The Greatest films of all time: 58. West Side Story (1961) (USA)

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Introduction:

It has been said here before that a great film impresses right from the start, for the first few minutes, as it does “West Side Story” from the first minute. Only second to “Singin’ in the Rain” that still needed build up more than a few minutes, “West Side Story” with its fast and engaging tempo from the start to finish still remains one of the greatest films of all time.

 

Adapted from the book of Arthur Laurents and the Broadway musical of the same name directed by Jerome Robbins, the film was directed by Robert Wise who called in Robbins also for collaboration as he did not have any experience in directing musicals. With some inspiration also from the Shakespeare’s Romeo Juliet, a better modern version addressing some American social issues beyond its musical genre, and drama nature of love and hatred. The film stars Natalie Wood in her second major feature role after “Rebel without a cause”, though she played in “Splendor on the grass” at the same year of 1961 as well. Other than her, there are no major stars in the film, but many members of the two gangs of “Sharks” and “Jets” all play well in a concerted fashion that the film needed.

 

George Chakiris (centre), US actor, in a publicity image issued for the film adaptation of ‘West Side Story’, USA, 1961. The musical, directed by Jerome Robbins (1918-1998) and Robert Wise (1914-2005), starred, Chakiris as ‘Bernardo Nunez’. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

A Great Musical Drama on the Screen:

Filmed mostly indoor and in the studio, the film opens with an amazing and novel aerial presentation of the New York City West Side neighborhood where the story happens. Then with no hesitation or build up, the musical starts with the finger snapping, an overture and prologue music score by an orchestra composed of 90 musicians (triple of its stage production) with a mix of classic and jazz instruments, conducted by Leonard Bernstein and Irwin Kostal, who changed some of the Broadway’s scores. Robert Wise with the editing of Citizen Kane in 1941 to his credit, before starting directing and already have made great works such as “The Body Snatcher” in 1945, “Born to Kill” in 1947, and “The Day the Earth Stood Still” in 1951, makes this masterpiece in 1961 and repeats another great musical, “The Sound of Music” in 1965 again in collaboration with Ernest Lehman who wrote both films’ screenplay. Jerome Robbins, a Broadway veteran with great stage works such as “Peter Pan”, “the King and I”, “Bells are Ringing”, and “Fiddler on the Roof” assisted Wise in creating this greatest musical.

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The two gangs of “Jets” all white kids, and the “Sharks” all Latino immigrants from Puerto Rico, are an example of racial conflict in the New York City. Here in the film, the fights for the most part before the final conclusion, are in the form of singing and dancing challenge or preparation for the final real fight or “Rumble” happening at the end. The film being all musical action in a dramatic milieu, carries on the least unless necessary dialogues, sticking to the visual nature of cinema. Multi-colors in the costume and the surroundings adds to the visual power and impression of the film, while the score, the songs and the perfect choreographic dances complement this masterpiece.

 

For a long while the two gangs under their leaders, Riff (Russ Tamblyn) for the Jets and Bernardo (George Chakiris) for the Sharks tease each other in challenging dances. Despite their conflict and hatred towards each others, both gangs are together against the police whenever step in to intervene and control them. Another power of the film is its collective acting of all the gang members who act, dance and sing, not relying on one or two main protagonists. But as in Romeo and Juliet of Shakespeare, the film needs to center on two characters to make it a love story as well. Here first Tony (Richard Beymer), a friend of Riff and co-founder of Jets who has left the group appears in the film, when Riff invites him to come back and participate in their upcoming dance challenge. Then Maria (Natalie Wood), the sister of Bernardo on the Shark side appears on the screen,  in a dialogue with Anita (Rita Moreno), Bernardo’s girlfriend showing her excitement to go on for the dance that she perceives it only as a party, having fun and showing off her beautiful white dress that Anita had just made for her.

 

On the evening of the dance competition, while the dance has started, suddenly everyone blur out when Tony’s eyes fall on Maria whom he notices at once in attraction. Both eyes shining at each other and when Tony approaches Maria and they start dancing in each other arms, everybody in the background of the dance floor go in slow motion, so the camera focuses on this couple who are getting acquainted. This innovative technicality, one after another, the blurring of the scene then the slow motion of the blurred background adds further to the power of the film and building up a strong core center for the story, interjecting the drama component to the film and introducing its principal protagonists.

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When Maria discloses her love of Tony to Anita who is her best friend other than being her brother’s girlfriend, she who’s surprised tries to discourage her of the relationship with the cofounder of their enemy gang. She raises right on time a pressing and still unresolved major social issue of America, that all immigrants are foreigners, and are treated as such by the whites no matter how long they lived in the country: “When immigrant always immigrant”! This leads to the song of “America” singing by all the members of the Sharks between the boys who still hate the whites and do not give in to the subordination as immigrants, and having strong pride in their cultural root, and the girls who show their already blend in attitudes into the American culture.

