the struggle for civil rights in his homeland is both messy and for others to carry.

Lillian and Connie will both try to challenge and change their men, and Paris Blues, despite a compact 98 minutes of running time, refreshingly evolves beyond a trite romance and into a complex drama delving into thorny human and societal issues. Lillian offers Ram an opportunity to settle down if he gives up his personal quest and instead wins the girl of his dreams. Connie confronts Eddie's attitude, relabelling his European exile as a defeatist stance, a talented man turning his back on the seminal struggle of his people.

The film does not pretend to resolve every issue it raises, and indeed the individual decision points define the narrative struggle to land a bittersweet ending filled with the vagaries of complex lives. The terrific jazz music creates the perfect score highlighted by Wild Man's invasion of Ram's nightclub for a free-for-all jazz session, the joyous, thrilling music a welcome reprieve from pivotal personal passions.

Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier are both good without needing to stretch, while Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll have to evolve a bit quicker than normal to cram their characters' development and interactions into a short vacation.

The title is Paris Blues, the music is jazz, and the film is filled with soul.

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