Despite what I say during the show, this is the *fourth* of our podcasts in our Robert Wise film festival. We’ve reviewed “The Curse Of The Cat People”, “The Day The Earth Stood Still”, and “Run Silent, Run Deep”. And now, “West Side Story”.
“West Side Story” tells the tale of two rival gangs, the Sharks and the Jets on the west side of New York City during early 1960’s, or perhaps late 1950s. Although the plot unfolds over the course of many days or weeks, the film presents events so as to appear to happen all in one long 24 hour period, starting early in the morning on a playground full of kids of all kinds playing and dancing and ending early in the morning, likely just before sunrise on the same playground, again filled with kids from the two rival gangs carrying Tony away, police in the background, as the camera pulls out to a near aerial view, similar to where the film started.
The kids live in the poorest parts of New York City. They come from immigrant families, some are first generation and others are 2nd or 3rd generation families. The kids from the Jets are mainly immigrants from Ireland and northern Europe while the kids from the Sharks are from Puerto Rico, so in fact it would be wrong to call them immigrants since Puerto Rico has been a US territory since 1912. Interestingly they are portrayed as immigrants and the outsiders in the film.
Well, not quite, because all of the kids are outsiders from the perspective of the potentially corrupt Officer Schrank, excellently portrayed by Simon Oakland. And he’s one of many of the fantastic actors in the film, including Russ Tamblyn, Richard Beymer, George Chakiris, Rita Moreno, who put in a performance of a lifetime, and of course the incomparable Natalie Wood. Accompanied by the award winning score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. In fact, the film won 10 Academy Awards in 1962, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematographer, Best Actor in Supporting Role, and Best Actress in Supporting Role.
All of this is expertly directed by one of our favorite directors of all-time, Mr. Robert Wise with choreography and co-direction by Jerome Robbins. And wow, what a combination! Clearly Mr. Wise is at the top of his form and will continue to be for many many years to come. After this film he will go on to direct “The Sound of Music”, “Star”, “The Andromeda Strain”, “The Haunting”, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and others. And a mark of a true professional and craftsman, Mr. Wise surrounded himself by the best in every category of film-making, realizing that he couldn’t do all the choreography, he brought in a top person, Jerome Robbins, to assist.
I and could go on and on, but I’d like to focus in on two aspects of the film that really stood out to me. One is the use of color and framing in the cinematography and the other is the use of very subtle visual queues to deliver a subtext message in the film.
Take a look a the following montage of stills from the film. Just scroll down and notice, as you scroll, the way the tone changes from bright and colorful to dark and dreary. The colors shift throughout the film as well to support the emotional tone, reds are used in times of intense emotional stress or action while more pastel tones are used in times of peaceful reflection or to support an emotional positive message. The ending of the film is nearly black and white and the frame is mostly filled with deep black or dark grey.
The second visual trick can be seen in the background of the film. The posters and wall paintings. During a scene where The Jets are singing and dancing about “America” we see a large image of a blonde, potentially blue eyed, woman with the words “America” and “Sparkling” in large and easy to read text. So even as the kids from Puerto Rican families, legally Americans, are dancing and singing about America, we’re delivered an image of America that is “other” than them. Reinforcing the feeling that they are outsiders in their own country.
Later in the film, as the fallout from the confrontation between the Jets and the Sharks unfolds, we see several sequences showing an image of a stern looking man in a suit that reads “Vote Al Wood”. It’s almost Orwellian in it’s dramatic display of the hand of power that operates in these kids’ lives. Do we think that voting for Al Wood will have any impact on their lives? These kids are disenfranchised from the system, made to fight for their lives in what feels like an endless cycle of violence that is reinforced by the systems of power rather than the systems of power intervening to actually help these kids get out of their most unfortunate of circumstances.
So yeah. This is a film that on the surface appears to be a musical based on the story of Romeo and Juliet. And then you watch it, and it unfolds in such a way, that by the end you’re left feeling like you’ve been hit in the gut and you’re reeling with trying to wrap your mind around what you just witnessed.
At least that’s the affect it had on me.
Bob and I hope you enjoy this one. It’s deserving of the highest praise, and while not perfect, it’s certainly at the very top of our scale.