One of the things I love about films is how multi-layered they are. Great films – the truly great ones – have hidden depths to them; they can seem like frothy entertainment on first viewing and significant critical theses on second viewing. This happened to me this week with West Side Story. I first watched the film when I was a teenager and was, as practically everyone who watches it is, bowled over by the eloquence of the storytelling, the catchiness of the music and the breathtaking brilliance of the dancing. It seemed a fantastic musical, a wonderful love story and a cracking visual feast. But nothing more.
How wrong I was. Having watched Gypsy recently, I was keen to launch into another Natalie Wood film and WSS was the one I had to hand. As with Gypsy, I fell in love with Wood and her nuanced, heartbreaking performance, but what stood out to me even more was the substance behind the film. Yes, West Side Story is all the things I previously mentioned – indeed, on second viewing all those things stood out even more. But it’s also a searing social satire and a deeply philosophical film about the pointlessness of prejudice and the omnipresent spectre of violence.
Director Robert Wise and choreographer/co-direct Jerome Robbins realise these themes through three methods – colour, camera angles and music – and I’ll go over those in this blog.
West Side Story is famous for its use of red, so I’m hardly breaking new ground by noting this, but you can’t really discuss the film without mentioning it. Quite simply, it possesses some of the most expressive uses of colour in cinema history – Wise and Robbins aren’t so much directors here as painters. Representing passion, anger, violence and eventually death, the colour red features in almost every frame, coming to haunt the characters as they make their way to their terrible fate. It’s worn by our leads, it covers the walls, it seeps into the lighting. It’s absolutely everywhere.
Wise, who was editor for Orson Welles on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, even uses the colour to code the cuts, including this memorable switch from Maria’s apartment to the dance at the gym.
Speaking of the gym scene, it’s comfortably the reddest scene in the film (if not film history) with everything – lighting, costumes, set direction – daubed in red.
This is one of the most important scenes in the film, the moment when Tony and Maria first meet, and the moment where the meaning of the red begins to change. What once represented love and passion slowly begins to denote anger and death. Look at how Maria is dressed – a white dress with a small red sash around her waist. Here she is an innocent young girl just feeling the first pangs of passion. By the film’s end, she is dressed in red and black. The events of the film have corrupted her innocence and love and turned it into hatred and anger.
Greens, purples and blues also dominate West Side Story, but come the end of the film, those colours have been totally removed. Almost all the characters are dressed in dark tones – mostly blacks or reds; the red police siren swirls in the background; and Maria screams one of the most heartbreaking lines in the film: “I can kill too,” she says. “Because now I can hate.” The film is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, but I think it’s even more tragic than Shakespeare’s play. There both the leads died, their pain over. Here, Maria has to live on, her life consumed by the anger she experiences after Tony’s death. Violence has infected her. It’s been passed on to her and she herself will pass it on to someone else. It’s a cyclical force that will never end.
This almost Kubrickian notion of violence as a irrepressible evil that will always exist is also expressed by Wise/Robbins through their camera angles and mise-en-scène.
The film opens with a series of startling aerial shots, giving the audience a God’s eye view of New York. I’m not suggesting God plays any part of the film (though there’s certainly a case you could make for that), but there’s certainly some kind of malignant force at play here.
Wise makes use of similarly bold angles throughout the rest of the film. During most of the key scenes, we’re seeing the film through extreme high-angles or low-angles.
Characters move in and out of frame by flying directly into the camera and in one of my favourite scenes the camera moves fractionally to introduce each new character.
The shooting style draws attention to itself and more than most films, West Side Story is about the act of watching. The characters are tracked by the camera like they’re tracked by all that red and it comes to trap and imprison them. Wise emphasises this through his use of a cage motif. It’s seen in his use of the fencing at the playground, railing in stairwells and shadows.
In the critical rumble sequence, these things blend into one to form a visual tour-de-force that highlights the sense of conspiracy against the characters. The frame below comes after Tony kills Bernardo, an action that will ultimately lead to his own death.
Gee, Officer Krupke
All this would indicate that the Jets and Sharks are victims of forces beyond their control, but West Side Story is smarter than that. Issues of social justice run throughout the film and find brilliantly ambiguous expression in the song Gee, Officer Krupke.
Stephen Sondheim’s masterful lyrics are both incredibly funny and searingly smart. The Jets sing about the possible excuses for their behaviour (“Our mothers are all junkies, our fathers all are drunks”) and begin the song by insisting that “inside the worst of us is good” before concluding that “the best of us is no damn good”. In my favourite verse, Riff sings:
“My Daddy beats my Mommy
My Mommy clobbers me
My Grandpa is a Commie
My Grandma pushes tea
My sister wears a mustache
My brother wears a dress
That’s why I’m a mess”
The reduction of the lyric from legitimate concern into daft surrealism is nothing short of brilliant and it (along with the rest of the song) acts as a microcosm for the tensions at the heart of the film. Society wants nothing to do with these kids because these kids want nothing to do with society – but they want nothing to do with society because society wants nothing to do with them. They both feel abandoned by each other and so the whole thing becomes a vicious cycle, each group blaming and dismissing the other.
Ultimately, West Side Story is about the responsibility of society to the individual, the responsibility of the individual to society and the violence created when those things don’t mesh. It’s a tragic masterpiece, a provocative thought-piece and a work of directorial art.
How I missed all this on my first viewing is beyond me.