The subject of a critical reassessment in recent years, following major retrospectives in Europe and America, Hollywood film-maker Otto Preminger worked both as a studio journeyman and an independent producer-director who courted controversy.

Made in 1954, ‘Carmen Jones’ is based on Oscar Hammerstein’s very successful 1940s Broadway musical adaptation of George Bizet’s opera ‘Carmen’. Hammerstein retained Bizet’s music but provided new lyrics, a modern setting in the American south, and employed an all-black cast. Somewhat surprisingly, Preminger’s film kept all these aspects of the stage musical and also made excellent use of the then relatively new cinematic technologies of CinemaScope and stereo sound. Unlike many of his contemporaries, one of whom described the wide-screen process as useful only for filming snakes and funerals, Preminger successfully exploited the aesthetic possibilities of a more expansive visual field.

Apart from Saul Bass’ typically imaginative credit titles sequence, the other highlight of Preminger’s film is Dorothy Dandridge, who is stunning as the passionate factory worker who lures handsome GI Joe (Harry Belafonte) away from his sweetheart Cindy Lou (Olga James). Following a brawl with his sergeant, Joe deserts his regiment for the sultry femme fatale. Carmen soon tires of him and takes up with a heavyweight boxer, triggering Joe’s tragic revenge.

Though not the first Hollywood film to feature an all-black cast, ‘Carmen Jones’ was a daring and risky undertaking in the 1950s. Preminger was soon to emerge as a maverick independent who loved to make unusual and controversial films. He went on to direct Dandridge in the even better ‘Porgy and Bess’ (1959).

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