“West Side Story” is a beautifully-mounted, impressive, emotion-ridden and violent musical which, in its stark approach to a raging social problem and realism of unfoldment, may set a pattern for future musical presentations. Screen takes on a new dimension in this powerful and sometimes fascinating translation of the Broadway musical to the greater scope of motion pictures. The Robert Wise production, said to cost $6,000,000, should pile up handsome returns, first on a roadshow basis and later in general runs.
The Romeo and Juliet theme, propounded against the seething background of rival and bitterly-hating youthful Puerto Rican and American gangs (repping the Montagues and the Capulets) on the upper West Side of Manhattan, makes for both a savage and tender admixture of romance and war-to-the-death. Technically, it is superb; use of color is dazzling, camera work often is thrilling, editing fast with dramatic punch, production design catches mood as well as action itself.
Even more notable, however, is the music of Leonard Bernstein and most of all the breathtaking choreography of Jerome Robbins, who in film is not limited by space restrictions of the stage. His dancing numbers probably are the most spectacular ever devised and lensed, blending into story and carrying on action that is electrifying to spectator and setting a pace which communicates to viewer. Bernstein’s score, with Stephen Sondheim’s expressive lyrics, accentuates the tenseness that constantly builds.
Ernest Lehman’s screenplay, based upon Arthur Laurents’ solid and compelling book in Robert E. Griffith and Harold S. Prince’ Broadway production, is a faithful adaptation in which he reflects the brutality of the juve gangs which vent upon each other the hatred they feel against the world. Here is juvenile delinquency in its worst and most dangerous sense, and Wise, as producer and co-director with Jerome Robbins, catches the spirit in devastating fashion.
It is a preachment against j.d. even more potent than though it were a “message picture” and in a sense may lack popular appeal, but in the final analysis the overall structure is so superior that it should deliver mass impact. In his direction, Wise utilizes both the stage and screen technique; i.e., long holds on individual scenes and bits of action which suddenly switches to dynamic movement. Effect is stimulating.
Plottage focuses on the romance of a young Puerto Rican girl with a mainland boy which fans the enmity between the two gangs and ultimately leads to the “rumble” which leaves both gang leaders dead of knife wounds and climaxing in the murder of the American swain by girl’s Puerto Rican protector. Characters are excellently delineated, and members of the two gangs, recruited from various “Story” troupes, both Broadway and national, satisfactorily combine their menace with terrific dancing.
Natalie Wood offers an entrancing performance as the Puerto Rican who falls in love with Richard Beymer, forbidden by strict neighborhood ban against group intermingling, and latter impresses with his singing. Most colorful performance, perhaps, is offered by George Chakiris, leader of the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, and brother of femme lead, who appeared in London company in same role portrayed here by Russ Tamblyn, leader of the white Jets gang. Tamblyn socks over his portrayal and scores particularly with his acrobatic terping. Rita Moreno, in love with Chakiris, presents a fiery characterization and also scores hugely.
In rugged support, Tony Mordente stands out as a Jets member who wants action; Tucker Smith, another white gangster; Simon Oakland and William Bramley, police officers; Ned Glass as owner of the candy store where the two gangs hold their war council.
Musical numbers are topped by “America,” lyrics pitting virtues of U.S. against those of Puerto Ricans’ homeland and providing one of the most sensational production dances of entire pic. “Cool,” by Tucker Smith, is background for another terrific dance routine, as is “Gee, Officer Krupke.” Another spirited dance is the two gangs terping on neutral ground in the neighborhood gymnasium, fast and furious, and opening “Jet Song,” led by Tamblyn, gives audience an impression of what is to come.
Half a dozen straight song numbers also lend melody and charm, including “Maria,” sung by Beymer; two other singles by Beymer, “Something Comin'” and “Somewhere”; “I Feel Pretty,” led by Miss Wood; “Tonight,” duet by Beymer and femme; “I Have a Love,” Wood; “A Boy Like That,” Rita Moreno; “One Hand, One Heart,” Beymer-Wood. Singer Marni Nixon dubs Wood’s voice and so perfect is the effect that audience isn’t aware it isn’t actress’ own voice.
Film, opening with a three-minute orchestral overture, has been expertly filmed by Daniel L. Fapp, whose aerial prolog, looking straight down upon Gotham as camera flies from the Battery uptown and swings to West Side, provides impressive views. Johnny Green conducts music score, which runs 51 1/2 minutes; Thomas Stanford’s tight editing maintains a generally rapid pace; Boris Leven scores as production designer; and Saul Bass is responsible for novel presentation of titles and credits. Irene Sharaff, who designed costumes for Broadway, repeats here.
1961: Actor in a Supporting Role — George Chakiris (“Bernardo”), Actress in a Supporting Role — Rita Moreno (“Anita”), Art Direction (Color) — Art Direction: Boris Leven; Set Decoration: Victor A. Gangelin, Cinematography (Color) — Daniel L. Fapp, Costume Design (Color) — Irene Sharaff, Directing — Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins, Film Editing — Thomas Stanford, Music (Scoring of a Musical Picture) — Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green, Sid Ramin, Irwin Kostal, Best Motion Picture — Robert Wise, Producer, Sound — Todd-AO Sound Department, Fred Hynes, Sound Director; and Samuel Goldwyn Studio Sound Department, Gordon E. Sawyer, Sound Director
Nominations: Writing (Screenplay–based on material from another medium) — Ernest Lehman