Paris Blues, 1961. 9/10

Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Joanne Woodward, and Diahann Carroll. In one movie? Not to mention Louis Armstrong. And, the splendid early ’60s, in Paris. So, I’m expecting something pretty good.

Newman is Ram Bowen, Poitier, Eddie Cook, jazz players hoping to hit the big time in Paris. “No sleep, no dames, No nuthin'” explains Eddie. Despite this creedo, both Eddie and Ram are on-the-make. Diahann Carroll and Joanne Woodward (Connie and Lillian) conveniently show up and immediately start hanging out with them. Barbara Laage is Marie, the club’s proprietress, is a somewhat sisterly presence for Ram. Armstrong shows up on the same train as the ‘gals.’ He’s Wild Man Moore, an obvious celebrity. But then there’s ‘Gypsy’ Michel Devigne (Serve Reggiani) another musician, but with a crippling drug addiction.

As you might expect, Eddie is smooth and low-key, Ram is, well, bullish and gruff, like his name. He’s also patronizing to Lillian; he hasn’t got time for anything but music, etc. When Connie infers from their conversation that he thinks of racial issues as a game, he nonchalantly responds “everything I do is a game.” She feels that Eddie, by living in Paris, is ducking a responsibility to participate or at least live in the slower-evolving racial climate back in the U.S. It’s hard to dispute his point that in Paris he’s accepted as simply another musician, and not put in a special ‘Negro musician’ category. Though these are serious dramatic scenes, the original story from the 1957 novel apparently gave the race–and interracial–issues much more depth.

Kind of hidden is another relic of the times: the expectation that women will more or less function as underlings to their guys. Lillian seems to constantly cater to Ram, despite his generally disdainful air.

Armstrong dominates the small scenes he’s given. I like the bit where he gives Poitier a penetrating stare, ostensibly to cue Eddie/Poitier, but I detect a sly mocking on Armstrong’s/Wild Man’s part. It’s as though he’s thinking ‘yeah, this is fun, Sidney, but, you know, you’re the actor, I’m the musician.’

We get a pathway to the road to the climax, as Ram finds out that a producer wants to see him about cutting a record; the club figures it’s a done deal, and a party is in the offing. Meanwhile, Connie and Eddie talk about marriage; inevitably, she wants to go back to the States, he wants to stay in Paris. Connie’s upset, and wants to ‘split the scene.’

Lillian’s right when she says that she and Connie didn’t come to Paris “to get run out of town by two kooks!” Strangely, in contrast to Eddie, Ram wants to go back with Lillian–no record contract’s brewing. The producer/executive character is a touch too ‘square’ for me, he looks more like he’s in the widget business.

But Connie wears Eddie down. Ram is sort of running on adrenaline…for the first time be wants to be happy; it’s as though he doesn’t want to disappoint his friends. He does the right thing by refusing to ‘fix-up’ Michel.

There’s last minute tension, as Eddie sees Connie off–he’s supposed to follow ‘in a few weeks’–Ram shows at the station, but tells Lillian he’s staying. It makes sense, as it’s well-established that he wants to focus on music above all. The end elegantly inverts the beginning, with the women departing, the guys both staying put.

Of the four principle characters, Ram’s the one who shows the most growth. He’s developed some humility, and gained some strength by accepting that he’s not the star he thought he was. It’s left unresolved if Eddie will follow through on his promise to Connie, but that’s decision has an existential meaning that seems more significant for him than the implicit commitment anxiety.

This is completely entertaining–for the music especially–and for all four solid performances (a slight quibble is that Woodward’s character seems less fully-realized than Carroll’s), the setting/atmosphere, of course, and two convincing love stories.

Farmermouse’s a wee bit out of his depth with this crowd, but he gives Paris Blues nine croissants. 9/10.

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