Saturday, 9 August 2008

West Side Story (1961)

Recently celebrating its 50th anniversary, in its own words this musical "grows younger" with the passing of time. For my own appreciation of this film, I am indebted on this occasion to a certain amount of maternal influence.

Way back in the 1970's in Aylesbury, my mother kept the film soundtrack of West Side Story as one of her most cherished possessions. I didn't know much about music - or films - in those days, but curiosity one day compelled me to ask what that slightly abstract album cover (above) was all about, with two silhouetted figures dancing for joy down some ladders. It was, I soon discovered, connected to a modern day musical version of Romeo & Juliet, transplanting the setting to the streets of New York with two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, and the two lovers were naturally members of opposite sides.

It was such a favourite of Mum's that she had actually seen the film in the cinema four times, which knocked my obsession for Star Wars (that I'd seen in the cinema a mere twice) into the shade.

Such devotion to a film inevitably compelled me to find out for myself what all the fuss was about. When video cassette recording became fashionable, one of the first films we recorded from the TV was West Side Story - for Mum's benefit, and so also ultimately, for mine too.

It's a film musical which immediately strikes you as bold and rather different, from the first unexpected image which is of some vertical lines across the screen. This continues for several minutes, while some of the film's melodies are overtured. This must have been bizarre and fascinating for cinema audiences to watch, with the image projected over the curtains as they waited for the film to start. As the curtains eventually parted, the three-word title emerges at the bottom of the screen, and those enigmatic lines suddenly turn out to be the skyline of Manhattan.

From that moment, I was hooked. Any film which discharges the need for any unnecessary names of actors and technicians in its opening credits will always win me over. The idea for the opening sequence, together with the long, lingering camera flying over Manhattan towards the story's backstreet setting, was the idea of the film's chief co-director Robert Wise - in collaboration with the stage show's original director Jerome Robbins. With Robbins involved in most of the choreography and Wise dealing with the dramatic side, United Artists hoped to get the best of both worlds. Inevitably however Robbins' ceaseless overworking of his actors (and the budget) led to him being replaced in mid-production with Wise totally supervising all the remaining sequences.

Robbins' hand is very evident in the opening ballet where the first skirmish between Jets and Sharks takes place. After the atmospheric opening we pan down to see Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and his cohorts gathered, finger-clicking in time to the music, and then suddenly see them prancing around like ballet dancers, which may have worked on stage, but to say the least it looks a little odd on screen, in such tough real-life surroundings.

The pirouettes excepted, the opening (completely unspoken) first 10 minutes are a great introduction to the film, not least because of the electrifying music of Leonard Bernstein, whose masterful score is the lynchpin of the film throughout.

As for the singing...well, in those days most actors were actually dubbed by professionally trained singers, but no-one gave it too much thought until it was revealed that major stars the like of Deborah Kerr and Audrey Hepburn were actually being dubbed by Marni Nixon - or in this case, also Natalie Wood, the film's nominal star.

Her casting was the product of a certain amount of compromise brought about by the studio. The makers' original intent was to use relative unknowns in the main roles, to add to the boldness (although Russ Tamblyn was not without renown having appeared in notable musicals such as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and Rita Moreno was also a veteran of supporting character roles), but some sort of star name was needed for the sake of the billing. Miss Wood had just come off the back of a strong role opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, and her other emerging films of the 1960's meant that she was a bankable enough name without also being too much of a cash-in for the moneymen. I think she gives a refreshingly bright, truthful and hard-working performance which gives the film much of its heart. It's such a shame that her performance was overshadowed by all the gossip about the fact that she was - secretly - dubbed. (It's also a shame that film history has been largely ignorant of Marni Nixon, outside of her very accomplished singing voice.)

For the role of Romeo (aka. Tony) opposite Natalie Wood's Maria/Juliet, the producers chose Richard Beymer, who was up to the standard for good-looking young men back in 1960. He, like Wood, Tamblyn and Moreno, had emerged on the scene in small roles in notable films (such as The Diary of Ann Frank), and also like them, was dubbed - by Jimmy Bryant.

The resulting love duet "Tonight" therefore, is sung with the voices of Marni Nixon and Jimmy Bryant, and Wood and Beymer providing the faces and the lip-sync. Both elements combine to bring out the romantic power of the song. There were plenty of other notable numbers of course, such as "Maria", "Cool" (a nightmare for the actors to perform successfully), the comical "Officer Krupke", the Dance at the Gym (with an amusing cameo by an uncredited John Astin) where the lovers first meet in beautifully stylised fashion, the "Quintet" - a musical tour de force - and the always vibrant "America", which is actually improved in the film version by including the men as the counterpoint to the women, in what was originally a girls-only melody on stage.

Much of the praise and attention (and the awards) for West Side Story were given to the strength of the numbers and the dancing, but all this would be meaningless without a strong dramatic story to hold it together, and so as the tone turns a little darker with the inevitable fight between the two sides which becomes unexpectedly fatal, the story really kicks into gear. For that, we have to thank one William Shakespeare, and although WSS (SPOILER ALERT) takes a slight divergence from its source material by having one of its central lovers survive the tragedy, none of the power is lost, and if anything the closing procession is made that little more powerful by it.

The closing credits are as innovative as the opening, written on street signs and walls (I used the idea of the closing "END" sign for a film of mine, Cornucopia in 2001.) Generally speaking I find musicals a little twee and all too predictable in their happy-ever-after frothiness, so to come across a genuinely serious musical, and a very well made one at that, is an unexpected pleasure to behold.

And this was also, as I said, a favourite of my mother's, who saw most of her four viewings at the old Astoria cinema in Charing Cross Road, where several of the popular widescreen musicals (including the later phenomenal Sound of Music, also directed by Robert Wise) were often screened.

I had the pleasure to watch West Side Story myself at the Prince Charles Cinema in 1992, and though the film has a certain 1960's look to it, the soundtrack is as timeless as it always was. A 50-year old musical still has the youth of a teenager. Happy Birthday.

The Astoria Charing Cross Road in 2008, overlooking the Dominion Tottenham Court Road in the distance.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films