Dorothy Dandridge Brings an Element of Noir to Otto Preminger’s “Carmen Jones”

”Carmen Jones”, 1954. Otto Preminger Films

 

On the sound of George’s Bizet’s overture, Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones opens with a frame shot by title sequence designer Saul Bass: a live flame at very high speed that captures the “sensual, quixotic and volatile nature” of the lead character, Carmen Jones, played by Dorothy Dandridge. This contemporary tale of love and desire, with an all-black cast, was based on Bizet’s opera Carmen. The action was transported from the South of Spain of the 19th century to an army base in the American South during the World War II. To capture the essence of the film, Saul “submerged a symbol of love in a symbol of passion, adding ambiguity by making the rose both red and black. As the various credits appear, the flame leaps up, dies down, expands, contracts… momentarily revealing the rose by filling the space behind it, and alternately obliterating the rose as the flame shifts, and the black rose disappears into a black background.”

The symbolism of the opening credits soon emerge in the film, but not right from the beginning. The first sequence couldn’t be more realistic than that of a bus driving on a dirt road lined with telephone poles and then pulling off to let the workers get out. They work in a parachute factory inside the military base. One of the passengers is not a worker however, she is the sweetheart of a corporal, Joe (Harry Belafonte), coming to see him off for pilot school the next morning. Only after the two lovers meet and go to the canteen for lunch, where workers and soldiers alike gather for their meals, are we introduced to an element of fantasy. It’s through the appearance of Carmen Jones, in a fire-orange pencil skirt splitting up in front to allow free movement and a low-cut black blouse with transparent short sleeves and black high-heeled strapped sandals – the very colours used by Saul Bass in his opening credits design.

The entire singing sequence establishes Carmen Jones as the beautiful temptress – through costume (all the other workers wear plain looking clothes resembling uniforms), body language and attitude – who will lure Joe away from his girlfriend and military duties. Carmen leaves him her rose when the lunch break is over. Soon thereafter, she engages in a cat fight in the factory, sentenced to jail, and the corporal is made responsible for taking her into custody and driving her to the next town to serve her time. It’s the beginning of the end for both of them.
 

”Carmen Jones”, 1954. Otto Preminger Films

 

Otto Preminger had an intimidating personality that had earned him a reputation of being temperamental and very difficult to work with. In my interview with Christopher Willoughby, the son of famed film still photographer Bob Willoughby, who was as great as the Hollywood stars he shot, he said: “He did seem to have a unique relationship with Otto Preminger who yelled at everyone on set, but never had a harsh word for Dad. I think there was some sense of mentoring, and certainly mutual respect,” and further recounts Otto Preminger’s reputation on set and his father’s relationship to both Otto and Jean Seberg, the heroine of two Preminger films: “Before Bonjour Tristesse, dad worked with Otto and Jean on Saint Joan in 1957 – Otto had hired Bob for an earlier film, Carmen Jones, and seemed to like Bob right off the bat, I think they had similar interests in art and culture. Jean was a seventeen year old Iowa schoolgirl who emerged as Saint Joan after a massive publicity based talent search. During production in London, Jean was young and out of her depth and on set Otto was emotionally brutal with her, trying to get the performance he wanted. Dad and Jean became good friends and spent a lot of time together. I believe Otto was relieved Jean was being chaperoned around and that he didn’t have to do it. By the time Bonjour Tristesse went into production, they were old chums. Here again I feel trust and affection is the collaboration and played a huge part in creating those beautiful images.”
 

