There are really only three ways to consider Martin Ritt’s Paris Blues (1961); atrociously billed as a “love spectacular – so personally exciting, you feel it is happening to you!” Not quite. Either it is a story of two selfish musicians, downright immersed in their music and unable to see real happiness for what it is; or it is a lovelorn tale about two naïve American tourists who set out to concur the hearts of these men, only to have their own crucified in the process; or still, as a diabolically delicious fairytale about four people desperately in love with the idea of being in love, yet totally incapable of understanding the deeper repercussions to their laissez faire thrown caution to the wind – discovering too late the blowback isn’t half as sweet as the gentle breeze bringing them to this point of no return. To use the film’s vernacular; now, man – that’s crazy…and heavy.
Very loosely based on Harold Flender’s novel, the Jack Sher, Irene Kamp and Walter Bernstein screenplay is something of an uncomfortable Valentine to this city of light, radiating inner luminosity and looking unreservedly quixotic, even out of season. Alexandre Trauner’s obvious sets have been married to some gorgeous stock shots and key sequences actually photographed by Christian Matras with the principles in Paris. But Paris Blues isn’t a story for lovers; unless, of course, they have a streak of masochism yearning for martyrdom. What we do get is plenty of angst and heartbreak, tinged in that ‘let it all hang out’ attitude soon to permeate the sixties, herein impeccably attired in an intercontinental je ne sais quoi for three-quarter trenches, sleeveless turtlenecks, straight skirts and immaculately tailored woolen coats.
Taking its cue from the time-honored precept in both literature and the movies (that the greatest love stories are imperfectly realized and destined to end with the lover’s apart), Paris Blues indulges in stamping our collective passports with the promise of grand amour; tormenting us with - not one - but two dewy-eyed pairs of lovebirds who will never find their way to the altar. The only problem here is neither couple was ever meant to last; their twelve day tryst, simply that – despite the fact neither of the adoring females can see the reality until it’s too late; the shadows from their lanky liaisons obliterated in a cloud of steam coming off the railway platform as their outbound train widens the already well-established chasm in their conflicting ideals and biases with a more pronounced and concrete separation of space; in this case – a whole continent.
And yet, it’s all too easy to simply cast aspersions on the menfolk; renowned jazz trombone player, Ram Bowen (Paul Newman) and his cohort, saxophone blower, Eddie Cook (Sidney Poitier); a pair of stunted adolescents who have little use – or even, time – for female companionship outside their casual Saturday night pickups off the rue des Martyrs. Ram is the more egregiously self-absorbed; an emotionally embattled, superficially charming and sinfully handsome lady’s man. He knows how to rock the cellar with his hot licks and jazzy riffs. Who can really blame Ram for wanting what he wants – fame and notoriety as a gifted composer? We all have our ambitions and our follies to pursue. The trick in life, of course, is to not drag anyone else into such all-consuming passions; particularly when the other person in the equation doesn’t share in the same dream.
American tourist/divorcee and mother of two, Lillian Corning (Joanne Woodward) is about as far removed from Ram’s dreamscape as one might expect. Where he prefers the solitude of late night rendezvous and afterhours jam sessions with the rest of his beatnik band members, she wants a stable home, another husband and the proverbial white picket fence for her kiddies. Lillian’s a fool; the bleach in her blonde curls having sunk much too deep into her scalp and clouding her thoughts. She figures if she slums it for two weeks and feigns the ‘fast and loose’ type, Ram will simply gravitate into her mantrap. But after a few days of warming his bed, it’s Lillian who will have to change or move out.
“You picked the wrong guy for what you want,” Ram tells her, “I’m not on the market” to which she coolly replies, “I wasn’t shopping.” But, of course, she is; Lillian’s grocery list of attributes for the ideal mate stopping at Ram’s set of piercing blue eyes, chiseled jaw and the way he makes sweet love to his trombone. There’s a sinful raciness to Ram that’s infectious; part and parcel of the Paul Newman persona Joanne Woodward ultimate found so appealing in real life. The bait and switch that made Newman and Woodward click as a couple off screen is, however, predicated on the fact Paul Newman was not the hard-assed, perpetually belligerent and sulking artist he so often portrayed on the movie screen. And Newman’s Ram isn’t quite so naïve either. He just wants something he’s already getting from nightclub owner, Marie Séoul (Barbara Laage) – sex. Like Lillian, Marie is drawn to Ram’s white hot flame of brute sexual magnetism, kinetically communicated to an audience via his jazz music. Unlike Lilliian, Marie is nobody’s fool. Also, she’s of the opinion men, music and madams don’t go hand in glove down the Champs-Élysées once the steely blue-gray of dawn intrudes.
