Maria saunters on the ledge of a fire escape while Tony serenades her from the pavement below. The camera is tilted at about 45 d egrees, giving us a slanted view of the newly-in-love couple, as if we were lying on our backs and looking directly up at two angels singing from the heavens. The camera placement is clearly intentional and speaks greatly about what this version of “West Side Story” is trying to be. Going with just a wide shot would evoke a version of the Bernstein and Sondheim story that’s more akin to high school theater productions, where we’re sitting in an auditorium, displaced, watching from afar. Pushing the camera too close where we might only see their heads, or utilizing some sort of advanced cinematic transition to dissolve, blur or magnify their faces would feel artificial and obstruct the magic of the story.
But this angle, tilted, displaced from below, looking up towards the heavens, quite literally puts us in the center of the action. We exist at the heart of Maria and Tony’s romance, still an audience but an actively engaged one, uniquely manifested in their tragic romantic destiny. The shot is call to action by directors Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, an invitation to snap our fingers, mambo our legs and get cool on the isle Manhattan. Romeo and Juliet had soul, but “West Side Story’s” characters have enough swagger for 12 in a room and then some.
This is a visionary spectacle that utilizes the cinematic medium to improve on an already triumphant work of art in every way imaginable. Unlike “The King and I,” “West Side Story” isn’t afraid to get its feet wet in both the murky waters of studio and on location New York puddles, utilizing the real concrete jungle when need be, but not afraid to build their one out of their dreams.
The film is constantly aware of itself as a movie and as a musical, making thoughtful decisions to appeal to both sentimentalities without weakening the other. The “America” dance sequence is experienced almost exactly as it would be on stage of a theater production, but “Get Cool” incorporates advanced shots, tilts and effects to magnify the action. And that’s not even mentioning the vivid, colorful dissolves between scenes, blurring not only the lines between film and theater, but fiction and reality.
Natalie Wood evokes innocence and charm as Maria, a damaged daisy growing among New York weeds. Her voice radiates with the spirit of a devoted church choir, even finding humor between her grace and humility. Richard Beymer balances the masculinity and frailty of Tony’s spirit with sturdy hands, his heart nearly ripped in two between the pulls of devoted lovers and so-called friends. George Chakiris oozes cool as Bernardo, the tough guy, substitute patriarch to Maria. But Rita Moreno’s Anita is the one who steals the show, a supporting character whose tragedies are ten-fold to what the lead characters must experience.
The songs mostly translate to screen without error, save for the occasional sigh of boredom and sarcastic snickers. You must have been born without a funny bone if you don’t find yourself laughing a bit at the Jets’ “Get Cool” performance near the end. But for the most part, Bernstein and Sondheim have crafted a story that is endlessly enjoyable and translatable to any medium, a unique foresight that the American immigrant experience was always going to be rocky, and that we were prone to violent warlike behavior, even though there were no true battles to be fought at home.
Saying “West Side Story” is great is nothing new, but Wise and Robbins were able to keep the heart of Bernstein and Sondheim’s story still beating, all the while making it even more impressive and resonant with the power of cinema. Most movies make us unaware of the technical craftsmanship that bring their stories to life. But since we are aware that “West Side Story” was a musical before a movie, we now watch closer in-between the dances and the songs, between the snaps and the ballet twirls, to see the process unfold before us, fully immersing ourselves in the moviemaking magic.