Sexy `Carmen Jones' at Walters tonight

Film

February 01, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Tonight at 7:30, in the recently upgraded Graham Auditorium (the sound system has been thoroughly revamped), the Walters Art Museum kicks off its new film series, "Walters Live: At the Movies," with a rare CinemaScope screening of the sizzling 1954 hit Carmen Jones, a blend of Bizet's Carmen, American musical comedy and film noir.

When Dorothy Dandridge sashays on screen in the title role, a sneering co-worker calls her a "hip-swinging floozy." Actually, she swings every part of her body. Without inhibition or hesitation, Dandridge throws herself into portraying the ultimate femme fatale in this potent update and transfer of Carmen from the garrisons and gypsy camps of Spain to the garrisons and ghettos of Florida and Chicago.

Directed by Otto Preminger, it's based on Oscar Hammerstein's 1943 Broadway show. It turns Carmen from a worker in a cigarette factory to a worker in a wartime parachute factory, her love-lost brigadier, Don Jose, into a corporal named Joe (here played by Harry Belafonte), and the toreador Escamillo, Carmen's final lover, into boxing champ Husky Miller (Joe Adams). It's fun to hear familiar operatic showstoppers done in the vernacular - "The Toreador Song" done as "Stan' Up and Fight" and "The Gypsy Song" done as "Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum." Except for Pearl Bailey, who is wonderfully sly as a good-time gal who becomes one of the boxer's camp followers, Preminger dubbed the lead players' singing voices. Marilyn Horne sings for Dandridge, and LeVern Hutcherson for Belafonte. If that process adds to Belafonte's discomfort - he gives a Cub Scout interpretation of a bewitched, bewildered man - it doesn't faze Dandridge.

Horne's soaring voice blends seamlessly with Dandridge's exuberance. Carmen is determined to live in complete freedom, without regard for consequences, and every move Dandridge makes demonstrates her innate sense of liberty. Few female stars have crawled over a man as provocatively as Dandridge does over Belafonte.

When Carmen Jones draws the "death card" from a deck (the nine of spades), she accepts her doom - but immediately declares, "While I kin fly aroun' I'll do my flyin' high!" Dandridge captures Carmen's unique quality: a resignation that is fierce and fearless.

The movie's musical-comedy elements include Hammerstein's slangy lyrics, choreographer Herbert Ross' adaptation of jazz dancing to Bizet's music, and Preminger's ability to use the wide CinemaScope screen as a proscenium stage and to exploit locations like a canteen or a roadside cafe as if they were infinitely flexible stage sets.

The movie's film-noir aura comes from the way it sets Joe's personal turmoil against the harsh backdrops of boxing and the military. And Dandridge's Carmen is a great film-noir antiheroine. In her final scenes, Preminger swathes her in white fur and sequins. She becomes an Angel of Death - her own.

The Walters is at 600 N. Charles St. For more information, call 410-547-9000 or go to the Web site www.thewalters.org.

When little girls go bad

The Charles Theatre's Saturday film series presents The Bad Seed, a 1956 camp classic about a demon child, starring Patty McCormack as a sociopathic little girl and Nancy Kelly as her mother. As one Web-based critic wrote, "If you've ever wanted to see a production of Annie starring Rosemary's Baby, or wondered how Pippi Longstocking would do playing Hannibal Lecter, you really shouldn't pass this up."

The movie screens at noon.

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