Carmen Jones Blu-Ray Review: Dorothy Dandridge Sizzles Even if Otto Preminger Doesn't

The first of Otto Preminger's all-black musicals is a little staid, but the lead performance is superb.
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The Film

The great, cantankerous, Austrian-American auteur Otto Preminger doesn’t seem like the likeliest candidate to have helmed a film adaptation of an all-black stage musical, but he actually did it more than once, first in 1954 with Carmen Jones and again in 1959 with Porgy and Bess. Rights issues have rendered Porgy and Bess virtually unavailable, but Carmen Jones has just received the Blu-ray treatment from Fox. Watching the film, it’s readily apparent that the musical was not a genre that Preminger had a great touch for, but his social awareness and disregard for controversy were certainly instrumental in getting it made in the first place.

Based on the stage play of the same name, which featured Oscar Hammerstein II’s new lyrics accompanying Georges Bizet’s Carmen score, the film opens at a North Carolina army base during World War II. Joe (Harry Belafonte) is about to be promoted, and a 24-hour pass gives him the opportunity to marry fiancĂ©e Cindy Lou (Olga James). But all that changes when sultry parachute factory worker Carmen Jones (Dorothy Dandridge) gets in trouble for fighting, and Joe is charged with delivering her into the hands of civilian authorities.

Carmen has already made her amorous intentions toward Joe known with “Dat’s Love,” set to the sounds of the “Habanera” aria, and once they’re alone, her attempts at seduction kick into high gear. Preminger’s long-take ’Scope photography here is steady, even a little somnambulant at times, but the passion practically explodes off the screen when Carmen makes an attempt to run for it and Joe must physically subdue her. It’s not long before he’s forgotten Cindy Lou and fallen for Carmen completely, but she ditches him, and he lands in jail instead of her for losing a prisoner. The affair simmers while Joe’s in jail, but Carmen eventually takes up with boxer Husky Miller (Joe Adams), leading to a romantic clash in Chicago at the site of the big fight.

The heightened passions of the material don’t always feel bone-deep in the quality of the production. Preminger, who was certainly capable of capturing the potentially dangerous sensual desires of a character (just look at the Lee Remick scenes in Anatomy of a Murder), doesn’t bring much visual shape to the material. There’s also a bit of a distancing quality in the dubbed singing of Belafonte and Dandridge, both more than capable singers but lacking operatic range. Still, Dandridge is a magnetic screen presence as a femme fatale whose unassuming nature burns up when she suddenly turns on the seductress act. Dandridge was the first black woman nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, a fully deserved accolade as her work often carries the film.

The Blu-ray Disc

Carmen Jones is presented in 1080p high definition and a 2.55:1 aspect ratio. The transfer isn’t quite a stunner — the elements seem to be a little faded, although they’re quite clean. The image is a bit soft in places, but there’s a nice sense of sharpness throughout. And though the color seems a tad dull, bright primaries look excellent, especially the red skirt we see Carmen introduced in. The overall cleanliness and lack of overt manipulation makes this a pretty pleasing transfer. The 4.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is quite nice, presenting the film’s songs clearly and forcefully.

Special Features

Only the film’s theatrical trailer.

The Bottom Line

Fans of Preminger or musicals or just superb lead female performances ought to check out Carmen Jones, and the new Fox Blu-ray offers a pretty good way to do just that.

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