 

This is Hollywood at its best, a film that could be made only in America, while dealing with its issues. When Maria reminds Tony of the complexity and impossibility of their love affair and the fact that he belongs to Jets by telling him “You’re one of them”, he responds “But I’m not like them”, she argues back “But you’re not like us”! The film is not just a content story, nor a musical show like its stage version, but the camera is in charge and works in different needed angles, close ups, long shots, and more importantly to create more action and thrill, the characters often move towards the camera that was a novelty until then.

 

The film other than raising the minority and immigrant issues in America , addressing the other social issues such as delinquency of the teens who spend most of their times on the streets. In an encountering musical scene with the cops, the Jets blame their parents for not loving and caring for them at home, due to their own problems so having made them a so called “social disease”. There are quite several popular original songs in the film other than “America”, such as “Something’s coming” and “Maria” sang by Tony, “Tonight” sang by Tony and Maria, “I feel pretty” by Maria, “One hand, one heart” and “Somewhere” by Tony and Maria, and “A boy like that/I have a love” by Anita and Maria.   The scenes in the dress shop where Maria and Anita work, between Tony and Maria who play mama and papa to get their agreement on their relationship, then playing their wedding and making vows, is another precious and original moment in the film.

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The Rumble night starts with an eye catching sunset scene, while each of the fighting groups sing in preparation for their fight, with the song of “Tonight” in parallel away from them singing by Tony and Maria who plan to stop the Rumble and making peace between the two gangs. As the gangs start their fight, Tony arrives to the scene to stop them, but the fight between Riff and Bernardo by then has progressed to fighting with knives. When Riff has been stabbed by Bernardo, Tony out of anger enters to the fight and impulsively stabs Bernardo to death. Here the musical and drama has already reached its tragic point.

 

Maria unaware of what has just happened is shown in the next scene in her daydreaming dance, when Chino, one of the Shark boys arrives and breaks the sad news to her. Instead of only mourning for her brother, when she asks if Tony is alright, it upsets the boy who leaves screaming at her: “He killed your brother”. Tony arrives and tries to explain what had happened, but Maria in grief and anger keeps hitting him and calling him a killer. Realizing the tragedy that has shattered their love dream, they are both singing the song “Somewhere” that someday they hopefully could find a new beginning, a new forgiving so redeem their love.

 

Maria plans to farewell with Tony before he submitting himself to the police for killing her brother, when she is interrupted by a detective who arrives in her place for interrogation. So Maria sends Anita to tell the news to Tony who is hiding at the downstairs of a drugstore, but she is stopped by the Jets who attack and about to rape her that they are stopped by the owner of the shop. Anita upset of what had just befallen on her, in anger lies that Chino has killed Maria that makes Tony angry running out yelling for Chino to come out to fight. When Maria suddenly arrives to the scene, Chino in real comes in and shoots Tony. Maria holding Tony lying on the ground dying in her arms, sings their song of “Somewhere” again as their love and dream have died as well. In the final scene, Maria in tears and angst lectures the two groups that hate killed her brother, her lover and Riff and that how long they want to linger on with their hate. The film ends in the seemingly final peace between the two factions who all carry Tony’s body away.

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The most Oscar winners of all musical films and the fourth in the most Academy awards winning of all films of any genre, ranking 41 in 1997 and 51 in 2007 on AFI greatest American Films of all time, and number 2 in the AFI’s greatest musicals of all time, and ranking 3rdin the 100 films with passions, “West Side Story” has pleased all from the lay viewers to the harshest critics.

 

Conclusion:

In closing remarks “West Side Story” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality:“West Side Story” is only second to its original musical stage play and second to “Singin’ in the Rain” among the musical films of all time. The film despite being an adaptation from a book and stage play of the same name, is original in some aspects. It is original in the film version with some changes from the book and the Broadway show to fit better on the screen. Its camera work, mostly close ups with the characters moving towards the lens, its stage plan and costumes, its collective performance and above all its scores, the songs and the perfect choreographic dances, puts the film not among the best musical dramas, but on the list of greatest films of all time.
  2. Technicality:The technicality of “West Side Story” as detailed above is in its well done script adaptation, its music score, sounds, songs, set design and decoration, choreographic dances and some novel camera work and editing. The film collective performances, a rarity in cinema is another great technicality of this masterpiece.
  3. Impact Factor:The influence of “West Side Story” has been on many filmmakers including Robert Wise himself that moved to make another great musical, “The Sound of Music” four years later and other musical films in the coming years.
  4. Survival:“West Side Story” has survived well to this very day as it is still entertaining and unrecognizable by the viewers never seen the film before that has been created almost eight decades ago.

 

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