“When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way! From you first cigarette your last dying days.”
‘West Side Story’, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins in 1957, is an adaptation of a Broadway musical loosely based on ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Two gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, vie for control of the west side of Manhattan. An ex-member of the Jets, Tony, played by Richard Beymer, falls for the sister of the leader of the Sharks, Maria, played by Natalie Wood. Tony and Maria attempt to soothe the tensions between the gangs, but instead the rivalries reach breaking point and result in a tragedy. The film opens with an extraordinary prologue scene, almost without dialogue, in which the two gangs prowl the streets like hunting animals. This opening sets the tone for the whole film and begins a theme of contrasts between the pack-like mentality of the gangs and the intimate, individual love between Tony and Maria. The first thing that struck me about the look of the movie was the use of colour and the almost religious like framing of certain scenes. This is in sharp contrast to Wise’s earlier black-and-white shocker ‘The Haunting’, demonstrating the director’s flexibility. It’s a film about artifice though – the actors sing with dubbed voices, the settings feel enclosed and stage-like, the performances are heightened and the action is stylised. This isn’t a criticism though – the artifice perfectly matches the themes of the film and becomes part of the feeling of the single-minded, narcissistic mentality of the gangs.