Carmen Jones [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (29th November 2016).
The Film

“Carmen Jones” (1954)

Cindy Lou (played by Olga James) arrives by bus at a military base to reunite with her boyfriend Joe (played by Harry Belafonte), a military corporal. The couple are happy to be reunited but the time they can spend together turns short, as a brawl between female workers leads to Joe having to escort one of the women - Carmen Jones (played by Dorothy Dandridge) to a military jail by jeep. Carmen is not at all ashamed of her fight and not afraid to show her wild side. She flaunts herself, embraces her sexuality, and starts to make moves on Joe while driving. The simple drive from base to base becomes a chase when she jumps onto a moving freight train and Joe chases her, the jeep breaks down and there is no way that Joe can get her to the military jail on time.

Carmen takes Joe to her hometown which is not too far from where the jeep had broken down, and the townsfolk are all excited to see Carmen back in town. There is no way they can get the jeep fixed or take the train since it is too late in the day, so she invites him to her home and Joe eventually succumbs to her lustful way. The moment of passion was strong between them but it causes trouble far beyond just a sexual encounter - Carmen knows she cannot stay with him since she is still facing jail time and he is obligated to take her. Joe is still in a relationship with another woman and he is a soldier of Uncle Sam.

The opera “Carmen” by Georges Bizet was first performed in 1875 - the year that Bizet died at the age of 36. While he was never able to see the success and further reaction to the opera, it has resonated with audiences internationally for generations. In 1943, famed Broadway writer Oscar Hammerstein II adapted the opera into a Broadway musical, changed the setting to an at-the-time current WWII setting, and casting an all-black cast entitled “Carmen Jones”. Although there were some impressive names behind the scenes of the production - Robert Shaw as conductor, Hassard Short as director, Billy Rose as producer, the entire cast was entirely of new faces - with almost all of the African-American actors had never even stepped on a stage prior. It was a breakthrough for the time and it was a critical success with a 503 show run and was praised for keeping the original music while updating the lyrics.

Filmmaker and stage director Otto Preminger wanted to make “Carmen Jones” into a feature film but knew it would be difficult to do while keeping in line with an all-black cast. All-black films like “Green Pastures” and ”Cabin in the Sky” were produced by major studios but could only be marketed to segregated black audiences and that did not mean much in box office returns. Even by the 1950s black leads or mostly black cast films were basically non-existent. While a contract director at Fox, Preminger made successful noirs such as “Laura”, “Fallen Angel”, “Whirlpool”, and “Where the Sidewalk Ends”, and after the 1954 film “River of No Return”, he decided he would try to end his contract early with Fox to concentrate on independently financing “Carmen Jones”. Fox head Darryl Zanuck made a surprise gesture saying he would finance the film and Fox would be the distributor while Preminger would be able to direct and produce it independently. The audition process had Preminger looking at nearly every black actor in Hollywood available, and for the title character Dorothy Dandridge was cast. Dandridge came from a music background and had a minor film career with her previous film being “Bright Road” starring opposite Harry Belafonte, who was also cast in “Carmen Jones” as Joe. Belafonte was a big star in the music scene and in the film world, being one of the most recognizable faces and voices of the time. In supporting roles Olga James was cast as innocent Cindy Lou, Pearl Bailey played the singer Frankie, and Joe Adams played boxer Husky Miller. As it was produced as a musical, it seems of no surprise that the two main leads were also singers. The most surprising aspect was that almost all the singers were dubbed over by other singers - with only Pearl Bailey singing her own parts in her own voice. It does seem a little unusual to hear a white man’s voice coming from Harry Belafonte’s mouth, but operatic singers were cast for their vocals. Retaining the operatic music of Bizet and the original stage production lyrics, the film was produced in the still very new CinemaScope format in color, and after three weeks of rehearsals and three weeks of production shooting, the film was completed and premiered at the Rivoli Theatre in New York City on October 28, 1954. The film was a hit grossing more than 10 million dollars at the box office - which was an incredible amount especially when taking account of the still racially divided America.

