Where Paris Blues was Shot
This is the movie that got away: the only major Hollywood movie with a Parisian theme that I failed to include in the book. At the time, it was not available on DVD, not even in the US, so I had no choice but to give it a bye.
Later, I caught the final two minutes a couple of times by chance on TCM, and although it was too late to cover the film for the book, I looked frantically each time for the next repeat in the channel’s schedules – everything on TCM is repeated – only to find that it would be screened next on a Thursday morning three weeks hence at 3 o’clock in the morning.
Finally, I found the film, again by chance – on YouTube. I did not even know they were showing films on YouTube, but it seems it is a real paradise for lovers of old movies. (Check it out if you don’t believe me.)
Paris Blues is certainly an old movie (it was made in 1961) and, quite frankly, best enjoyed as a period piece.
Its main interest – apart from the original score that was written and performed by Duke Ellington – is that it allows you to see what 1960s Americans thought cultural sophistication looked like. (Warning: it’s not a pretty sight.)
Even worse: the film wears an anti-bigotry message on its cinematic sleeve, but if the makers of Paris Blues had wanted to put their money where their mouths were, they would have paired off the two central couples differently. Think about it.
On the upside, you get to see quite lot of 1960s Paris. I had expected to watch a fairly claustrophobic affair, all Blues and no Paris, the smoky interiors of the Jazz club only lightened up by a few establishing shots. Actually, the film features several scenes that were shot entirely on location: Diahann Carroll and Sidney Poitier share a romantic moment late at night on the bridge near Notre Dame Cathedral before having an early breakfast in an all-night diner near Les Halles and walking down a deserted Champs Elysees.
Later they return to the Seine near Notre Dame Cathedral for a long conversation about the odds for racial harmony in the US (at a time, we must remember, when Martin Luther King was still an unknown minister in Georgia).
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward stroll by the Seine between the Pont des Invalides and Pont Alexandre III, and halfway down the movie, Paris Blues even finds room for a “kaleidoscopic” scene where we follow the two couples enjoying each other’s company in front of a backdrop with different motives from Paris – you could almost think you were watching Funny Face if it wasn’t for all that jazz.
Nearly all of this kaleidoscopic scene – apart from a brief sojourn to the Ile de Cygnes where Paul Newman playfully tosses Joanne Woodward’s ice cream into the river – was shot in Montmartre: Miss Carroll and Mr. Poitier play with a couple of local kids on the top of the Rue Chappe stairway before strolling up and down Rue St Vincent.
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward take photos of each other in front of the Lapin Agile cabaret, and then the two couples meet to walk past the Montmartre vineyard into the evening.
Later on, we see Paul Newman, in a pensive moment at night on the Place du Calvaire, in front of what is now the Dali museum.)
It was only after I had sat down to write this piece when it occurred to me that Paris Blues is the only Hollywood movie set in Paris that does not feature a single scene with and not a single shot of the Eiffel Tower. They talk about it a lot, mostly as shorthand for tourist Paris, but you never see it, and neither Mr. Poitier’s nor Mr. Newman’s flats have a view of it. Several decades would go by before any director would be able to consider such daring nonconformity – and this would be unconventional even today.
In many respects, Paris Blues is very much of its time, sometimes excruciatingly so – but this is one respect in which it was far ahead of it.