Monday 1 August 2016

Movie Review: West Side Story (1961)

A groundbreaking musical, West Side Story is a spectacular story of love and violence, delivered with high energy performances, superb choreography and audacious staging.

Two gangs of teenagers vie for control of the streets on New York City's west side. Riff (Russ Tamblyn) leads the Jets, made up of American offspring of Polish immigrants. Bernardo (George Chakiris) leads the rival Sharks, who represent the recently arrived Puerto Rican community. Lieutenant Schrank (Simon Oakland) and Officer Krupke (William Bramley) struggle to keep a lid on the violence.

Riff decides to stage a once-and-for-all brawl to decide who rules the streets, and reaches out to Jets co-founder Tony (Richard Beymer) to help plan the clash. Although Tony is trying to leave gang life behind and now has a legitimate job at the drugstore owned by Doc (Ned Glass), he reluctantly agrees to support his friend.

At a gym dance on neutral territory attended by both gangs and their girlfriends, Tony meets and falls in love with Maria (Natalie Wood), Bernando's younger sister. Their relationship across gang lines is forbidden, but they push on regardless. Bernando's girlfriend Anita (Rita Moreno) is also Maria's best friend, and she is torn between supporting Maria's secret affair and staying loyal to her man. Maria pleads with Tony to put a stop to the violence, but as the big showdown approaches, there is plenty of ill intent on all sides.

Co-directed by Robert Wise and choreographer Jerome Robbins, West Side Story is the adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, which in turn was inspired by Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet. The screen version was years ahead of its time for a cinematic musical, and set standards for staging visually dynamic group dance numbers, all the violence stylized into dancing, the story propelled by a succession of classic songs.

Working with cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp, Wise and Robbins continuously find innovative perspectives to capture the dance sequences. With sharp editing, the camera alternates between broad shots capturing the full troupe to fluid motion close-ups embedded within the dancers. The actors are captured from various perspectives, with Wise always finding reasons to look up, look down, or look beyond, and cleverly playing with lights, shadows and visual effects. The use of colour to distinguish the gangs is exemplary, the Jets decked out in lighter yellows and browns, their girls in bright pastels, while the Sharks and their women are all about dark purple, dark red and black.

The songs are generally short and pointed, and do enough to highlight the prevailing emotions without getting in the way. The highlights are many, and include the raucous America, encapsulating all that is good and bad about the immigrant dream; the trio of love ballads Maria, Tonight and Somewhere, and more fun interludes like Gee, Officer Krupke and I Feel Pretty. Wise keeps the action moving to various locations, and does an excellent job escaping stage trappings. The back lane fire escape becomes an iconic home for romance to blossom between Maria and Tony, the railings creating a cage of limitations not of their own making.

The film's themes are eternal and remain relevant, the "us" and "them" mentality mixing with the aimlessness of abandoned youth, and some of the lyrics starkly pointing to failures at home catapulting kids onto the street. No parents are ever seen in the film; they are an absentee presence, their flawed offspring littering the sidewalks and unequipped to navigate life without resorting to insults and assaults.

Natalie Wood does well as a Puerto Rican girl flowering into a woman and landing in the middle of gang warfare, Wood's sprightly innocence allowing her to overcome the ethnic mix-up in her casting. Rita Moreno is the other stand-out performer, bringing the most conflicted passion to the role of Anita. The men are more about the collective rather than the individual, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris lacking star quality as actors but therefore allowing the gangs to shine as central entities, as they should in a story about individuals only having courage when part of a faceless mob.

West Side Story is a stellar achievement, an unblinking look at a street-level romantic tragedy turned into one of Hollywood's all-time best musicals.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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