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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 1/18/02

Carmen Jones
1954 (2002) - 20th Century Fox

review by Dan Kelly of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Carmen Jones

Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/C+/C

Specs and Features

105 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (2.55:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:03:27, at the start of chapter 20), Amaray keep case packaging, theatrical trailers (for Carmen Jones, Sound of Music, The Rose and others), theatrical one-sheet, film-themed menu screens, scene access (30 chapters), languages: English (DD 4.0 and 2.0) subtitles: English and Spanish, Close Captioned

Carmen Jones is Otto Preminger's dazzling adaptation of the successful 1943 Oscar Hammerstein musical. Based on Bizet's classic opera Carmen, Preminger's updated version takes place during World War II. There's not a whole lot to the story of Carmen, but it does what it needs to do; it carries the movie from one song to the next. Joe (Harry Belafonte) is a flyboy in training at an army base in the south. He has a happy relationship with Cindy Lou (Olga James), and is looking forward to his 24-hour pass so they can elope. Enter Carmen (Dorothy Dandridge). She's a saucy vixen and she works next door in the parachute factory. She snatches him away from Cindy Lou without a second thought and, once she gets her claws in him, she doesn't let go.

What follows for Joe is one round of trouble after another, as he follows Carmen across country, playing right along with her deceitful games. Joe gets into a fatal fight with a high-ranking officer, and Carmen convinces him to follow her to Chicago. She's also hot on the trail of a prizefighter (Joe Adams) who's got his eye on her. As Carmen strings Joe along, who wants nothing more than to make an honest woman out of her, his tension and jealousy mount. And you know a picture like this isn't gonna end on a happy note. It is, after all, a tragic opera.

Bizet's original music is tweaked here and there to reflect "modern" tastes, but remains largely faithful to the original material. It's accompanied by updated lyrics penned by the famed Oscar Hammerstein II. Standouts include Joe and Cindy Lou's duet You Talk Jus' Like My Maw and Carmen's showstopper Dat's Love. Pearl Bailey only performs one song in the movie, but Bang Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum is the movie's only true song and dance number. Even though I was aware of it going into the movie, it does feel like a cheat knowing that the lead characters didn't perform their own vocals. But this was neither the first nor the last musical to do so. Stll, if you're going to pull a Milli Vanilli, do it from the best! Marilyn Horne and LeVern Hutcherson (providing the vocals for the two main characters) have superb voices that lend a needed operatic touch to the film. Even at 105 minutes, Carmen Jones feels about as stretched out as it can go. Preminger even throws in a heavyweight-boxing match to pad the movie a bit. Carmen Jones is a lot of fun, and the music definitely makes some of the longer stretches of the film worth sitting through.

Carmen Jones is available for the first time on DVD, and Fox does fans of the film proud with a solid anamorphic transfer. Movies like this, that fully utilize the widescreen frame (at a 2.55:1 aspect ratio in this instance), really hammer home the point of using a film's original aspect ratio. You'd really miss a lot of the action in this film if you were watching a pan & scan hack job. Color reproduction is accurate, though a bit on the soft side. While not as colorful as musicals like Singin' in the Rain or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, there is a fairly broad color palette in play here. Make no mistake about it, the colors look fine. But they're just a bit muted overall. Otherwise, you'll not find much to complain about. Flesh tones are smooth and without flaw, and shadow detail and black level are handled nicely. Edge enhancement is minimal, and nary an instance of artifacting is to be found! All of this good work is culled from a virtually spotless source print. This is a good transfer of a nearly 50-year-old film.

There are two Dolby Digital audio tracks for you to pick from. My first instinct was to give the film a full go-around with the 4.0 track, but after about 20 minutes into the film, I turned it off. It's not a very good track at all. Though maintained appropriately in the center speaker, the vocals are quite subdued and don't give the film any sort of lift. Surround usage is also bland, and you're not going to hear a whole lot of action out of them. The 2.0 Dolby Surround mix, on the other hand, sounds like a blessing after giving the 4.0 a try. While a 5.1 mix would no doubt have livened things up a bit, the Dolby Surround mix gets the job done nicely. The surround channel is surprisingly active and helps to establish a sense of space. The vocal mix is also well done, and is nicely integrated with the music track. Of these two, I'd definitely recommend the 2.0 track.

When it comes to features, I think Carmen Jones ends up being a real missed opportunity for Fox DVD. What you get is the original theatrical trailer for Carmen Jones, the original one-sheet poster and trailers for a handful of other musicals in Fox's catalogue (Sound of Music, The Rose and others). I can't help but think how nice a retrospective or documentary short would have been for this release. Carmen Jones was a groundbreaking film for black actors in Hollywood, but you'll hear about none of that on the DVD. A music only track would also have been a welcome addition to the disc. As it stands, this is a pretty basic disc. If you love the film, you'll definitely want to pick it up. Just don't expect too much out of it in the features department.

This is the movie, if only briefly, that made Dorothy Dandridge a star. Her performance is just as striking and magnificent today as it was when the film first came out. If you liked the HBO Halle Berry vehicle Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, then Carmen Jones is required viewing. Dandridge was an amazing talent, and this was, by far, her best work. I was admittedly disappointed in the audio, but Fox has done an admirable job of making the picture look as good as possible. It's a definite recommendation for musical fans and cinephiles.

Dan Kelly
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