Though Robert Wise was an expert craftsman of tough-guy entertainments (The Set-Up, Run Silent Run Deep) and science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still), a populist overview of the filmmaker’s career would have him as a lover of big, weepie melodramas, seeing as his Oscar wins came directly from a martyrdom-tinged crime story (I Want to Live!) and two classic-deemed musicals, West Side Story and, four years later, The Sound of Music. It’s the tell-tale sign of that mythic beast, the dutiful director, the B-movie filmmaker thrown an A project on occasion. This is not a moment of mourning or a saturnine declaration: The way films are paid for, marketed, and consumed has changed and therefore the restrictions on and distribution of filmmaking have changed, along with the rate of completion. Sure, Joe Swanberg completed four films this year, but none of them, nor any of the few dozen he completed prior, are nearly as good as The Set-Up, nor as visually arresting as West Side Story.
Wise directed out of what seemed like a sense of duty, and he was responsible for a good amount of plainly forgettable trash (his flimsy adaptation of Executive Suite is excruciating, despite Walter Pidgeon’s presence), but he, as a filmmaker, was not forgettable, and West Side Story is a testament to that. Originally performed with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, a script by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and choreography by Jerome Robbins, who would be credited as co-director next to Wise, West Side Story relocates Romeo and Juliet to 1950s New York, with the split between the Montagues and Capulets recast as rival gangs: the Jets, descended from European immigrants (Irish, Italian, and Polish mostly), and the Sharks, descended largely from Puerto Rican immigrants. Romeo is now Tony (Richard Beymer), an erstwhile Jet who remains best friends with the gang’s leader, Riff (Russ Tamblyn), and Juliet is now Maria (Natalie Wood), whose brother, Bernardo (George Chakiris), runs the Sharks.
The stories run more or less parallel, with a few substantial changes and a great deal more insubstantial, but indeed, the war between the gangs (in essence, between races, sexes, and classes) infiltrates and corrupts the personal emotions of two young lovers. The politics are a bit on the nose, of course, as much as the outcomes are expectedly overtly sentimental, but songs like “America” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” have real social zing to back up their enthralling melodies. “The Rumble” and “Jet Song” pop out in the first act largely because of the way Wise and Robbins film the enormous set pieces of the dancehall and the playground, respectively.
The second act is a bit more problematic, as the courtship between Tony and Maria comes into greater focus, and only “Cool” truly sticks out, as much for its strange melody as the distinctly shadowy way it’s filmed and performed. But Wise’s use of color and fluid camerawork, along with Robbins’s exhilarating choreography, remain consistent throughout and ultimately give the film a dignity that the lead performers are only quasi-invested in. I must admit that buying Wood, the daughter of Russian immigrants, as a Puerto Rican seamstress was a quite a lot for me to swallow, though she certainly doesn’t lack for physical prowess. She moves with grace, in fact, though she’s given less to do than Rita Moreno, sensational in the role of Anita. As for Beymer, I was simply unable to suspend my disbelief, far preferring Chakiris and Tamblyn’s persuasively snide and seductive performances.
The central figuration isn’t completely convincing, making would-be showstoppers “Somewhere” and “Tonight” feel like absolute chores, but almost everything else hits magnificently. The result is sufficiently entertaining, but only moderately successful in terms of emotional potency, engaging in its expressive depiction of societal strife but limited in its ambitions, which arguable makes it a perfect fit for Wise. Every set piece works, even the confined quarters of the dress shop in “I Feel Pretty” and “Somewhere,” and Wise and Robbins capture wonderful fits of movement through wide takes, something that modern musicals seem curiously uncomfortable with. One can even see the tough guy sting of The Set-Up in the climactic knife fight between Bernardo, Riff, and Tony, though played broader and with a purposeful lack of tension. So, in some ways, one can see the early signs of current-day masters like Steven Soderbergh and, to a lesser extent, Jonathan Demme in the way Wise preferred and was more aesthetically alive in the smaller B-movie projects, but certainly left his mark when asked to do bigger, splashier films. If he’d been offered a titanic, bifurcated biopic of Che Guevara, however, I somehow doubt he would have taken it.
There's plenty of talk going on about the problems with this 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer of West Side Story and, well, they're not wrong. There's some very noticeable artifacting and other glaring issues to report, especially in the film's first quarter, but these merely make this transfer imperfect, not necessarily bad. On the contrary, there's more good news to report than bad, especially when it comes to the level of detailing and clarity the transfer has yielded. I was especially blown away by the closed sets, such as Doc's store and the dancehall, to see the dirt between the planks and the dust on the shop counter. Colors are handled astoundingly well, with big bold reds, purples, and pinks, not to mention the sublime use of green during the "Maria" number. I can also report that this transfer offers solid, inky black levels. The audio, perhaps even more important, is also pretty impressive. There's something to be talked about in terms of the source, as this transfer uses a replicated four-mag master instead of the recently discovered six-mag masters. If they were to be used in a few years for a special-edition release, I'm sure the difference would be noticeable to the discerning listener, but this soundtrack, to me, sounds great. Voices are big, clear, and out front, and from beginning to end, the music boasts excellent fidelity and range. I was consistently engaged with the entire sound of the film.
Speaking as a person who's indifferent at best when it comes to the musical genre, I found most of the supplemental portion of this package pretty tolerable, even fun. The newer making-of featurette, at 30 minutes long, is interesting but pales in comparison to the older hour-long featurette, and Stephen Sondheim's select-song commentary becomes quite fascinating when he talks about his regret over how some of the songs came out. On the other hand, the storyboard-to-film comparisons aren't very useful and the "POW! The Dances of West Side Story" feature was more annoying than informative. The "Music Machine" collection is pointless and not something that's particularly crucial to understanding the history and production of West Side Story. Like the film, the extras lean toward entertainment more often than lineage.
Fox's transfer of this dutiful, entertaining adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's West Side Story is fraught with problems, none of which hugely damage the pleasure of watching and hearing the film.