Carmen Jones was adapted by director Otto Preminger from Oscar Hammerstein's hit Broadway musical, which was itself based on George Bizet's classic 19th century opera Carmen. Featuring an all-black cast, and shot in the then pioneering widescreen 'Scope' format, it's energetic and passionate, if slightly stilted in its execution. Dorothy Dandridge plays the alluring Florida factory worker Carmen, who seduces an upstanding soldier Joe (Harry Belafonte) with tragic consequences.
The best reason to revisit Carmen Jones lies in Dorothy Dandridge's electrifying performance, which saw her become the first African-American to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. In a series of strikingly coloured outfits, she brings a sensual physicality to the role, bringing to mind that description of Jeanne Moreau's Catherine in Jules Jim, "she wasn't a woman, she was a force of nature." Belafonte too impresses in conveying how the initially level-headed Joe becomes morbidly jealous of the proudly defiant Carmen, who refuses to conform to society's expectations of female behaviour.
"DOESN'T ENTIRELY CATCH FIRE"
The set-piece song-and-dance routines in Carmen Jones don't entirely catch fire however, perhaps because the filmmakers decided to dub Dandridge and Belafonte with the voices of the opera singers Marilyn Horne and Le Vern Hutcherson, leaving the leads to lip-synch their arias. Indeed the most memorably choreographed musical sequence here, "Beat out that Rhythm on a Drum", is sung by the actress Pearl Bailey herself. Sadly, the film's star Dandridge was to commit suicide barely a decade later aged just 42.
Carmen Jones is re-released in UK cinemas on Friday 9th February 2007.