Here’s a less-than-fun fact; when Martin Ritt’s Paris Blues was released in 1961, the opening flirtation between Paul Newman and Diahann Carroll would have been a crime in 22 American states. Released on Blu-Ray fifty-five years later as part of the British Film Institute’s Black Star season, it is noticeable that the film hastily splits them up and gives them more racially appropriate partners; Sidney Poitier for Carroll, and Joanne Woodward (of course) for Newman. It doesn’t entirely blunt the film’s exploration of transatlantic racial politics, although it’s notable that, despite their understandable chemistry, the white couple are never quite as interesting as the black one.
Newman and Poitier play Ram and Eddie, two American jazz musicians living in Paris. The script flips the usual racial stereotypes by having Ram be the hot-headed one whose relationship to the music is primarily emotional, and having Eddie as the thoughtful, songwriterly, detail-oriented member of the partnership. Eddie enjoys living in Paris, saying the French call him a “musician” rather than a “Negro musician”. His apolitical nature is challenged by his relationship with Carroll’s Connie, who he correctly, if condescendingly, refers to as “one of those socially conscious chicks”.
In a Hollywood film made ten or fifteen years later, a character with Connie’s politics would be talking in jive and dressed in full Black Panther get-up. In Paris Blues, she’s a normal African-American woman who wants to live and love and listen to music without forgetting her roots and beliefs. That’s a very powerful thing to see, and her needling of Eddie over what she sees as his abandonment of his heritage gets interesting new wrinkles out of Poitier’s famously upstanding, morally centred screen persona.
Stacked up against this fascinating time capsule of racial politics, Ram’s relationship with Woodward’s Lillian can’t really draw the attention away. They’re both enjoying their holiday from American morality too, with Ram commenting amusedly about how sexually forward Lillian is. Ritt is perhaps inspired a little by Breathless in his depiction of their relationship; there are some scenes of the couple lounging around post-coitally which are very unusual for an American movie of this era. In Breathless, though, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg hole up in a hotel after a full-on, lightning-speed opening. In Paris Blues there’s nothing that energised, making the need for a pit stop frankly questionable. It’s a laid-back pause in a film that could do with a jab of momentum.
Still, if the narrative is meandering, there are plenty of subsidiary pleasures. Ritt’s approach to filming Paris is pleasingly transatlantic; he uses studio sets like a Hollywood director of his era, and he shoots street scenes like a French New Wave director, and sometimes – as in the incredible shot immediately following the opening credits – he stitches the two together. It’s romantic and real at the same time. Late on, a character tells Ram that he doesn’t “know what you are… you haven’t given yourself the chance to find out”, and the film is very good at nailing this feeling of unformed lives that could turn out to be anything or nothing.
And then, of course, there is the music. Ram blasts through renditions of jazz standards like ‘Take the ‘A’ Train’ and ‘Mood Indigo’, and there is a whole, gorgeous soundtrack by Duke Ellington. There’s also Louis Armstrong, who gives the film a massive boost every time he turns up. In one scene, he turns up in Ram and Eddie’s audience and blows them off the stage with his trumpet playing. Ritt doesn’t cut to Armstrong straight away, because he doesn’t need to; his music is immediately recognisable. It’s moments like this, when Ritt can shrug off the mechanics of the plot and enjoy the music, the style and his cast’s presence, that Paris Blues really comes to life.