Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Scene on a Sunday Wednesday: West Side Story

Well, look at that, I can take a look at more than one scene in a week. Curiously, of all the scenes I’ve covered in my Oscar flavoured Scene a Sunday features, only Howards End didn’t win Best Picture. It’s pure coincidence that this next film happens to be a best picture winner, but I love this movie people. And, look, I think Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood are fantastic in it. Yes, fantastic (dubbed singing and all).
Set-Up: It’s the final scene. Doc has erroneously (not to his knowledge) told Tony that Maria has died at the hands of her jealous lover Chino. A distraught Tony runs on to the streets looking for him.

I sort of didn’t know where to start the scene, it’s one continues movement but then I decided I’d begin it just after Doc’s final lines. So, we open on Tony.

          Tony: “No. Maria”
(That’s Ned glass as Doc. He’s primary a television actor (and Emmy nominee). If there’s one thing I don’t appreciate about the way West Side Story has gone down in history, it’s the apparent lack of notice of the larger ensemble at work. Even though I’m generally meh on Chakiris’ work, the entire cast is turning in more than commendable performances.)

          Tony: “Not Maria, Doc.”

Poor, Beymer. From what I’ve discerned, he seems to be the least celebrated of the main cast, which is a shame. Despite that newcomer prize from the Golden Globes he never really went on to bigger, brighter things. Well, he was on Twin Peaks, so there’s that. He’s still alive, too, but ever noticed how only old Oscar nominees are remembered? So, Beymer doesn’t even show up on notices of classic actors still alive. Incidentally, Russ Tamblyn (who maybe – maybe not gives my favourite performance of the film) – his brother from another mother – is also alive. Those two need to get together immediately for a project, no?

          Tony: “Chino! Chino!”

That shot, immediately above, is my favourite (well, one of a number of the) – the film deserved its cinematography award.

          Tony: “Come and get me, too, Chino! Chino! Chino! Come and get me, too, Chino!”
Even though I don’t think you should praise an actor for giving a “brave” performance even if it’s not a very good one, I think that the level of difficult placed on the two leads (no singing and all) is often ignored. Granted, I think they both manage to overcome, but moving from Tony’s general easiness to the highly played lilts of the final act must be something challenging – it’s where the film really seems to become something Shakespearean and Beymer succeeds, I think. This scene parallels with the “wedding scene” as my favourite scene for both Wood and Beymer.

          Anybodys: “Tony!”
Susan Oakes as Anybodys, there. This was her first, and last, film. Yes, this is an oversimplification of the tomboy issue, but we cannot have everything in depth, can we?

          Tony: “Who’s that?”

          Anybodys: “It’s me, Anybodys. Come on.”

          Tony: “Get outta here. Chino, come and get me, damn you!”
          Anybodys: “What are you doin’?”
          Tony: “Get out of here! Chino!”
          Anybodys: “Why don’t you come with me? We’ll find…”
          Tony: “It ain’t playin’, anymore. Can’t any of you get that?”
I believe it’s Nathaniel who always mentions his appreciation of the paucity of close-up in older films. I love, for example, how this scene is shot with Tony appearing so big and Anybodys so little. Before, Tony was always marked by his benign nature and Anybodys by her believe in her grandiosity. But, with the change of events Tony seems to be almost menacingly towering over her, and Riff’s death seems to have made her lose all her puff.

          Anybodys: “But the gang –!”

          Tony: “You’re a girl! Be a girl and beat it!”
(I’m too lazy to analyse what that line might suggest about sexism in the time. And, hey, I like Tony.)

          Tony: “Chino! Come on, Chino! Get me, too!”
Placing him in the centre of the screen, like an ant in a cruel world, or shooting him from behind the wire making him trapped – I love those little things that Wise does. I do like his next musical venture (The Sound of Music) but his direction on West Side Story is marvellous.

          Tony: “Chino! Chino! Chino! I’m calling for you, Chino! There’s nobody here but me. Come on! Please, will you. I’m waitin’ for you. I want you to.”

All that is a build-up for the realisation that Maria is, in fact, alive.

(What joyless colours for the typically bright palette of the film.)

         Tony: “Maria.”
That look of disbelief always kills me.

         Maria: “Tony!”

          Tony: “Maria.”

I love the symmetry of these two moments just after the other, both of them reaching to the other.

         Tony: “Maria!”

This all happens so fast – but it’s interesting how at first this seems to be an indication of a hopeful reunion.

(I love how that shot above comes out as if the colour has been treated, I don’t think I’ve ever noticed it actually – but these become obvious when you play films slower than they’re intended to be. As Chino makes his way to perform the “deed” the lighting briefly takes on this oddly garish colour….leading us into…)

Also, in the sake of admission – the first time I saw this, and the few times after that – I didn’t realise that Tony had been shot from the front and not from the back (you hardly see the bullet, even). And, I kept wondering where Chino had come from, and how he had managed to reach in front of Tony. I digress, though; the shot above is the last of the truly happy moments. Even though, I’d imagine, that Tony knows he’s been shot, he doesn’t quite know that he’s dying at the moment – so what we have is one of those perfect indications of a lovers’ embrace. If only for a moment.

And then, slowly, Tony begins to fall – making the height dynamic between he and Maria so significant.

I LOVE that they go to the wide shot, as if espying Tony’s from a distance (once again making me recall the theme – maybe of the non-specificity of their love. Not necessarily in the a negative, but in the way that this could be any boy and any girl, it will always end as sadly when two disparate units unite…unless changes are made.)

