Ritt’s Racy Race Riffs

I suggest setting your cynicism dial to “swoon” mode to fully appreciate the many pleasures of Martin Ritt’s 1961 bittersweet romantic drama PARIS BLUES, now on Blu-Ray from Kino-Classics.

It’s got all the stuff we snarky softies adore: cool cast (Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Sidney Poitier, Diahann Carroll), cool place (check da title), cool plot (artists and lovers going to dark places in the city of light), cool music (the jazz scene, a la Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong). The movie’s all shot on-location in shimmering black-and-white (by Christian Matras), with every exterior rendering a rain-streaked charcoal sketch right out of the Louvre (is the Paris d’amour ever not rain-streaked?).

PARIS BLUES is a very progressive mainstream movie for 1961…and now. You can tell it’s progressive from the main titles, riffing Ellington’s “Take the A-Train” over a tracking shot of an intimate all-night smoke-filled jazz club (are they ever not smoke-filled?). As the camera glides across the crowded room, we see white couples scrunched in with black couples (not so common 54 years ago), but also mixed couples and same-sex couples!  It could be one of the most progressive American movies ever made, enough, I suspect, to cause a 2015 Jim Jones reaction at CPAC.

The plot is merely a ways-and-means to show off the combustion betwixt the beautiful looking foursome – and for the outstanding music (scored by Ellington, with assist from Billy Strayhorn, and Oscar-nominated).

The movie proper opens with a gorgeous Frenchwoman (Barbara Laage) bringing her lover (Newman) breakfast baguettes. This is, coincidentally, how every romantic fantasy I’ve ever had opens, so I’m already hooked.

Newman is a brilliant scumbag musician (he uses women as Tony Bennett’s character described Frankie Fain in The Oscar, “like Kleenex”), whose desire for fame punctuates (avec accent sur la “punk”) his genius. Music is everything to him – and he must finish his sweat-drenched composition so the world can at last appreciate his magnificence. To this goal, he has enlisted best friend and fellow jazzman extraordinare Poitier, who also happens to be a master arranger.

Newman’s cool freezes to cold when it comes to human relationships; he’s kinda like a jazz run-through for later Ritt collaborations, a music-inclined user reminiscent of grotesques in Sweet Smell of Success. Long story short, Huddy Waters.

Much of Newman’s dagger-in-the-heart comments come courtesy of coscripter Walter Bernstein, who provided similar poison bon mots for Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. The tender stuff (much of it likely also from Bernstein; we sardonic types are always the most romantic) is shared with Jack Sher and Irene Kamp, from Lulla Adler’s adaptation. It’s all from a novel by Harold Flender.

What disrupts Newman and Poitier’s world is nothing less than an American invasion times two. The first is the long-awaited arrival of jazz giant Wild Man Moore (third-billed Louis Armstrong, basically playing himself) and the female contingent, comprised of middle-class tourists Connie and Lillian (Woodward and Carroll). Newman first makes a move on Carroll, but quickly switches over to Woodward, leaving Lillian’s love highway vulnerable for Poitier.

While the friendship between Newman and Poitier is admirable, the one between the two women is quietly spectacular. Truly, I can’t praise the subtle performances of Woodward and Carroll enough, as I have never seen BFFs portrayed so honestly, as in their introductory sequences, where they convey emotions entirely through body language.

With a negligible cocaine subplot in the background (involving fellow band member Sergei Reggiani and notable for a startling moment when his pusher is revealed as a kindly, elderly Miss Marple type), PARIS BLUES mostly divides its time between the constructive and destructive paths of the black and white duos. Poitier is a bitter ex-pat, who enjoys racial freedom in France. He essentially gives Carroll the same speech he gives his (screen) father (Roy Glenn) six years later in the treacly Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Carroll is a teacher and civil-rights activist, who insists that he give his country another chance “Things were better than they were five years ago – and they’ll be even better a year from now.” Poitier is skeptical, but so into Carroll that he’s terrified of caving. There’s a lot said about love that’s commendable in this picture, the majority exuded from the hearts of  Poitier and Carroll. Poitier’s shouting of his rarely-felt happiness is an absolutely spot-on depiction of the perils of passion. Their walking through the parks and narrow passageways of (what else, rain-streaked) Paris remains amongst the sweetest gooey hand-holding-friendly stickiness that one is apt to ever experience in a motion picture.  And, yes, they actually DO slurp onion soup at dawn!  Bastard that I am, even I have to admit that the moment where Poitier places a bouquet of flowers upon a park lawn, and tells Carroll, “Any…lover can take one,” is as lovely a cinematic definition of “Awwww…” that one could ever hope for.