Critical reaction for the film was very divisive - and not for the race issue. There was critical praise for the music, the use of the widescreen framing, and the acting, while there were negative issues calling it shallow and reacting poorly to the dubbed singers. True that the film and the story has its faults - why is Joe being on the run such a threat while Carmen is out and about when she is also supposedly running from the law as well? Why does Joe make such stupid decisions throughout even though he seems like such a straightforward and rational man? Not only that, but for a musical film, it probably has too many long stretches of non-musical segments. It seems that they wanted the film to cross over with non-musical fans and opportunities were missed. There were absolutely many scenes that could have had a musical segment - such as Carmen arriving in her hometown again. Not to say that this is a bad film - far from it. “Carmen Jones” is gorgeously photographed with vibrant colors and still sounds wonderful with the music. It is also a very progressive film as it was a film distributed by a major studio featuring an all-black cast - and it is literally that. There isn’t a single white person in the film, even as a background player. By not including any white people or discussing white relations, it is almost like a fantasy world of “What if white people didn’t exist?”, but considering there were an incredible amount of films made prior in Hollywood which would not have a single non-white person in the film so why not the other way around? One thing is that it never distracts - you never think “Where are all the white people?” while watching since the audience is so enamored with the film. If a white person did enter the frame all eyes would be on him. “What’s that cracker gonna do?” you may think, and that would be too distracting. The feminist approach is also important, as the Carmen Jones character is the ultimate free thinking feminist character. The character is not always just a femme fatale of the film noir genre as she also goes through thoughts of possibly having to succumb to being someone’s “girl” and being conflicted by the feelings of love. Dandridge plays the character extremely well and convincingly which led to a nomination for “Best Actress” at the Academy Awards - the first for an African American in that category, although ultimately the award went to Grace Kelly. It was also nominated for “Best Music” but also lost that award. In winnings, the film won at the Golden Globes with “Best Picture - comedy or musical”. Interestingly the film was screened at Cannes, but due to the Bizet estate having objections, the film was unscreened in France theatrically until more than 25 years later, in 1981.

Preminger’s career continued to rise as a prominent and successful director, Belafonte’s stardom continued along with his role in social activism. As for Dandridge, she and Preminger started a 4 year courtship in which her career ultimately stalled. Following Preminger’s advice to only take lead roles and avoid supporting parts, her roles became even more limited. “Island in the Sun” was her last major film that attracted attention - but mostly for the reason of the interracial relationship portrayed rather than the merits of the film itself. On September 8th 1965, Dorothy Dandridge died at the age of 42 under disputed circumstances. Even with her career cut short, her role as “Carmen Jones” has been an inspiration for generations for women, for African Americans, and for film lovers in general.

Note this is a region B Blu-ray which can only be played on region B and region free Blu-ray players.

Video

BFI presents the film in 1080p in the AVC MPEG-4 codec in the original 2.55:1 aspect ratio. This high definition transfer was prepared by Twentieth Century Fox and was also utilized for the identical US and Japanese Blu-ray editions released by Fox in 2013. The film looks superb in high definition, with the original colors looking vibrant, skin tones looking natural, and no major signs of damage such as dust and specs. Grain is always visible with no signs of noise reduction smoothening and you would have to squint at very specific points to find any signs of damage on the frame. Since this is an early 2.55:1 cinemascope film shot on anamorphic lenses, it gives an impression of the characters in the center of the frame looking slightly stretched wide and the characters on the edges of the frame looking unnaturally slender. Note that it is a side effect of the lenses and is a common anomaly in films shot in anamorphic lenses. Of course there are certain directors like Wes Anderson or Paul Thomas Anderson who have used the effect extensively in their films intentionally and is something impossible to recreate with flat lenses.

The film runs uncut with a runtime of (104:40) though note this does not have the Twentieth Century Fox film logo at the start.

