For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
This entry marks the closing of a pretty large chapter of my journey through AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies. This is film #51 on the list, and if you’re working backwards, which I am, then it makes this film the last film in the bottom half of the list. Every film after this one is in the top 50. So let’s give the lower half a grand ol’ send off, and let’s get straight to #51 “West Side Story.”
I have seen “West Side Story” many times. I have never considered myself a lover of musicals, but this one has always appealed to me. There are a number of reasons why. First, the story, based on Romeo and Juliet, is recognizable and fantastic. This film adaptation of the stage production is one of the few, which whole heartedly embraces the stage qualities of the piece, and at the same time pushes what is possible through the clever use of what a motion picture is capable of.
Next, the music by Leonard Bernstein is remarkably un-musical-ish. It’s challenging and difficult to sing along with, perfect for anyone who tires of awkward young theatre kids belting out Andrew Lloyd Weber songs as they stroll the halls in between classes.
Finally, the use of color is incredible. I am a complete sucker for emotionally rendered overt film color palettes. Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” is another fave that lays the color on thick, but even “Ran” feels pale compared to the emersion in color that “West Side Story” offers.
Just one more thing before we dive into the story, while watching “West Side Story” this time through, I was struck by how pointed the dialogue and some of the visuals are. People may poke fun at the dance fighting and gangs of singing tough guys, but I hope to show you that this film has some real edge to it.
Now to let’s get to the movie. “West Side Story” is Romeo and Juliet, but replace the Montagues and Capulets with the Sharks and the Jets. The film opens with a brawl between the two rival gangs, the Jets, made up mainly of second generation Americans of Eastern European descent, and the Sharks, the first generation immigrants from Puerto Rico.
The banter between the rival gangs, Officer Krupke (William Bramley), and Lieutenant Schrank (Simon Oakland) underlines the ethnic divide of the time and does so in a palatable way. Bernardo’s (George Chakiris) request for a translation is funny and perfectly placed.
Now that we’ve got the teams in place, let’s get to Rita Moreno as Anita. Here Bernardo, preparing for a war council with the Jets, disputes the opportunities that exist in America. Anita mocks his melodramatic delivery.
Rita Moreno owns every single moment she’s on screen. The song itself feels a tad dated, but Moreno’s performance gives it vivacity, and the casual use of racial slurs to make a larger point feels modern. Moreno like many other Latino/Latina performers of the early sixties was pigeonholed into roles that were loud, exuberant or overly sexual, but with Anita there is intelligence, strength, and humanity. Anita is a voice of reason for most of the film.
While Anita and Bernardo are arguing about Puerto Rico, Tony (Richard Beymer), a former member of the Jets, has fallen for Maria (Natalie Wood), Bernardo’s younger sister. After the dance, Tony goes searching for Maria, and finds her on a fire escape outside of her window.
Here director Robert Wise does a very stagey thing in a very filmy way. Our hero and heroine are consumed with their emotions and the world around them falls away. If this were a stage production this would be a perfect time for a spotlight to vignette our characters. Instead Wise achieves the same end by matting our characters and adding blurry colorful layers to the outer edges of the film. This isolates our characters in their moment, in the same way a spotlight would.
This new love gives us hope that the rift between the gangs might be healed, but Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and Bernardo are determined to have their fight. As the fight begins, Tony, at Maria’s request, rushes to stop it.
This scene exemplifies “West Side Story.” The film is all style. The location is obviously a set. The red light that is splashed across the scene offers a deadly foreboding. The people are more often dancing than fighting. The content still comes through, and we understand what’s been lost when Tony plunges his switch knife into Bernardo.
Tony rushes back to Maria, and in the throws of despair or perhaps a fool’s hope, they consummate their relationship.
This song, this moment is beautiful and tragic. It is an indictment of the hatred and racial intolerance that surrounds them. Our main characters would never need to sing for somewhere they can escape to, if the world they lived in were better. It’s not too large a leap to extract the song from the film and sing it with the same hope and sadness in the United States of the 1960s. This may not be the face slap from “In the Heat of the Night,” but “Somewhere” has an eerily subversive power.
I want to talk a little about the music, and how the choreography works with the camera moves. In this next scene, Ice (Tucker Smith) tells the rest of the Jets that they need to cool it, in order to cover their tracks and distance themselves from the murders of Riff and Bernardo.
In the same way that Scorsese uses the camera in “Taxi Driver,” the camera’s movements in “West Side Story” force the viewer to participate in the action. The action on screen is never confusing because the dancing and camera moves are in sync and reinforce one another. If a group of dancers explode to the right of frame, then the camera quickly pans to the right. If the dancers move straight towards the camera, then it tracks backwards, leading them and keeping them perfectly centered. This awareness of the camera is used powerfully when at the end Action (Tony Mordente) throws up his finger gun and shoots the viewers. We are part of the scene.
The moment that puts the final pieces of the story in motion and ultimately results in Tony’s death is Anita’s visit to Doc’s shop. Maria sends her with a message to Tony, but the Jets are there and unwilling to talk to her.
This scene is as well constructed and disturbing a scene as you can get really. Again Rita Moreno is perfect, but I think the most upsetting thing about the scene is the aggressive dance, which simulates the gang rape of Anita. She is the one person who could save Tony, but because the Jets can’t see past their hatred of the Sharks and the other Puerto Ricans, Anita changes the message. The Jets have all but killed Tony.
“West Side Story” isn’t a perfect film. Natalie Wood as Maria takes a back seat to Moreno, and Tamblyn is stronger as Riff than Beymer is as Tony. (An interesting aside: Almost thirty years later Beymer and Tamblyn would be reunited by David Lynch in a little show called Twin Peaks. Beymer played Ben Horn and Tamblyn was Dr Jakobi.) It’s also a little weird that Wood, a woman of Eastern European descent, was cast as a Puerto Rican immigrant. Still the message of the film is even more poignant today. With concern over undocumented workers and illegal aliens, perhaps we should all revisit “West Side Story” and learn a lesson or two from the Jets and the Sharks.