”Carmen Jones” is a film version of Georges Bizet’s opera ”Carmen” set in war time America with an all-black (to varying degree) cast. Really?? This sounds like an idea cooked up while smoking some serious weed.
Does it work then? Njaeh… to some extent I suppose. The score is great of course. “Carmen” is a world famous opera for a reason and this musical was best when I closed my eyes and focused on the music alone. The lyrics are adapted to fit the story in this rendering and as the story is set in the black sub-culture we get all sorts of slang and inflections. Had this been a complete reworking I would have found this pretty cool and definitely a fresh take on a classic score, but they insisted on making this an opera in the classic sense and so it becomes a clash. Just plain weird, really.
I did not like this movie. Not at all actually, and for several reasons. Not so much for the music though. It is odd but I can live with it.
My main complaint is the story itself, which may seem unfair considering that it is surprisingly true to the original story. I do not like it when people ruin their lives and even less when they ruin other people’s lives and that is the essence of this particular story. The agent of all this ruin is Carmen Jones (Dorothy Dandridge), who may be the most egoistic character in cinema history. Well, close at least. I fully understand that she is a powerful, liberated woman and all too often women have to follow the men and not the other way round, but Carmen is selfish by any standards and everything in her life is about getting what she want and to hell with the costs others may pay. She gets her comeuppance, but not before she has done her damage.
To start with we meet Joe (Harry Belafonte) and Cindy Lou (Olga James), a sweet couple about to get married. Cindy Lou is seeking out Joe on the army base where he is stationed just before he is leaving for flight school to become a pilot. Everything looks great for the two of them.
Then Carmen Jones happens. Realizing Joe is the one guy in the army barracks not interested in her she sets full sail on her seduction of him. She manages to get arrested for causing a row with the other girls and Joe is picked to take her to a civilian prison in Masonville, far far away. For a while he manages to fend her off and when he ties her up I had to smile for I think the only time in the entire movie. Had he slapped her I could also have forgiven him. She was a job to get done so he could get back and get married.
Alas, in the end her seducing ways succeed and Joe is turned to the dark side. Ah, well, his problem. She thanks him by running away so has to do time in the stockade instead of going to flight school. When he comes out they seek each other out, him with the good news that he can go to flight school after all, but that is not good enough for her. She want him close. What good is a man you cannot be with? So she coerces him into a fight that forces him to go with her, now as a fugitive from the army. Having sucked him dry Carmen now moves on to a famous prize fighter and starts on him instead leaving behind a wreck of a man.
This is the kind of story that forces me not to invest too much in the characters. One is not worth my care and the other is a lost case. I just feel sorry for Cindy Lou.
I also have an issue with the setup. This feel quite a lot like exploitation. The all-black cast feels like a gimmick. Maybe to allow the characters to be more daring, which is degrading, or to add some black elements to the music, which would have been great, but is mostly lost because of the insistence on the opera. The exclusion of white people also reminds of segregation, which does not feel good either.
Then of course there is the classic musical problem where reality suddenly shifts into a stage, but here I see that mostly as a minor problem. I was too happy to get away from the story and into some music.
“Carmen Jones” felt like an ordeal, something I just had to get over with and that is just too bad because I wanted to like it. For blackploitation I much prefer “Shaft”. This one just left me with a bad taste.
In case anybody takes offense with my reference to blacks and white instead of more politically correct terms, I apologize. This is a movie that moves in that sphere. The actors are black not because it is cool, but because it facilitates some degrading clichés.