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American Cinematographer Magazine

West Side Story (1961)
Special Edition
2.20:1 (16x9 enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1
MGM Home Entertainment, $39.99

Broadway innovator Jerome Robbins had been cultivating the idea of updating Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet as a stage musical for nearly a decade when Arthur Laurents agreed to write the book for the project in the mid-1950s. Robbins' concept was to update the feud of the Capulets and Montagues to the racially tense streets of Manhattan's west side, where Puerto Rican immigrants met with rampant prejudice from some of the "native" (a.k.a. white) New Yorkers.

Robbins and Laurents envisioned a new kind of musical theater, one of realism and social relevance. Composer Leonard Bernstein and Oscar Hammerstein II protege Stephen Sondheim were brought on board to create the score and lyrics. With the now-legendary creative team together, fair Verona became the dangerous, humid streets of an urban summer; Romeo morphed into Tony (Richard Beymer), a Polish-American soda jerk, and Juliet into Maria (Natalie Wood), a Puerto Rican just arrived in New York. Juliet's balcony, the signature visual of Shakespeare's play, where the star-crossed lovers speak of romance, became Maria's fire escape.

When Mirisch Pictures pur-chased the film rights to West Side Story during its successful Broadway run, it was agreed that Robbins would co-direct the film with Robert Wise. The pair agreed that the film had to be a visual hybrid of the filmed musical and something more realistic and gritty that spoke for the times and themes of the piece. The difficult combination of musical numbers and urban crime drama posed a massive challenge. Cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp, ASC (On the Beach, Desire Under the Elms) was brought in to work closely with the directors and production designer Boris Leven. The team also included visual consultant Saul Bass, who contributed a tremendous final-credit montage, and visual-effects artist Linwood Dunn, ASC.

West Side Story was filmed in the Panavision 70 format, and Panavision engineers broke new ground for the production by creating two unique lenses: an extreme 150mm telephoto lens and the PanaZoom, the first zoom lens ever designed to cover a 65mm film frame. Working on location in Manhattan and on some of the largest sets ever created on Hollywood's Goldwyn soundstages, Fapp consistently came up with inventive camera moves and angles to accommodate the demands of Robbins' innovative and athletic choreography. For his work, the cinematographer won one of the film's 10 Academy Awards.

This Special Edition DVD is a cut above the film's previous home-video incarnations. The transfer is excellent, offering detailed blacks and an accurate representation of Fapp's complicated color palette; it seems identical to the DVD transfer issued in 1998. Regardless of occasional, minor imperfections in the 40-year-old source material, the transfer remains free of artifacts. Fapp's beautiful lighting scheme is carefully reproduced, with great detail in the shadows and exceptional chroma stability in even his most vivid color choices.

The 5.1 digital remix from the film's original stereo tracks, while certainly not as diverse as those of current titles, is a very good effort, though it's occasionally too confined to the front soundstage of center, left and right channels. It's an improvement over the solid 1998 remix, and it marks the return of the minor sound effects that were inexplicably dropped from that track. 

The two-disc set includes a much-needed "making of" documentary and a commemorative book that includes the final shooting script, a replica of the film's program, reviews and numerous stills. The documentary West Side Memories is stellar, but much too short at 55 minutes. Its numerous participants cover several topics of interest to the film's fans, including the dubbing of the lead singing voices, the firing of Robbins midway through the shoot, and the fact that Wood and Beymer were not fond of each other. The package includes the film's storyboards and a collection of trailers, and completists will be thrilled to have the option of watching the film with or without the original intermission audio reel. (Fans can also duplicate the desired screening-room lighting during the colorful overture, thanks to the inclusion of Wise's 1961 memo to projectionists!)

In a society with a youth culture dominated by gangsta rap, 'hood movies and Columbine, the social relevance of West Side Story may seem dated to some. But watching the film some 40 years after its release, one is struck by the sheer creativity and industry on the screen. The pastel-lit, tenement-filled skyline of its Manhattan and the enduring virtues of its score earn West Side Story its place in American popular culture. Robbins, Wise, Fapp, Bernstein, Laurents and Sondheim were working at the top of their form, and together they created a film that remains a classic of its kind.

-- Kenneth Sweeney

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.