1 Year, 100 Movies: #51 West Side Story (1961)

West-Side-Story-Broadway-PosterFor 1 Year, 100 Movies, I will watch all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year- and will complete a goal on my 2013 Manifesto. Come along on the ride with me- oh, and please pass the popcorn!

I love musicals – and West Side Story, which won an almost-record ten Oscars, including Best Picture, is amazing. The story is based on Romeo and Juliet (not my favorite) but the plot unfolds naturally and feels realistic. The dialogue and visuals are incredible- and the use of color is incredible. I’m a sucker for emotionally rendered color palettes in films. The two sides in the story (à la the Montagues and Capulets) are two rival gangs – the Jets, made up of mainly second generation Americans of Eastern European descent, and the Sharks, the first generation immigrants from Puerto Rico. Some may poke fun at the dancing and singing gangs of tough guys, but this film has some real edge to it. The racism between the groups is palpable and real.

Our ‘Romeo’ is Tony, (Richard Beymer) a former member of the Jets, who is called back by the current members to help them out with the Sharks. Our ‘Juliet’ is Maria (Natalie Wood) the sister of the Shark’s leader Bernardo (George Chakiris). (It’s strange, by the way, that they would cast Wood, a woman of Eastern European decent as a Puerto Rican immigrant, but she pulls it off). We go back and forth for awhile as in the classic tale, but Bernardo and the Jets leader Riff (Russ Tamblyn) are determined to have their fight. Tony rushes to stop the fight at the request of Maria, but tragically Bernardo kills Riff, and then Tony ends up killing Bernardo. Maria forgives Tony but he later is given the incorrect information that she has been killed by a vengeful Chino (Jose De Vega) for loving Tony. He leaves his hideout, shouting for Chino to come and kill him too, but ends up finding Maria alive. They run toward each other, but Chino appears out of nowhere and shots Tony. As the Jets and Sharks all show up Tony and Maria reaffirm their love, with “Somewhere” and Tony dies in her arms. Maria takes the gun from Chino and threatens everyone in sight- on both sides- of the murders of Bernardo, Riff and Tony. It’s an emotional scene and hits the chilling message home. Tragedy has brought the feuding between the gangs to an end.

West Side Story is not a perfect film, but there is some incredible acting. Rita Moreno as Anita is simply the best. The filming, like that in Taxi Driver, is fantastic, following the action of the film and keeping us involved with the scene. My only qualm is that there was a lot of dubbing for several of the main actors. As great as the actors were while they were acting, I’m a firm believer in casting actors that can sing for musicals. Robert Wise was dazzling in the direction of this film- and I’m sooo excited for his next film up on the list, one of the movies high up on my personal Top 10, The Sound of Music.

In my humble, non-professional, average movie-goer opinion this movie earns:

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