In contrast, there’s the pushin’-cushion lust-devil Newman-Woodward debacle. Newman spits out his dialogue with venomous accuracy, while Woodward accepts her “what is, is” situation with realistic aspirations. Without having to utter a sound, it’s astounding to see her fall in love with the rake while watching and listening to him perform. Of course, she wants him to leave Paris, and return with her to the USA – a ridiculous idea that even she realizes is teenage-girl fan-mag fluff. Should such a thing ever come to pass, it could only end up on the I.D. Channel. Making matters worse is Woodward’s revealing that she’s a single mother with two small children. Forget the I.D. Channel, make it American Horror Story!

Their verbal dueling is surprisingly rewarding in its delivery, as it is hurtful in its intent. “I’m not on the market,” sneers Newman. “I’m not shopping,” snaps back a sexually satisfied Woodward with (no pun) pinprick, double-snap precision.

All of this takes a cheerful trip to the backseat once Louis invades Newman and Poitier’s club and blows the roof off with an awesome rendition of his character’s signature tune, “Wild Man Moore.” It’s easily the primo chunk of the movie.

PARIS BLUES has a crystal-clear, occasionally gritty look with beautiful contrast that allegorically parallels the scenario. It’s a fun way to spend an afternoon or evening (preferably, rain-streaked). The PARIS Blu-ray is a honey, and sure to please even the most persnickety collectors, both in picture and mono audio.

The movie’s peaks and valleys were of a personal nature and actually add to its authenticity. Newman and Woodward were still newly-marrieds when the project got the greenlight. Their simmering bear-pawing is like someone left the laptop cam on in their bedroom. The undeniable attraction between Poitier and Carroll was another matter. They had first met two years earlier on the set of Otto Preminger’s Porgy and Bess, and started an affair that would be off and on for almost a decade (both were married at the time). The fact that Poitier’s wife and kids were on-location with the company for at least part of the shoot contributes an uncomfortable aura that the actor naturally channels into his attempt to avoid taking the plunge (from which he knows he’ll never return). Carroll eventually left her husband, hoping that Poitier would do the same (he didn’t). It really was a bumpy affair, and so much of that is right up there on the screen. In effect, the Newmans are acting their roles (and excellently) whilst Poiter and Carroll are living theirs (the latter pair were initially reluctant to commit to the project because of their “Danger, Will Robinson!” connection).

Then again, they were all in Paris – friends filming a love story. The joys of working with one another, being with one another, and under the auspices of a director they all admired (Ritt had directed the then soon-to-be inseparable couple in The Long, Hot Summer, Woodward in The Sound and the Fury and Poitier in Edge of the City) pays off mightily. It was indeed a romantic tour de force for the Newmans, as Woodward became pregnant during the early part of the production (she gave birth to their daughter the day the movie opened – possibly the finest stunt ever maneuvered by the UA publicity department).

So enthralled were the principals with each other and Paris that they briefly harbored the idea of remaining in France and forming their own production company (Newman and Poitier would indeed later become founding members of the U.S.-based First Artists (1969-1980), which also would include Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand).

Originally, PARIS BLUES didn’t do well stateside, either with critics or audiences. It wasn’t exactly pushed to the max by United Artists, who were far more interested in hyping the higher-profile likes of West Side Story and Judgment at Nuremburg. It has since gained an increasingly and deservedly big following, if, for nothing else, the soundtrack (the Ellington-Armstrong LP was understandably a huge hit in 1961 and has never really been out of print since). Newman and Poitier trained long and hard to fake their musical prowess, Newman working with Billy Byers (and dubbed by Murray McEachern), Poitier with Paul Gonsalves.  Clark Terry, Oliver Nelson and Max Roach are among the superb musicians who helped bring Ellington’s ideas to fruition.  If one can manage it, PARIS BLUES makes an excellent triple bill with Blues for Lovers and All Night Long.

In an interesting and bizarre sidebar, PARIS BLUES could have headed in an entirely different direction.  Co-produced by Marlon Brando’s company Pennebaker Productions, the picture originally was slated to team Brando with Marilyn Monroe, but fell apart when the actor’s professional life got gummed up by two troubled pics, Mutiny on the Bounty and One-Eyed Jacks.  While Monroe, well…  Still, one can only look on with Tod Browning train-wreck fascination at the hellish results that could have resulted (it’s likely that with those two, and CGI-postmortem-cloning, it would still be shooting) specifically with Brando giving what have undoubtedly been a “Stella!” performance.

PARIS BLUES.  Black and White.  Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition].  2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics CAT # K1334.  SRP:  $29.95.


One thought on “Ritt’s Racy Race Riffs”

  1. As a Progressive, luver of all things Paris (except Hilton), Poiter, Newman, Carroll & Woodward, this sounds like a must see. What a visual you painted, absolutely adore the inclusion of the back stories! Your enthusasim/apprecition/affection for this one is apparent and efficacious. Bravo!!


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