Friday, March 20, 2009
Jones-ing Over Carmen
Fig.1 Turn this poster on its side, and you almost have the CinemaScope aspect ratio; Saul Bass' design always works, whether vertically or horizontally
Two of the best things about director Otto Preminger are: 1. He knows how to handle a camera, and 2. His fearlessness. John Huston said, 'Time and again (Otto) has demonstrated his courage, his morality and his fearlessness.' He was also famous for shrieking at people on set, but that needn't concern us here.
Preminger's 'Carmen Jones' (1954) has guts, integrity and high quality in its every aspect. Based on Bizet's opera (with new lyrics by consummate Broadway man Oscar Hammerstein II), the settings are WWII North Carolina and Chicago, and what's more, the whole thing works.
All-black cast musicals were nothing new, but 'Carmen Jones' is an entirely different kind of vehicle: mature, nuanced, and generally non-stereotypical, because its drama transcends race. If it is a novelty it is because its drama possesses equalizing forces, yet the talent who realize them happen, in this case, to be African-American. Otto facilitates, but the work is transformed by the ensemble cast.
That said, the film itself is exceptional. Every performance is excellent. Harry Belafonte is somewhat restrained, due to Otto's choices to keep him relatively static, but on the other hand, nothing gets in the way of Dorothy Dandridge's completely dynamic Carmen. She is wholly engaging in the most intimate and invitational ways, and though we may be intimidated by her initially, her humanity becomes embraceable and ultimately moving.
In a later era, Dandridge would have been allowed to become a great star, but we should feel fortunate to have what we have of her.
The immediately recognizable Brock Peters kicks off his illustrious career with a supporting role of consequence, and Olga James, in a gem of solid performance, creates a strong presence as an alternative to the fiery Carmen.
Sam Leavett's camerawork, guided by Otto's fluid style, is particularly elegant and logical and displays some of the most exciting use of the wide screen, even when seen fifty-some years later. CinemaScope was at its widest (2.55:1 - before it was squared off to 2.35:1), and instead of balking about it, Otto takes advantage of its real estate with quasi-expressionistic narrative purpose.
The musical direction by Herschel Burke Gilbert, ably assisted by Jester Hairston and even Dimitri Tiomkin, is Hollywood professional musicianship at its best. Bizet is well served, with all dramatic flames lighted full blast, all the way through.
One thing about Preminger as a director: he delivers the goods, and with 'Carmen Jones' the delivery is high-powered, and as a consequence, becomes cinematic time well spent.