Okay, so this is a ballet, not a black-and-white noir with Robert Mitchum or Burt Lancaster. And the title is, in my opinion, too clever for its own good. Yes, choreographer Matthew Bourne uses great chunks of Bizet's throbbing, tempestuous music, but the story has little to do with Carmen. The Car Man is based on The Postman Always Rings Twice. It's as horny, bloody, brutal and melodramatic as the Garfield-Turner movie or the book, and with an added erotic twist. In other words, it's a great noir story which has been turned into a great noir dance production.
When the tough drifter Luca (Alan Vincent) wanders into the mid-Western town of Harmony, population 375, he winds up at Dino's Diner and Garage. Dino (Scott Ambler) is an overweight, uncouth guy with a younger sex-pot of a wife, Lana (Saranne Curtin). She and her sister, Rita (Etta Murfitt) run the diner. Dino's mechanics in his garage are all small-town bullies and blusterers. They torment a young guy, Angelo (Will Kemp), with sexual innuendo; that Angelo is the boyfriend of Lana's sister makes no difference. He's not tough enough to stand up to them, and that makes him fair game. Luca quickly establishes who is the top guy and intervenes to stop the bullying of Angelo. And when Luca and Lana spot each other, we know nothing good is going to happen. Then Dino has to be away for a night. The two would-be lovers are just about to consummate their lust when Dino unexpectedly returns. Luca barely escapes with his shoes...and uses the opportunity to finish off things with Angelo. Luca is just as happy to use male or female as long he's the one in charge. It's not long before Luca and Lana are discovered...and Dino has his head smashed in by a heavy wrench, first swung by Lana and then, with Lana urging him on, by Luca. They set things up so that Angelo takes the fall. While they spend Dino's money drinking and gambling, Angelo is assaulted in prison, but escapes with a guard's gun. He and Luca and Lana are going to meet again in front of the garage. Luca may be having a crisis of conscience, maybe even Lana, too. Is it going to do them any good?
There are two things that make this ballet work. First, course, is Matthew Bourne's originality and choreography. The dance set pieces are vigorous and to the point, and when they need to show longing or lust, they do. Bourne often drives traditional ballet mavens up the wall. He is no traditionalist and he doesn't hesitate to use whatever dance styles do the job. He also loves to give traditional stories a twist, often but not always with an erotic element that has homo-erotic themes as well as hetero-erotic. When Luca and Lana first show their explicit lust for each other in front of the garage after Dino leaves, they are joined by the mechanics and their girlfriends. These are guys where "love" means their girl friends put out and then, afterwards, "Get me a beer." Bourne and his TV director Ross MacGibbon create a dark, hot dance where the sex is almost explicit in the cutting and becomes part of the dance. Toward the end there is a long duet between Luca and the bloody corpse of Dino which Lucas' conscience brought to the surface. The two dancers, Vincent and Ambler, create a stumbling, terrible vision of retribution on its way. Later, when Luca faces off with Angelo and meets his fate, there is a bloody, explicit kiss which really is shocking. The second thing that makes The Car Man work is the dancers. The women all look sexy and petulant. Lana has a figure that would make the real Lana Turner envious. Even more necessary for this ballet to work, Luca and the mechanics are genuinely tough-looking guys. They are highly skilled dancers but no one breaks the image, by either facial expression or movement, of being small-town, ignorant bullies. Scott Ambler, with a realistically padded stomach, plays Dino with as much acting skill as dancing skill. There also is no attempt to disguise unshaved underarms or hide the sweat the dancers generate dancing. The weather in Harmony is hot and humid. The place looks like it reeks of beer, sex and sweat. So do the dancers.
While Bourne created The Car Man as a theater piece, he and MacGibbon have shot and edited it to be a cinematic experience. Traditionalists who want a camera positioned in front of the stage and then switched to automatic pilot will be displeased. Quick cutting at times, close-ups of glances, camera angles that give us far more immediacy than a theater seat would, and a tour-de-force of cutting, camera smears and sound that create the illusion of cars racing, all add up to a dynamic viewing experience. It really works in terms of dramatic tension and movement, and it obviously is exactly what Matthew Bourne wanted.
For those who might be interested in Bourne's other work on DVD, try his great take on Swan Lake and his innocently naughty version of Nutcracker. His last major theater ballet to date is based on Edward Scissorhands. It finished its American tour a couple of months ago to terrific reviews. I hope the DVD is on the way soon. The DVD of The Car Man, by the way, has a great transfer.
So can a ballet be considered a noir? When it's based on The Postman Always Rings Twice it can, especially when its as sexy, brutal and hopeless as Bourne makes it.