The, as yet, unmentioned fourth cog in this lopsided wheel of ardor is Lillian’s traveling companion, Connie Lampson (Diahann Carroll); a forthright proactive black woman who knows what she wants, but alas, suffers from that atypical female affliction; sincerely believing she is enough to sway any man to her way of thinking. It won’t work this time; not with Eddie who is still bitter about the treatment of blacks in America and has since found liberation from all the narrow-minded prejudice on the banks of the Seine. Connie tries to explain to Eddie things are changing. Alas, he can’t make her see how things have already changed for the better for him in Paris. He’s more Ram’s boy than her ever-lovin’ man and it’s going to stay that way; primal doubts, needling sexual urges and all.
The best of Martin Ritt’s movies squarely face, challenge, and occasionally, deconstruct some sort of social inequity. Paris Blues isn’t one of Ritt’s more impressive efforts. Although it has the pedigree of a masterpiece it lacks its design; instead, a rather curious amalgam of uneasy romance interpolated with some truly eclectic jazz ensembles, most of them performed with juicy aplomb by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra; Newman and Poitier giving fairly convincing interpretations of being the gifted musicians behind the soulful/doleful notes. Into this mix, Ritt adds a legitimate jazz great, Louis Armstrong – slightly recast as his doppelgänger, Wild Man Moore.
Paris Blues can be modestly entertaining in spots. The main titles, as example, showcase Ritt’s prowess for layering subtexts; the camera omnipotent and drifting through the smoky cellar nightclub where Ram and Eddie are performing ‘Take the ‘A’ Train’. We get reaction shots from the beatnik couples; Ritt showing us hetero and homosexual groupings (unheard of back then) also, possibly an elderly transvestite and her raven-haired gimp; all manner of humanity in various stages of self-absorption and casually anesthetized drunkenness, cramped inside this cozy ratskeller. Later, Ritt pushes the envelope even further with a drug abuse subplot; Ram’s guitarist, Michel 'Gypsy' Devigne (Serge Reggiani) increasingly dependent on the reoccurring specter of recreational cocaine to get through their nightly sets.
Alas, Ritt doesn’t seem principally invested in any of this drama; the aforementioned moments interspersed with casual infidelities. Possibly, Ritt’s stylistic approach to Paris’ seedy nightlife was predicated on the success of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960). There are visual elements that hark back to this iconic French New Wave classic; principally in Ritt’s handling of the addictions – sexual and otherwise – outwardly played more for effect than purpose in between some finely executed musical performances, neither augmenting nor complementing the story. Increasingly, Ritt relies on montages without dialogue to convey the escalating complexities in each love affair; Ram and Lillian’s pas deux, a series of frustrated fits and sparks. Eddie and Connie’s burgeoning passion follows a smoother trajectory, although with an equally problematic conclusion.
Depending on one’s point of view, the blame for these imploding relationships either falls squarely on the shoulders of these boys pretending to be men or their fairer sex counterparts who have fallen into a trap of their own design. We meet Ram’s casual fling, the nightclub proprietress, Marie Séoul, who encourages Ram’s dalliances by offering him a woman’s touch with no strings attached. It’s a comfortable arrangement for Ram, whose arrogance knows no limitations. He meets Wild Man at the train station, inadvertently bumping into Connie who is having no luck telling the porter she would like him to leave her bags alone. Ram is interested in Connie; Ritt once again toying with the audience by inferring we might be in for the screen’s first interracial couple, before pulling away to more familiar territory: Lillian’s sudden, star-struck appearance.
