WEST SIDE STORY
By Bosley Crowther
Published: October 19, 1961
What they have done with West Side Story in knocking it down and moving it from stage to screen is to reconstruct its fine material into nothing short of a cinema masterpiece.
In every respect, the recreation of the Arthur Laurents-Leonard Bernstein musical in the dynamic forms of motion pictures is superbly and appropriately achieved. The drama of New York juvenile gang war, which cried to be released in the freer and less restricted medium of the mobile photograph, is now given range and natural aspect on the large Panavision color screen, and the music and dances that expand it are magnified as true sense-experiences.
The strong blend of drama, dance, and music folds into a rich artistic whole. It may be seen at the Rivoli Theatre, where it had its world premiere last night.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of it is the sweep and vitality of the dazzling Jerome Robbins dances that the kids of the seamy West Side do. Here is conveyed the wild emotion that burns in these youngsters' tough, lithe frames. Here are the muscle and the rhythm that bespeak a collective energy.
From the moment the camera swings grandly down out of the sky at the start of the film and discovers the Jets, a gang of tough kids, twitching restlessly in a playground park, bodies move gracefully and fiercely in frequent spontaneous bursts of dance, and even the movements of the characters in the drama have the grace of actors in a ballet.
This pulsing persistence of rhythm all the way through the film—in the obviously organized dances, such as the arrogant show-offs of the Jets, that swirl through playgrounds, alleys, school gymnasiums, and parking lots, and in the less conspicuous stagings, such as that of the "rumble" (battle) of the two kids—gives an overbeat of eloquence to the graphic realism of this film and sweeps it along, with Mr. Bernstein's potent music, to the level of an operatic form.
Against, or within, this flow of rhythm is played the tender drama of two nice kids, a Puerto Rican girl and a Polish boy, who meet and fall rapturously in love, despite the hatred and rivalry of their respective ethnic groups, and are plunged to an end that is tragic, just like Romeo and Juliet.
Every moment of the drama has validity and integrity, got from skillful, tasteful handling of a universal theme. Ernest Lehman's crackling screenplay, taken from Arthur Laurent's book, and Robert Wise's incisive direction are faithful and cinema-wise, and the performances are terrific except in one major role.
Richard Beymer's characterization of the boy who meets and loves the girl is a little thin and pretty-pretty, but Natalie Wood is full of luster and charm as the nubile Puerto Rican who is poignantly drawn to him. Rita Moreno is a spitfire as Miss Wood's faithful friend, and George Chakiris is proud and heroic as her sweetheart and leader of the rival gang.
Excellent as young toughs (and dancers) in a variety of characterizations are Russ Tamblyn, Tucker Smith, Tony Mordente, Jose De Vega, Jay Norman, and many more, and outstanding girls are Gina Trikonis, Yvonne Othon, Suzie Kaye, and Sue Oakes.
Although the singing voices are, for the most part, dubbed by unspecified vocal performers, the device is not noticeable and detracts not one whit from the beauty and eloquence of the songs.
In the end, of course, the moral of the tragedy comes through in the staggering sense of wastage of the energies of kids. It is screamed by the candy-store owner, played trenchantly by Ned Glass, when he flares, "You kids make this world lousy! When will you stop?"
It is a cry that should be heard by thoughtful people—sympathetic people—all over the land.
WEST SIDE STORY (MOVIE)
Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins; written by Ernest Lehman, based on the play by Arthur Laurents, from a conception by Mr. Robbins, inspired by Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare; cinematographer, Daniel Fapp; edited by Thomas Stanford; music by Leonard Bernstein; choreography by Mr. Robbins; production designer, Boris Leven; produced by Mr. Wise; released by United Artists. Running time: 155 minutes.
With: Natalie Wood (Maria), Richard Beymer (Tony), Russ Tamblyn (Riff), Rita Moreno (Anita), George Chakiris (Bernardo), Tucker Smith (Ice), Tony Mordente (Action), David Winters (Arab), Eliot Feld (Baby John), Bert Michaels (Snowboy), and Sue Oakes (Anybodys).