Shot in glorious technicolor and Cinemascope, Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones is a treat for the senses. From the opening credits and the strains of Bizet’s opera, vivid colour floods the screen in this lovely restoration from the BFI.
Using Bizet’s 19th century-set opera is transposed to a Southern military base at the end of the second world war, starring an all-black cast performing an Oscar Hammerstein book and lyrics. In terms of musicality it never quite works, I mean, who dubs Harry Belafonte? However, Carmen Jones is an incredibly important film, and one that should be heralded as monumental.
Carmen (played beautifully by Dorothy Dandridge) is a troublemaker. She exudes a tomboyish quality; a playful femininity which sees her climbing, running in heels, happy for rough and tumble, and an inner strength which belies her slight frame. Her arrest places her in a car with strait-laced G.I. Joe (Belafonte). He is charged with driving her to jail. Needless to say, Carmen tried to escape and after wrestling Joe to the ground, he finds himself in her childhood home, being cooked for, seduced away form his girl Cindy Lou (Olga James), and then imprisoned himself for allowing the duplicitous Ms. Jones to flee.
Sultry Carmen is hedonistic, carnal and revels in her freedom whether sexual or geographical – she makes it abundantly clear – she will never relinquish it. She is the epitome of the transgressive woman, and just like those women of cinema (and in keeping with the opera’s tragic heroine), she is irrevocably punished for her transgressions. Interestingly, examining the notion of freedom, conformity, acceptability and erotic desire of Carmen is worth questioning; is she is defeated or merely defiant? Her active sexuality does not appear over-sexualised but feels liberated and yet it is the scenes in which Belafonte is shirtless that feel fetishised. As Carmen’s freedom is threatened, her frequent calling of Joe “boy” loses its affection and becomes derisive.
Love, jealousy and tragedy are abound in this opulent and liberal affair, people of colour fill every frame, Dandridge and Belafonte are supported by Pearl Bailey, Joe Adams, Diahann Carroll and Brock Peters to name but a few. They have agency, and are (mostly) free from stereotype. With songs entitled “Dat’s Love”, “Dis Flower” and “He’s Got His Self Another Woman”, written to Bizet’s musical score, and every effort to present a black community (albeit thought through the lens of an émigré man), it seems incredibly odd to disjoint the narrative and risk alienating the viewer by having these songs dubbed with the operatic vocal talents of Marilyn Horne and LeVern Hutcherson. I can’t help but feel these songs would be more memorable, more gut-punchingly real if sung by the souls that play each character; the opera dub upsets the rhythm of the film.
Carmen Jones is wonderful but deserves to be seen on a huge screen, it loses a sense of this grandeur as a home release yet, regardless, is a gift; even an imperfect one. Its complexities certainly make for an interesting watch and one to unpick. Preminger’s use of space and incisive camerawork means there is a lot of visual charm but it feels muddled, a historical achievement for 1954, absolutely but missing something musically. The imposition of Horne’s vocals disjoints and the differences in pitch, tone and timbre seem, at times, farcical. It did, however, make an icon and Oscar-winner of Dandridge and rightly so, she is incredible in the role, and why CJ should always be hailed as “culturally, historically [and] aesthetically significant.”
Carmen Jones is available now on Blu-ray and screened as a part of the BFI’s Black Star season which ran from 17 October – 31 December 2016.
 In 1992, Carmen Jones was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress who described it as above.