Sep. 9, 2009
Paris Blues (1961)
Grade: 58/100

Director: Martin Ritt
Stars: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Sidney Poitier

What it's about. Ram (Paul Newman) and Eddie (Sidney Poitier) are American jazz musicians living in Paris. Eddie is there because he wants to escape both racism and the civil rights movement. Ram is there because he thinks it will help make him a great composer. Ram has two emotional ties to Paris, his languid, older mistress Marie (Barbara Laage) and his drug-addicted guitarist Rene (André Luguet). Louis Armstrong has a small colorful supporting role as (what else?) a famous trumpet player.

The bittersweet life of Ram and Eddie in Paris become more complicated when they begin affairs with two American tourists, Lillian (Joanne Woodward, of course Newman's real-life wife and frequent film co-star) and Connie (Diahann Carroll). Both women want, and even expect, their new jazz musician boyfriends to pack up their instruments and return to the States with them, permanently. Connie wants Eddie for some reason to face his blackness in America. Lillian just wants Ram, rather late for a schoolgirl crush on a celebrity. Nonetheless, she sure isn't moving her kids to Paris for him. Will True Love triumph anyway?

How others will see it. This film appeals to two different audiences, classic movie lovers and jazz fans. The latter have a sumptuous Duke Ellington score to enjoy, in addition to the occasional presence of Louis Armstrong. The rest of us have to put up with a slow and often tedious romantic drama.

How I felt about it. None of the storylines are compelling. Ram has a good setup in Paris, and it is against his interest to forfeit it to raise two stepchildren with Lillian. Who cares if he is not a great composer? Who is? Can Ram stop Rene from abusing drugs? No, although he is welcome to make himself unhappy trying. Ram is not Rene's father, nor should he assume the role. Can Ram revive his lukewarm liaison with Marie? Yes, and at least she can cook. She seems nice, too.

Since it is 1961, and the cast includes two blacks among the four leads, the Race Question (whatever exactly that is) must be addressed. Is Eddie doing the wrong thing by living in France, instead of facing racial injustice in America? The question is specious. All and any of us could discard our selfish, petty occupations and do something for the greater common good. But while you can do what you wish with your own life, it's not your place to tell me what to do with mine. Particularly since your cause might not be for the greater common good, after all. Not every injustice is righteous. And what exactly has Connie done for the cause, besides coax Eddie out of France?

Eddie could, and perhaps should, tell Connie that he can live in whatever country he wants to, thank you very much. But Connie is gorgeous, and that makes all the difference. Besides, Ram's self-importance as a composer can be grating to put up with. But one has to draw the line somewhere. The march to Selma has significance. The Million Man March doesn't. There's no indication that Connie knows the difference.