In translating the groundbreaking 1957 stage musical, West Side Story, to film, the producers knew that a work whose claim to fame was its gritty realism should only be more true-to-life on the big screen. Robert Wise, a director better known for his noirish city dramas than fanciful entertainments, brought a down-to-earth sensibility to a work that, on stage, might seem to be simply a slightly edgier musical set against an urban backdrop. On film, we are thrust head-first into the streets, with their palpable energy and danger. Wise’s disinterest in theatrical razzle-dazzle is striking throughout, but especially in the film’s opening sequence: a bird’s-eye view of the Upper West Side playground in which we meet our two warring gangs, the Sharks and the Jets.
As the Jets begin snapping their fingers in unison and Wise’s direction gives way to choreographer Jerome Robbins’ contributions, it becomes evident that a distinctly modern hybrid of film and musical theatre is taking place – one as committed to song and dance as it is to serious filmmaking. The music swells and, slowly, the characters glide into a full ballet, having earned our attention and their own command of the street. In a sense, their dancing reflects their comfort in having power and youthful energy; they clear out the area and do with it what they choose.
The iconic dance fight itself could be in a silent film; it is wordless and easy to follow. What’s fascinating is how Wise and Robbins (who received co-director credits for his inimitable work) play with the dynamics of the scene. In most movie musicals, a dance number would feature either elaborate choreography on a fabricated studio set or sparse movement on a more realistic location. Shot on-location, the camera trades freely between letting the dancers duke it out and joining in on the action, setting fights up through jump cuts, quick reveals, and extended tracking shots. It picks up characters and collects them as the gangs come together for the final showdown. The camera even imposes its own constraints, capturing characters in narrow pathways or snaking their way around a little girl’s chalk drawing.
As the playground brawl splinters from tough-guy posturing on a playground into several different battles in trash heaps, alleys and streets, we understand the gangs’ view of the world as one to be conquered. Walls are tagged with their names, empty buildings are used for card games and nowhere is safe without the protection of your own. Stage choreography inevitably runs into limitations that the film easily overcome, allowing the gangs to show themselves off as urban forces rather than trained Broadway dancers pantomiming a fight. Here, however, this 1961 Best Picture winner ingeniously builds upon the choreographed camera of Old Hollywood extravaganzas and the neo-Shakespearean tragedy at its core to create a New York at once gritty and dangerous as well as magical and fluid.