Dorothy Dandridge on the set of ”Carmen Jones”, photographed by Bob Willoughby

 

But Preminger was also a versatile director, a man of instinct, and one who thought for his vision and who, starting with The Moon Is Blue (1953), became an independent filmmaker. Furthermore, according to Saul Bass, his grasp for design was stronger even than Billy Wilder’s or Hitchcock’s. “Preminger, whose art collection included Matisse, Mondrian and Klee, was also passionately interested in modern design, and in Saul he intuited a striking new talent that he wanted to tap”, so he “picked a young designer who had never worked in film before and launched him on a second career,” writes in the book Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design. For Saul, “Otto had a vision, a true, artistic visual vision, he believed that what he knew, together with what would come out of our work, was worth defending to the death… I discovered that what we wound up with together was better that what I started on my own,” the designer confessed. Preminger and Saul Bass would work together on 13 title sequences and numerous advertising campaigns. The main poster for Carmen Jones won Saul his first prestigious New York Art Directors Club Medal.
 

”Carmen Jones”, 1954. Otto Preminger Films

 

Carmen Jones was Preminger’s second independent production, one in which he explored his stylistic vision unhindered, alternating fantasy with realism. “Preminger is not a very commercial director,” Truffaut wrote, “probably because he devotes himself to a search for a bit of truth that is particularly well hidden, almost imperceptible, the truth that is hidden in looks, gestures, attitudes.” The social reality shown in certain settings, like that opening shot, as well as in the way people behave and dress, are used to great contrasting effect to better emphasise the world of fantasy that also resides in the film, a world inhabited only by African Americans, a world of doomed romance that feels nowhere more dim and obsolete than in the stylised version of Chicago, the grey and drab big city.

 

”Carmen Jones”, 1954. Otto Preminger Films

 

Carmen is wild and free and wants to remain free, and the director is on his heroine’s side. Dorothy Dandridge – cool swagger, eyes aflame, every move a prowl – is fierce in her performance and Preminger directs her so that we know, too, that she loves freedom and is as dangerous as a feline on the lookout for her next prey, determined “to look life and death straight in the eye”. She fiercely goes – in a physical way, too – for Joe. It’s this femme fatale trait alone, this deadly mixture of lust and loathing for the men that catch her interest, that gives this dramatic musical a noir element.

For a very brief period of time, Carmen also has a strong instinct for domesticity and the conviction that a woman has got to take care of her man… but only as long as they both remain free. As soon as she finds herself forced to hide away, trapped in a shabby room in the big city, because Joe is wanted for desertion, her fieriest instincts only get sharper. She wants out. And out is through the means of another man by the name of Husky Miller (Joe Adams), a successful fighter. And it is again costume – designed by Mary Ann Nyberg – that makes this transition very visual.
 

”Carmen Jones”, 1954. Otto Preminger Films

 

Up until this point, Carmen’s costumes are not expensive, but they are distinctive, clearly setting her apart from the rest and establishing a narrative thread. First the fire-orange skirt and black blouse, her temptress costume. Once she’s earned Joe’s love interest, she wears powder pink. It’s her innocent, faithful lover colour in the shape of a low-necked dress, tight to right above the knee and erupting in a flare that stops right below the knee. It’s the only one she has while on the run and in hiding with Joe. After she hooks up again with her friends who are now higher up on the social-climbing ladder, she changes clothes (bought most probably with the money she gets after selling a piece of jewellery). She buys herself a peach-coloured dress with a bejewelled shoulder and a wrapped skirt at the back. The only thing she keeps for now are her trademark hoop earrings, a possible allusion Preminger wanted to make to Bizet’s Carmen, a gipsy cigarette girl from Seville.

 

”Carmen Jones”, 1954. Otto Preminger Films

 

The peach dress is the transition to the glamorous outfits she clads herself in once she trades Joe for Husky. First, a grey sequined sleeveless top and an elegant, tailored, knee-long grey skirt. Then, for the climactic scene, a white lace strapless gown with a white stole on top. The hoop earrings have also been replaced by now, with diamond earrings most probably. But it’s the choice of white that plays up so well the theme of doomed romance and the tragic ending, so stylistically staged by Preminger in that ordinary storage room stacked with cases of empty Coca-Cola bottles. Carmen looks more otherworldly than ever before.

 

”Carmen Jones”, 1954. Otto Preminger Films

 
 

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