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Saul Bass’ first set of film titles was also the first of many projects for independent director-producer Otto Preminger, initiating a collaboration that would last for twenty-five years and a dozen films. For Carmen Jones, as he would for so many of Preminger’s films, Bass created a distinctive, iconic image by which the film would be instantly recognizable. The single, line-drawn image of a rose engulfed in a red, snaking flame echoes the red skirt of Carmen Jones, the rose between her teeth, and the destructive passions she arouses in Joe, the hapless young military officer.
The film itself is cited as a landmark film because of its all-black cast (its star, Dorothy Dandridge, was the first African-American woman to receive an Oscar nomination for a lead role) and Oscar Hammerstein’s reinvention of Bizet opera in African-American vernacular. Of course, given the film’s vintage, the film is as prickly and perhaps ill-considered as the original idea implies and, like its source material, is encoded with suspect notions about the evil, seductive powers of the black woman. Upon its release, James Baldwin famously lambasted the film for its parsing of stereotypes of light- and dark-skinned blacks. And enlivened as it is by Dorothy Dandridge’s scorching onscreen presence (revived in Preminger’s adaptation of Porgy and Bess five years later), the film nonetheless dispenses with the vocal talents of most of its performers in favor of those of “classically trained” (and often white) singers. As Jeff Smith has reported in his revealing essay on the film, Preminger and his producers seem to have equivocated on whether Dandridge and Harry Belafonte – though seasoned performers in the cabaret and calypso worlds, respectively – were up to the task of performing in the putatively superior musical form of opera.