Lillian already knows Ram by reputation; a great admirer of his music, but who instantly finds herself attracted to his more obvious and unvarnished brute masculinity that she mistakes as pure animal magnetism. Ram encourages the girls to drop by the club; but his motives are directed exclusively at Connie, who resists his laconic ‘charm’. At Lillian’s insistence, the pair ventures to the ratskeller, intercepted by Eddie at the front door, after he overhears their conversation about Ram. Eddie escorts Lillian and Connie into the bowels beneath the city to hear them play. After beating out their rhythmic sensations until the wee hours of dawn, Eddie offers to chaperone the pair to breakfast. Lillian makes her first play for Ram – almost immediately shot down by his arrogance; Lillian pointing out it was she – not Connie – who wanted to come to the club in the first place. Thinking better on his initial rudeness, Ram apologizes – first, glibly, then with more genuineness. Connie and Eddie pair off leaving Lillian to Ram’s own devices.
We cut to the following morning; Lillian awakening from what was obviously a pleasant night as she sneaks around Ram’s apartment in her underwear and quietly gets dressed; he lying serene and shirtless in bed. Stirring from his slumber, Ram casually flirts with Lillian. Though it’s rather obvious he considers their flagrante delicto just par for the course of his usual one night stands, she misguidedly interprets going to bed as the beginning of their burgeoning love affair. Making plans to spend their days together, Lillian is almost as quickly disillusioned by Ram’s noncommittal attitude. She chooses another train of thought in her hot pursuit, dropping an unexpected bomb. Lil’s been married before and has a pair of children from that marriage; also a cozy little bank account from the divorce. She and Connie came to Paris with no expectations. But their Parisian adventure has taken an unexpected twist.
Interestingly, Martin Ritt shows us nothing of Connie and Eddie’s morning after – even though it is practically understood they too have transgressed against the traditional ‘cute meet’ by first going to bed. Instead, Ritt gives us a TripTik of the city; the foursome seen near Sacred Heart cathedral, then later, on the banks of the Seine, crossing the bridge near Notre Dame and finally, casually shopping the market vendors for flowers. All of this action takes place in a Paris out of season; the winter cold doing little to cool down these affaires de coeur. Alas, Ritt is doing a bit of foreshadowing. Like Paris, the season of Connie and Eddie’s, and Lillian and Ram’s passions is changeable and brief. Twelve days effortlessly blur; the couples losing themselves in the halcyon daydream of endorphins run amuck. Fascinatingly, it’s the women who attempt to ground themselves in a more concrete understanding of what’s yet to follow; Connie imploring Eddie to reconsider what their lives could be like back in America; Lillian needling Ram with the idea it’s time to grow up and take some responsibility, forgoing music to become her husband and a stepfather to her two children. For a free spirit like Ram, the idea has little appeal. In fact, it’s pure poison.
While Eddie gradually begins to doubt his future without a life beyond music, Ram becomes increasingly obsessed to transform his local notoriety into an international career as a serious composer of jazz music. Alas, this dream is derailed when Paris’ noted music publisher, René Bernard (André Luguet) calls Ram into his office for a discussion about the composition he’s recently submitted. Ram’s ego naturally assumes this is an invitation to discuss marketing and remuneration. Instead, Bernard informs Ram he is a unique instrumentalist, who nightly varies his performance according to personal taste; the liquidity of his talent decidedly out of sync with the concert hall; also, the standards of legitimate composition. It is a bitter pill for Ram to swallow; realizing he might never be considered good enough to turn legit.
Wild Man crashes Ram’s nightclub act, the boys vamping a little for the thronging crowd of cheering admirers; Ram suddenly realizing the difference between Wild Man - who is on a national tour in Paris - and his own place in the jazz music scene; just a little guy who can pack them in at the ratskeller but never fill a concert venue the same way as Wild Man’s name and reputation can. In a moment of weakness, Ram proposes to take Lillian up on her offer to return to America and start a family. She is overjoyed; Eddie already having committed to Connie – telling her he will rejoin her in the U.S. after settling his affairs in Paris. Alas, Michel is disheartened to learn the act is breaking up, encouraging Ram to partake in his latest snort of cocaine. Instead, Ram knocks the white powder from Michel’s grasp, incurring his wrath before storming off into the night.