And, a shot in the dark calls everyone to arms. It could seem overdone, but it works for me, the way that they all – Sharks and Jets – seem to appear from the same place. This is not a death in battle (at least, not a literal battle) and emotions have already been frayed; with the attempted rape of Anita, the initial killing of Riff, and the entire situation is one teeming with guilt and foreboding. It’s also, conversely, making the very personal issues of Maria and Tony’s love all the more universal.

          Tony: “I – I didn’t believe hard enough.”

         Maria: “Loving is enough.”

          Tony: “Not here. They won’t let us be.”

So, it’s rather obvious and I need to mention it – but I will regardless – this is an obvious throwback (and something of an alternate version) of the “Somewhere” scene where the lovers had their first true embrace. They’re embracing once again, and they realise, too, that they need to find “somewhere” that’s not here if they wish for their love to thrive.

         Maria: “Then we’ll get away.”

          Tony: “Yeah, we can! We will.”

(As a rule dying and crying scenes are the most difficult act, at least from experience. More than anything it involves the complete eschewing of vanity (neither is really “pretty” to look at – but as far as deaths go, this one manages to be realistic…ish while still managing to seem really stylish.)

Also, how depressing is it that hopeful (but inaccurate) utterance above is Tony’s last line? Of course, I suppose, you could imagine that they’d find each other in the afterlife “somewhere”, but it’s still depressing. Everything after becomes a long-ass monologue for Natalie. And, she kills it.

          Maria: “Yes.”

          Maria: “♪Hold my hand and we’re halfway there. Hold my hand and I’ll take you there. Somehow. Someday. Some…♪”

I wonder if it was so directed, or if was Beymer’s decision, for Tony to attempt to mouth the words of “Somewhere” as Maria sings – but ultimately be unable to. His mouth is moving, as you’d see, but there are no sounds coming out. I swear, this scene wrecks. Even more than the actual death in Zeffrelli’s excellent Romeo and Juliet and that’s because, obviously, Romeo and Juliet don’t die whilst the other watches on. But, it’s so much more awful watching Maria as Tony dies in her arms.

And, he dies…

(The ensemble responsible.)

          Maria (OS): “Stay back!”

Maybe I’m underestimating films right now, but I love the use of colour in the film – generally, and specifically in regards to the costumes. Maria’s red against the sea of people is a lovely image.

(Sure, Chino’s the anti-Tony, and he isn’t as fully realised a character as Paris in the Shakespearean parallel, but I do appreciate the work Jose De Vega does. And, I like that exchange with Maria and him above. He is responsible for another favourite scene of mine – with Maria on the roof immediately after the rumble.)

          Maria: “How do you fire this gun, Chino? Just by pulling this little trigger?”
And, this is the beginning of Maria’s real monologue. It’s a doozy.

          Maria: “How many bullets are left, Chino? Enough for you? And you? All of you! You all killed him, and my brother, and Riff…not with bullets and guns. With hate! But, now, I can kill, too; because now I have hate! How many can I kill Chino? How many? And still have one more bullet left for me?”
This is sort of a great scene for an audition, right? I can’t even think of anything significant to comment on, this bit works on every level for me. Even Natalie’s palpable tenseness works in relation to Maria, so even the slight stiltedness of the exchange works for me.

And, then the breakdown…

And NOW the police arrive. Someone make a list of worst on-screen law enforcers and place Krupke on this list, please. Kudos to William Bramley, though, for making the character work.

Also, look at the beauty of that shot there. Tony lying, Maria kneeling.

Or, this one with Krupke reaching for the gun and about to make his way over to the corpse.

          Maria: “DON’T YOU TOUCH HIM!”

LOVE that look that Krupke and Maria share, there. If you recall, it’s only been minutes since he was just at her house and she told him that the boy she was dancing with at the dance was “one of their own”. I love the shot immediately above where she realises…

And, it’s as if she loses all life and becomes dejected as the Jets begin gather around.

          Maria: “Te adora, Anton.”

Okay, yes, it’s a bit too pat that the Sharks make their way to help them carry Tony’s body out. But, I like that there’s so simonising from no figure akin to the prince in the Shakespeare play. It’s all just actions, and who’s to say that the war is really over? Still, the thought is nice – and yes, it does move me.

So, in a scene of awesomeness – this might be favourite bit. Baby John comes up behind Maria, and drapes the shawl over her head making for that lovely image of the “widow”.

And, they make their way out as she remains/

Those four are my favourite shots of the scene. It’s not so much about the shot, and it’s all rather simply put together – but Natalie’s expression kills me.

And, Maria’s departure makes way for everyone’s departure. Where’s Anita, I wonder. Does Maria go back home? Do they patch up their relationship? Do the Puerto Ricans and the Whites every come together? What becomes of Maria after?
There’s a scene in the novel where Maria imagines going to Tony’s to tell her what happened. How would that scene go down? And, isn’t it nice how the film opens and closes on the playground – even though as Tony rightly said “It ain’t playin’ anymore.”
Yup, West Side Story still has the power to devastate me even upon multiple watches.

(previously this year: All About Eve / Howards End / Annie Hall / The King's Speech)
What do you think of this scene? A worthy close to the film? Are Beymer and Richard turn in good performances? Does the film still have the power to move you?

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