BluRay/DVD Reviews

WEST SIDE STORY

By • Dec 15th, 2011 •

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This film suffers from a textbook case of split personality. I’m not overly fond of Robert Wise’s contribution as director, if in fact he cast the leads, although I’ve read that his first choice for Tony (which went to Richard Beymer) was Elvis, and that would have radically changed my opinion. As it turned out, it was hard to direct the dramatic sequences in the film against the obstacle of inappropriate casting, whereas Jerome Robbins, who directed four of the musical interludes (before he was fired), choreographed some of the most dynamic dance sequences ever put on celluloid.

And so it’s the musical sequences I observed and listened to with the most enthusiasm while watching the BluRay. For sure, musically they outshine the DVD’s acoustics. Even more amazing, there’s a Play function which jumps to the musical numbers and intersperses relatives of the original team, etc., who talk about the sequences. Leonard Bernstein’s daughter, for example, reveals that it was Jerome Robbins, in the opening cityscape dance, who suggested the snapping of fingers. That one inspiration is critical enough that the film wouldn’t have been the WEST SIDE STORY we treasure without it.

Next you can jump from song to song with commentary by Stephen Sondheim. And therein lies another necklace strung with revelations. Originally the Russ Tamblyn-led gang, using comic books as a departure point, went to the moon and back. Robbins nixed it, wanting the dance and body language to say it all.

Also, Sondheim is critical of much of the lyrics, which would be heresy if it were not coming out of the author’s mouth. He particularly is embarrassed by ‘I Feel Pretty’, the lyrics of which he insists are inappropriate coming out of Maria’s mouth, but he was anxious to prove he could create more complex rhymes.

I must comment on the condition of the MGM lion. In both the DVD and BluRay, I’ve never seen that lion so sharply defined. They must have transferred it to 65 mm in a way that intensified the detail of the image. Once you get a gander at the lion, you know you’re in for an exceedingly sharp picture, and you’re not disappointed. The proceeding aerial shots of NYC are sharp as a bell. The sets and locations are shown off to great advantage. The art direction, and the musical numbers, are the finest aspects of the film, and they look and sound great. In fact, the sets actually overshadow and diminish the difficulties with Beymer’s performance. One reservation however: the school dance is bathed in reds, and even though DVD for all intents and purposes conquered ‘bleeding red syndrome,’ both formats still appear to have difficulty with this sequence.

I knew Robert Wise well enough to call him and pose a question or two over the years. He was a nice guy, impressively ambidextrous as a filmmaker, and there are quite a few of his films in my collection, including ones that he personally not only didn’t like, but couldn’t understand why I did (TRIBUTE TO A BADMAN, for example – he really seemed perplexed when I praised it). THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, THE BODY SNATCHER, BLOOD ON THE MOON, THE SET-UP, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW, THE SAND PEBBLES, THE HINDENBURG. Those he understood. Well, maybe he was a little perplexed about THE HINDENBURG, too.

I was at Trader Vic’s one night back in ’62, enjoying Kamaina’s, Cho-Cho, and Crab Rangoon, when I spotted Natalie Wood in a gorgeous fur coat walking across the floor toward the entrance. I got up, went over and said hello, and in a most gracious gesture she turned and introduced me to her companion. “This is Jerome Robbins,” she said, and he shook my hand cordially. Quite a moment for me, meeting them in that way. Those were the days. Remind me to tell you about running into Sam Spiegel and Greta Garbo at Tracer Vic’s a year later.

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