Carmen (1918)

by popegrutch

Alternate Title: “Gypsy Blood”

Coming early in the careers of Ernst Lubitsch and Pola Negri, this filmed version of the famous novella/opera gave them an opportunity to work with “serious” cultural material. Does this European interpretation of the story work better than its American predecessors?

The movie opens with a group of gypsies sitting around a campfire at night. One of them launches into the story of “La Carmencita” and the man she ruined. We now see Don Jose (played by Harry Liedke), who visits his mother and sweetheart in the hills before he arrives in Seville to receive a promotion to the rank of Sergeant. This is a great honor for a man of humble beginnings. We can see from his shy interactions with his fiancé that he has little knowledge of the ways of the world. At Seville, we see a parade at the changing of the guard, which seems to be a big draw for crowds, including the girls at the local tobacco factory, who wave at the soldiers and flirt with men on the street. The most beautiful, and aggressive, is of course Carmen (Negri). She sees Don Jose mooning over a letter from his sweetheart and resolves to have some fun with him. She teases him with a rose, which he mostly ignores until she leaves, then notices how marvelously sweet the odor is once she’s gone.

Back on the job at the factory, Carmen gets a love note from one of her admirers telling her to meet him on the ramparts at night, and one of the other girls steals it and mocks her. She reacts with rage and the two fight. The other girls hold Carmen and run off to find soldiers to arrest her, led of course by Don Jose, who is from the same province as Carmen. She goes with him but convinces him to let her run away, and she makes good her escape, but the soldiers with Don Jose report him for assisting her. He is imprisoned, broken back to the ranks and humiliated. Carmen isn’t quick to abandon him, however, she brings him a loaf of bread with a file in it and offers to distract the jailor while he escapes, but he refuses. She leaves in disgust.

Soon, Don Jose is released and working again as a lowly guard. Carmen is invited to dance at a party for Colonel Rodriguez, and of course Don Jose is there. She drives him wild with her dancing, but pays more attention to the Colonel for his money. Still, she promises to meet Don Jose if he will come to Pastia’s, the hangout that she frequents with various lowlifes and scoundrels. Some of those scoundrels are smugglers, and they are counting on Carmen to come up with a plan for them to transport goods through the city gates. She doesn’t really have a plan, but doesn’t bother to tell them that. When Don Jose shows up, she shows her interest in him again, becoming insistent when the bugle blows and he has to return to his barracks. He mentions as he’s leaving that he’ll be guarding the very gate the smugglers hope to use and Carmen gets an idea. Late at night, she meets him at the wall, with the smugglers in tow. They embrace as the smugglers go through, and she promises him more to follow the next day.

On that day, she and Don Jose shop for fine foods and wines for their day together, and she kicks out the old lady (Margarete Kupfer) she shares quarters with so they can have some privacy. Unfortunately, Colonel Rodriguez takes it into his head to visit Carmen this day, and bribes the old lady to let him in, resulting in a sword fight between him and Don Jose. It seems the Colonel is the better swordsman, but he trips on the stairs and is run through by Jose’s sword. Now a murderer, Don Jose is finally ruined by his desire for Carmen.

Things go from bad to worse for him as he tries to go on the run with Carmen and take on the life of a bandit. He’s too decent to kill the soldier guarding a coach they rob, and the solider brings reinforcements to attack their camp. Carmen loses interest in him and makes her way to Gibraltar, where she meets the famous bullfighter Escamillo (Magnus Stifter). She rides in his carriage as they return in triumph to Seville, where Don Jose once again sees her and his heart is inflamed. When he confronts her, she tells him of her new interest, and that her love for Don Jose has died. Jose stabs her to death, completing his own damnation. Back at the campfire seen at the beginning, the man who told the story adds that some say that Carmen did not die ′for she was in league with the Devil himself.’

I’m not sure how fair of a review I can give this movie, because the Telavista disc I watched was of very poor quality. In fact, the reason for the paucity of images for this review is because my computer pretty much refused to even play this garbage disc. So, it’s entirely possible that with a little digital remastering and a decent score, I’d get a lot more out of this. Still, compared to the other Lubitsch films I’ve reviewed, it seems lacking in that famous “touch” of his. I was particularly surprised by the crowd scenes, which in “The Oyster Princess” are so wonderfully choreographed, but here seem haphazard and undefined. The “changing of the guard” sequence was so boring it reminded me of those endless parades of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when directors just assumed any movement on the screen was enough to hold an audience’s attention.

Negri, too, seems capable of better. She is undeniably a presence on the screen, and she is displays the boldness, vivacity, and charm that the role demands, but she rather over-acts in a lot of this movie. I wonder if she was trying to be “operatic” in her gestures and expressions, perhaps with an idea that this is what an audience would expect. Toning it down a bit would have made a more successful performance for me. One thing I’ll say is that it seems to me that this version sticks closer to the original story than others I’ve seen from the period, and it’s not surprising that Lubitsch and Negri are unafraid to deal frankly with the sexual aspects of the situation. However, what Lubitsch excels at really is sexuality combined with humor, and there’s little enough of that here. It is, of course, a tragedy, although that hardly stopped Chaplin from finding its funny side. I wish Lubitsch had gone a bit more in that direction, but someday I may see a better print that changes my mind.

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Camera: Alfred Hansen

Starring: Pola Negri, Harry Liedke, Margarete Kupfer, Max Kronert, Magnus Stifter, Victor Janson

Run Time: 1 hr, 5 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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