The next morning Eddie, Connie and Lillian arrive at the train station. Ram is late; Lillian growing increasingly nervous he will not show up at all. Alas, her heart will be broken in a different way as Ram arrives only to confess that, for better or worse, he is committed to chasing his musical dreams – not her; a pledge that supersedes her desire to chain him down– or perhaps, even stir his own need to be loved. Lillian tells Ram she is certain, from this day forward, he will never be able to forget her; a desperate last attempt at attaining a sort of immortality in his memory. A pity, really; Lillian has underestimated the breadth of Ram’s slavish devotion to no one but himself. But Martin Ritt leaves Connie and Eddie’s departure in limbo as well; he placing her aboard the moving train along with Lillian, then making an impromptu gesture to ride the rails from the running board outside Connie’s open window; stealing a farewell kiss before sauntering off with Ram; Ritt ever so slightly realigning his camera to focus on a nearby billboard advertising Wild Man’s concert tour; a pair of workmen covering it up with a new advertisement.
Paris Blues never progresses beyond this maudlin hiccup to become a grand romantic tragedy. Bittersweet is one thing. But these couples were never anything more or better than casual acquaintances, deliberately choosing to escalate their sexual liaisons without first establishing the rules of the game. Both the male and female perspectives put forth in this Sher/Camp/Bernstein screenplay are unattainable – naïvely so, and actually with a degree of embarrassment and chagrin factored in for all concerned. The men consider the women diverting casual playmates at best. The women expect their men to take charge and accept them as equals in a lasting partnership. Neither sex gets what they want. So, what we’re left with are four fractured lives; each forever stained, though hardly touched or even brought to some deeper focus and/or understanding that will affect and reshape their lives, either in nostalgic or consequential ways.
Perhaps, this is the point of Paris Blues – to illustrate the glaring mistakes both sexes have made; applying the rose-colored spectacles to what ought to be the most pragmatic decision of anyone’s life’s journey – to find the ideal mate. Alas, Martin Ritt seems incapable of remaining truthful to at least this precept; nervously diffusing the bleakness of what is hardly a love story – more of a sex story – with interludes and fantasias dedicated to the jazz underworld. It all looks spectacular – thanks to Christian Matras’ superb cinematography. But the essence of lingering sorrow – nee, regret – is absent from this exercise. Ram isn’t sorry to let Lillian go. Relieved is more like it. And she is more embarrassed than wounded at having played the silly, gushing groupie; not nearly bitter enough for having been made by this cock-of-the-walk who would rather make love to his trombone than her.
Does Connie know it’s over between her and Eddie despite his promise to rejoin her in America at a later, though ‘undisclosed’ date? Do we? Possibly – his spontaneous adieu smooch through the open window as the train pulls from the station is more of a kiss-off than a kiss. In the final analysis, Paris Blues is about the lies men tell to get what they want, and, the fantasies women spin for themselves to momentarily believe and/or justify their own casual sexual indulgences; hardly the ‘love spectacular’ billed in all the poster art used to promote the film.
Paris Blues arrives on Blu-ray via Kino Lorber’s alliance with MGM/Fox Home Video. Of all of the more recently reviewed Kino Lorber titles Paris Blues looks the best; the obvious benefactor of considerable restoration efforts. The refurbished MGM logo preceding the film – a bronzed Leo the lion – informs us the studio has spent time and money to spiffy up this 1080p release for Blu-ray. For the most part, it looks spectacular; the B&W image exhibiting a significant amount of fine detail with razor-sharp clarity, superb tonality and a light smattering of indigenous film grain, accurately reproduced. Framed in its native 1.67:1 the overall quality is actually quite impressive with minor variances; scenes photographed on location sharing a hazy softness likely brought on by the cool humidity in the air while scenes shot on set pop with razor-sharpness and startling clarity. Close-ups are undeniably the most impressively rendered; we get textures in skin, hair and costuming. Better still, there’s minimal age-related damage or speckling for a smooth visual presentation on the whole.
There is some minor built-in flicker; also, a few instances of gate weave - slight but present and noticeable. Alas, the final reel change is problematic, the image suddenly becoming softly focused, immediately following Ram’s departure from his own farewell party after his confrontation with Michel and knocking the cocaine from his shaking hands. While most of the movie exhibits all the hallmarks of being sourced from an impeccably curated original camera negative, these penultimate moments appear to be culled from less than stellar second generation prints; the sudden contrast boosting and coinciding loss of fine detail a dead giveaway. The DTS 2.0 mono audio is actually quite aggressive and gives Duke Ellington’s underscore a real chance to shine with clearly denoted dialogue throughout. Alas, like almost every other Kino Lorber title; this one’s bare-bones. Bottom line: not a great movie but a highly competent 1080p transfer. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)