Audio

English DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0
English LPCM 2.0 stereo

The film was originally equipped for 6 track stereo, which was 5 speakers in the front and one in the rear for specially equipped theaters, and the 4.0 track recreates that experience with the 3 front speakers and 1 rear speaker. The surround track is great especially with the musical segments getting a full workout in all the speakers. For dialogue, it is spread throughout the 3 front speakers, with characters on the left side of the frame coming slightly left and the characters on the right coming slightly from the right. There is no damage such as hisses or pops to the track. As for the 2.0 stereo track it is slightly weaker and duller than the 4.0 surround track. If possibly go with the 4.0 track on this one.

There are optional English HoH subtitles in a white font for the main feature. The subtitles translate all the dialogue and all the song lyrics and are well timed and easy to read.

Extras

Audio commentary by Adrian Martin
Dr. Adrian Martin admits that he is indeed a fan of the film and is here to give his praising comments but in fact also includes quotes and notes from critics who were not fans of the film to give both sides of the coin. The commentary is packed with great information including differences between the original opera and the film, The Saul Bass credit sequence being the first of many collaborations with Preminger, the affair between Preminger and Dandridge, and a lot of background information on the film itself. He also references and compares the film to other “Carmen” adaptations including Peter Brook’s “The Tragedy of Carmen” (1983), Carlos Saura’s “Carmen” (1983), Jean-Luc Godard’s ”First Name Carmen” (1983) (wait, why was 1983 such a year for Carmen adaptations suddently?!) and also “Carmen: A Hip Hopera” produced by MTV starring Beyonce as the title character. The commentary has a lot of fascinating tidbits and you are guaranteed to learn quite a bit that you had no idea about previously. That was Max Roach drumming in the nightclub? Had no idea until Martin pointed it out!
in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

"Karen Alexander on Carmen Jones" featurette (7:51)
Curator and Lecturer Karen Alexander gives a good rather spoiler free talk about the film and its take on African-American culture yet how it went against basic stereotypes, the sexuality breaking boundaries, and the importance of Dandridge’s Oscar nomination.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

The Guardian Interview: Harry Belafonte at the National Film Theater (68:46)
This lengthy on stage interview from 1996 with Harry Belafonte is moderated by Peter Preston, giving a full overview of Belafonte’s life and career. He talks about the restricted environment in the early days for blacks on film, his own early career where he had to decide whether he want to pursue a career as a singer or actor, his friendship/rivalry with Sidney Poitier, and his stance on civil rights activism and politics. Was always more interested in theater than music. Friendship and rivalry with Poitier. Poltical figure. The audience later get to ask questions directly, but because no one in the audience is handed microphones it is incredibly hard to hear their questions. Since BFI has not provided subtitles, you’ll have to turn it up loud or just try to guess the question through context of the answers.
in 1080i 60hz, AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

Stills & Poster Gallery (1:27)
There are black and white and color stills and an original poster in this gallery which is accompanied by the opening overture of “Carmen” - easily one of the most recognizable music compositions the world has ever known. I can’t imagine anyone who has never heard it.
in 1080p, Music LPCM 2.0

Theatrical Trailer (2:47)
The original 1954 US theatrical trailer is presented here, but sadly in poor standard definition.
in 480i MPEG-2, in2.55:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

12 Page Booklet
The booklet includes the essay ”The Contradictions of Carmen Jones” by author Chris Fujiwara, full film credits, special features credits, transfer information, and acknowledgements. The booklet is not as thick as many other BFI releases, but it is a welcome addition.

Considering that the BFI DVD of “Carmen Jones” from years back only had a trailer and text biographies as extras, this is a huge leapt forward in the extras department. The Fox Blu-ray editions from the US and Japan only had the trailer as an extra, also making the BFI Blu-ray miles ahead in the bonus features department. BFI has done a great job with the extras.

Overall

”Carmen Jones” is not only fun and exciting with its modernization of opera, but also a groundbreaking film in terms of African-Americans in mainstream Hollywood cinema and also feminism in film that has resonated for years and generations later. BFI’s Blu-ray is wealthy in supplements and carried a great transfer with video and audio making the disc highly recommended.

The Film: B+ Video: A Audio: A Extras: A Overall: A-

 


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