Top 100 Movie Review: No. 019 – West Side Story (1961)

Ranked 019 on the IMDb Top 100 Movie List (as at May 2017).
Watched movie during July 2020.

Cast: Natalie Wood (Maria), Richard Beymer (Tony), Russ Tamblyn (Riff), Rita Moreno (Anita), George Chakiris (Bernardo), Simon Oakland (Lieutenant Schrank), Ned Glass (Doc), William Bramley (Officer Krupke), Susan Oakes (Anybodys), Jose De Vega (Chino Martin)
Directors: Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise
My rating: 8.0 / 10

Plot 
Set in New York City and the West Side’s Lincoln Square neighbourhood in 1957 there is rising tension between a white American gang, the Jets, led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), and a new Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, led by Bernardo (George Chakiris). After a brawl erupts, Lieutenant Schrank (Simon Oakland) and Officer Krupke (William Bramley) arrive and break it up. The Jets decide to challenge the Sharks to a rumble at an upcoming dance for neighbourhood control.

Riff decides that his best friend Tony (Richard Beymer), the co-founder of the Jets who left the gang, should fight. Riff invites Tony to the dance, but Tony is uninterested. He tells Riff that he senses something important will happen, which Riff suggests could have a correlation with the dance. After a little more persuasion, Tony reluctantly agrees to go.

Bernardo’s younger sister, Maria (Natalie Wood), tells her best friend and Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita (Rita Moreno), how excited she is about the dance. At the dance, the gangs and girls refuse to intermingle despite the event organiser attempting to get them to dance together. Tony arrives and he and Maria are immediately infatuated with each other. However, Bernardo angrily demands that Tony stay away from her. Riff proposes a meeting with Bernardo at Doc’s (Ned Glass) drug store at midnight.

Maria is sent home; Anita argues that Bernardo is overprotective of Maria and they compare the advantages of Puerto Rico and the United States.

Tony discreetly visits Maria on her fire escape, where they affirm their love. Krupke, who suspects the Jets are planning something, visits them and warns them not to cause trouble. When the Sharks arrive, both groups agree to have the showdown the following evening under the highway, with a one-on-one fist fight. When Schrank arrives, the gangs feign friendship. Schrank orders the Sharks out and unsuccessfully tries to discover information about the fight.

The next day at the bridal shop, Anita accidentally tells Maria about the rumble. Tony arrives to see Maria, which shocks Anita. They profess their love and Anita warns them about the consequences if Bernardo learns of their relationship. Maria has Tony promise to prevent the rumble. Tony and Maria fantasize about their wedding ceremony.

The Jets and Sharks approach the area under the highway. Tony arrives to stop the fight, but Bernardo antagonizes him. Unwilling to watch Tony be humiliated, Riff decides to start a knife fight instead of a fist fight. Tony tries to intervene, which distracts Riff allowing Bernardo to kill Riff. Tony incensed kills Bernardo with thinking and a melee ensues. Police sirens blare and everyone flees except distraught Tony, leaving behind the dead bodies.  Anybodys (Susan Oakes), a tomboy who wants to be part of the Jets, returns to force Tony to leave.

Maria waits for Tony on the rooftop of her apartment building when Maria’s arrangement marriage fiancé Chino (Jose De Vega) arrives and tells her what happened leaving out how Tony tried to stop the fighting. Tony arrives and explains what transpired and asks for her forgiveness before he turns himself in to the police. Maria confirms her love for him and asks Tony to stay with her.

The Jets have reassembled outside a garage, with their new leader, Ice, having them focus on reacting to the police. Anybodys arrives and warns them that Chino is now after Tony. Ice sends the Jets to warn Tony.

Anita enters the apartment while Tony and Maria are in the bedroom. Tony and Maria arrange to meet at Doc’s, where they will pick up getaway money to elope. Anita spots Tony leaving through the window and chides Maria for the relationship, but Maria convinces her to help them elope.

Schrank arrives and questions Maria about the rumble. To cover for Tony, Maria has Anita tell him that Maria is detained from meeting him. When Anita reaches Doc’s, the Jets harass her and appear to be about to sexually assault her, until Doc intervenes. Anita declares that Bernardo was right about them and that Chino killed Maria. Doc banishes the Jets and gives Tony his getaway money in the basement and delivers Anita’s message. Tony runs into the streets, shouting for Chino to kill him as well.

In the playground next to Doc’s, Tony spots Maria and they run toward each other, only for Chino to shoot Tony. The Jets and Sharks arrive to find Maria holding Tony, who dies in her arms. Maria stops the gangs from fighting, takes the gun from Chino and threatens to shoot everyone, blaming their hate for the deaths. Schrank, Krupke and Doc arrive and the gangs form a funeral procession, with Maria following. The police arrest Chino and lead him away.

What’s to Like
The energy, the music and dance sequences, the cinematography.

What’s not to Like
Nothing.  

Thoughts
I first experience West Side Story as a live musical performance before watching this transfer to film. The film is undoubtably a musical and technical masterpiece but I found I preferred to live version which isn’t a surprise since that was what it was created for.  

The songs are the strength of this film, uplifting and funny at times, I knew them from other media before watching either the film or live performance. The story has some parallels with Romeo and Juliet, two star cross lovers who’s circumstances will never allow them to find themselves together.  The difference here being Maria (the film’s Juliet) ‘survives’ in that she isn’t kill but a spark has been lost.  The senseless violence highlights how hard it is to leave a gang, probably more relevant now that the 1950s that it is set in.

The most disturbing scene comes never the end when Anita, who’s boyfriend has just been killed, is assaulted by the Jets and it even appears that she might be raped by them.  The disregard for anyone who is not in their gang demonstrates such a lack of morality.  The funeral procession taking Tony’s body away does give a small hope that the two groups might be able to change their ways but it’s hard to see it lasting.

Despite the dark themes under the surface, on the surface it is still a very fun  and entertaining film with very catching songs.

Academy Awards

  • Best Picture – Winner
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role (George Chakiris) – Winner
  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Rita Moreno) – Winner
  • Best Director (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins) – Winner
  • Best Cinematography, Colour – Winner
  • Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Colour – Winner
  • Best Costume Design, Colour – Winner
  • Best Film Editing – Winner
  • Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture – Winner
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium – nominee

About Nathan

A World traveller who has so far experienced 71 countries in this amazing world. https://nathanburgessinsights.com/travel/
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