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Much like the multitude of heady jazz numbers that flow throughout the film, Paris Blues is a cool, breezy and laid-back character-led romantic drama with strong turns by the four likable leads, not least the late, great Paul Newman, effortlessly exuding that trademark piercing blue-eyed intensity and magnetism. The second of five memorable collaborations between director Martin Ritt and his lead, it’s something of a mystery how this overlooked gem isn’t mentioned in the same breath as the duos more recognised works.
Beginning with an astounding tracking shot around a bustling Parisian jazz club, we are introduced to two US musicians who have found their niche in a foreign city. Ram Bowen (Newman) is a trumpeter and jobbing, often frustrated, composer, while his fellow free-wheeling band member and saxophonist Eddie Cook (Sidney Poitier) is happy to be living in a progressive place where race isn’t an issue and rarely touched upon. The lives of these hepcats is given a shake when they fall under the spell of two holidaying single gals from the States (Diahann Carroll and Newman’s real-life spouse Joanne Woodward) and find themselves having to reassess their commitment to their art.
Paris Blues is a film which lives and breathes its subject matter, right through from a rich, plentiful score by Duke Ellington, to the on-screen appearance of another legend of the field, Louis Armstrong. He makes a brief appearance early in the film as jazz superstar Wild Man Moore and crops up later during an exhilarating ‘trumpet-off’ with Ram and Eddie when his band gate crash their gig. This scene really is the film’s centrepiece and is carried off with real bravado and an immense sense of joy and passion, which the highly animated and charismatic Newman and Poitier have in spades.
is bolstered by some beautifully atmospheric work from cinematographer Walter Bernstein who captures a magical side to the city not dissimilar to Darius Khondji’s depiction in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris
half a century later. The film does ambles along without much in the way of plot or dramatic weight, but that isn’t to say it’s entirely devoid of some keen insights from that era, not least when Eddie is faced with deciding if he can return to his prejudiced home turf. It’s this predicament and the film’s mature and unperturbed portrayal of racial romance for that time which has rightfully seen its inclusion into the BFI’s Black Star programme, where it awaits rediscovery for lucky cineastes out there.
Adam Lowes | @adlow76