An interesting and strange film this, one of Otto Preminger's (Laura, Whirlpool) and typically controversial. The film is an adaptation of the 1845 novella "Carmen" and uses songs from Bizet's opera with rewritten lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.
The film is set in WWII, where Carmen (Dorothy Dandridge) is working on an army base sewing parachutes. Carmen is lusted after by all the men on the base, with the exception of Joe (Harry Belafonte), a young man due to take his pilots training, and this just serves to enflame her interest in him. Being so popular with the men on camp has made her very unpopular with the other women and Carmen soon gets into trouble for fighting with coworker and is sent to jail. Poor Joe is given the task of transporting her to prison, meaning he cannot marry his sweetheart Cindy Lou as planned.
Carmen takes this as an opportunity to seduce Joe, and he valiantly fights off her advances. Deciding she cannot charm him into letting her go, she bolts, and after he chases her they end up at her grandmothers house where he finally succumbs to her advances, only to wake in the morning to find she has done a moonlight flit, leaving a letter saying that although she loves him she had to leave as she cannot bear to go to jail.
Joe is locked up for letting his prisoner escape and faithful Cindy Lou visits him there only to arrive just as a parcel from Carmen arrives. Realising he still has feelings for her rival she leaves devastated.
While Joe is locked up Carmen finds a job in a nightclub and waits for him to be released. Whilst working she catches the eye of Husky Miller, a prizefighter, who demands that his Manager gets her to join him in Chicago. Carmen refuses, she does not want to miss Joe, and that night he does indeed return. They are thrilled to see each other but when Joe tells her he has to go back to base that night she tells him that if he really was passionate about her he would go AWOL to be with her, he refuses and Carmen threatens to leave with his Sergeant, prompting a fight and Joe knocks out his adversary and he and Carmen go on the run to Chicago.
They rent a room but their money soon runs out and Carmen hunts down Husky and his entourage who have some of her nightclub singer friends with them. When she returns to the apartment with a new dress and groceries Joe knows something is up, they argues when she will not tell him where the money came from and she returns to her friends. Her cards are read and she draws the death card and this starts a spiral of hedonistic behaviour as she decides to live her life faster as she approaches her death.
Joe tracks her down at one of Husky's boxing bouts and pushes her into a store cupboard and pressurises her to return to him, she refuses, with tragic results.
The film is interesting on many counts - it has an all black cast, something unheard of for a major studio production in 1954 and in order to make the movie Preminger had to finance it himself, being unable to find sponsorship. Also unusual for its time is the obvious pre marital sex and the sight of an actress in her underwear, without a slip. This is no twee Doris Day flick, with levels of realism and grit unusual in a 50's musical. The movie also sparked a romance between Dandridge and Preminger - which shocked the public on two counts - him being married as well as this being a mixed race romance.
There are a lot of things wrong with this movie, the music really doesn't fit the film and frankly I think this would have been a stronger piece without, but I've never been a fan of musicals anyway. There is also a fair amount of cultural stereotyping, with the song lyrics written in what Hammerstein assumes to be an African-American accent:
"Love's a baby dat grows up wild, An' he don' do what you want him to; Love ain' nobody's angel child, An' he won' pay any mind to you. One man gives me his diamon' stud, An' I won' give him a cigarette. One man treats me like I was mud~ An' what I got dat man c'n get."
Which is especially pronounced given that in their speaking sections the cast do not use a similar accent at all.
The film has also been criticised for portraying African-Americans as using black magic and being amoral in
regard to sexual matters, most especially that there is no moral voice in the film to condemn Carmen's actions
(you'd think the ending itself does that but hey, some people are never happy).
All in all a very strange movie - yet somehow compelling. Dandridge is beautiful, sexual and plays her role
perfectly, Carmen's battle between greed and love being played out sensitively. Belafonte is the weak link,
his wooden and emotionless performance making Joe a two-dimensional character.
Worth watching as a piece of American cinema history if nothing else.