Carmen Jones [1954]

Few actresses have captivated the camera as powerfully as Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones. Her polished beauty plays in irresistible contrast to her title character's leonine sexuality and fluid emotions; a man can't decide from moment to moment if he wants to save her from doom, build her a castle, or never let her out of bed. Of course, that's the problem with the boys in this semi-experimental adaptation of Bizet's opera, Carmen. Straight-arrow Joe (a strapping Harry Belafonte), an obedient corporal on a Southern military base during World War II, is all set to go to flight school and marry his hometown sweetie, Cindy Lou (Olga James), when his troublemaking sergeant orders him to accompany Carmen to a civilian court. In short order, Joe is swept up in Carmen's carnal anarchy and her craving for release from lousy options in life. An impulsive act of violence ensures that Joe's future is gone forever, putting Carmen in the difficult position of destroying their relationship to save him. Oscar Hammerstein II took Bizet's music in 1943 and rewrote the book and lyrics. The result is largely a smashing success with a few missteps (the bullfighter in Bizet's piece becomes a heavyweight boxer here, which breaks up a certain grace in the story) and a couple of perfect stretches (the long prelude to Carmen and Joe's first embrace, set on Carmen's hoodoo-ish home turf). Despite the fact that both Dandridge and Belafonte were singers, their vocal performances were dubbed by LeVern Hutcherson and Marilyn Horne. (Yes, it is a little disconcerting to hear another voice come out of the more familiar Belafonte's mouth.) Otto Preminger directed with his usual eye on economy of action and production, as the numerous musical numbers tend to be shot in lengthy, single, carefully choreographed takes. The result can be a little visually static at times, but the passion behind the singing pulls everything through. --Tom Keogh

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