West Side Story (1961)

West Side Story – 1961

Director(s) – Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise

Starring – Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, and George Chakiris

So if you’ve read this blog before, you may know just how surprised I was upon seeing Singin’ in the Rain. I mean it was a fantastically really well done movie, with an entertaining story, characters with a very tangible chemistry and, the surprising part, it was a musical! I know. I know. I thought that fact alone would guarantee it to be terrible too, but it didn’t.

Well based on the strength of that film, I approached this “classic” with a bit more spring in my step. I mean, this could actually be pretty fun. The story of Romeo and Juliet mixed with the raw energy and exuberance of Singin’ in the Rain. That sounds like a no lose situation…right? Enter the dance fighting. Exit all hope of this being good.

I’ll repeat that…a movie featuring a tragic love story, gang warfare, and dance fighting.  Not dance fighting like one might see in a movie like “Step Up” or “You Got Served”  where the dancing is the weapon.  No, these guys are fighting with knives, pipes, and broken bottles, they just dance around while they do it.  Removing all the power, intensity, and plausibility of fighting from the situation.

For those who’ve never heard of Romeo and Juliet, or its retarded cousin, West Side Story, here’s the scoop. There are two rival gangs who hate each other because they are trying to occupy the same territory, and because of the folly of youth, but mostly because they are so different that they are essentially the same.  Okay, so we’ve got tension.

Because of their unwillingness to look beyond these minor differences, they are completely unwilling to tolerate co-habitation.  Problems arise when a member of each group falls in love with the other.  Each gang is outraged and willing to go to great lengths to stop the fledgling romance.  There’s the story defining conflict!  This mixture of volatile elements is a recipe for disas…oh wait, no.  Dance-fighting destroys all conflict and tension just by nature of being fucking dance-fighting.  Story ruined.

So all bitterness aside, West Side Story took a rather common hackneyed concept and decided to do absolutely nothing new with it.  Adding mediocre songs to the mix, and half-heartedly choreographing some dancing doesn’t re-invigorate a story that everyone knows, especially when the “new” additions all seem tacked on and disingenuous.

So, you ask, does this spoil my impression of musicals again? Am I back to being a non-believer? Not yet, although it was touch and go there for a while. I can rationally understand that there are duds in every genre, no matter if they’re science fiction (The Core anyone), mystery (anything M. Night Shyamalan did post Sixth Sense), or even, gasp, action (Transformers, GI Joe, etc..).  Unlike what I previously thought, there will be good musicals, but there will be terrible ones too (so really I was half right).

As for the acting, there really seems to be no point in going into it for this film, I wasn’t impressed by any of it.  In general though, one of the actors in particular will manage to redeem himself in my eyes.  Russ Tamblyn, will go on to feature heavily in one of the best television series of all times, Twin Peaks, and will also play a host of memorable small roles in such works as, Drive, The Haunting, Quantum Leap, and The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret.

So is this film worth seeing?  In my opinion, no.  Go see Romeo and Juliet instead (or better yet, go read it too), and save yourself the annoyance. Every once in a while this list of 1001 movies has some black holes of crap tossed in just because.  This is one of them.

“Giving musicals a bad name” – Ashley

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The Searchers (1956)

The Searchers – 1956

Director – John Ford

Starring – John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, and Natalie Wood

In my review of the another John Ford, John Wayne, western on this list, I complained about the fact that the story seemed shallow, the characters didn’t seem invested in what was happening to them, and that Wayne couldn’t act.  Stagecoach was a blueprint for most of, if not all of the westerns that came after it, The Searchers included.  But where Stagecoach attempted and (in my humble opinion) didn’t succeed, The Searchers passes with flying colors.  Everything from the scenery, the plot, and the acting was leagues better in this film.  Apparently I spoke too soon.

The Searchers, despite the trip that drives the plot, is really about the relationship between two men.  One, played by the perfectly crotchety Wayne is a hardened soldier, Ethan Edwards, who after having fought for the south in the Civil war, has an intimate knowledge of the evil that men can do to each other.  The other, Jeffrey Hunter, plays the slightly naive Martin Pawley, the adopted, half Native American son of Ethan’s only family.  At first, Ethan both distrusts as well as dislikes Martin because of his nationality, but eventually the two men find themselves working together when most of the family gets brutally massacred by Comanche indians, and the women are taken hostage.

Edwards and Pawley set out on an epic journey to find the two lost women, and in the process reveal a good deal about themselves.  Their ride takes them from New Mexico all the way north to the Canadian border.  They slog through the heat, rain and snow for 5 years looking for the elusive band of indians that are responsible for the massacre and kidnapping. 

The real revelation for me with this film, was Wayne’s acting.  He doesn’t just play a stereotype version of himself.  While Ethan is tough, and smart, he is also mean and wounded.  He’s been hurt before, by the Union, by Comanche indians, and he’s not about to let himself be hurt again.  Wayne plays him realistically, blemishes and all, flexing his acting muscle and in my eyes earning the notoriety that surrounds him.  Hunter’s Pawley is essentially the relief from Wayne’s gritty performance.  It balances the tone of the movie, keeping it moving forward on an even keel.  Hunter’s is not nearly as profound of a performance as Wayne’s, but it is exactly what is needed from his character.  The film both starts and ends with an image of Wayne in his element, and he is truly the character that changes the most.

Cinematographically, this film is miles beyond what we saw in Stagecoach.  One major element is the brilliant Technicolor that it was shot on.  The saturated blues and reds of the landscape mix and accentuate nicely with the passion of the character’s emotions.  Everything is bright, shocking, and powerful.  The vistas of Monument Valley have never looked as good as they did here (fully taking care of one of my complaints about Stagecoach), and the full range of climate, weather, and time of day was on display in this film.  Oppressive snow storms, rain, hot sun, and nighttime action are all on display here.  Our characters live in a hard scrabble, dangerous, yet beautiful environment, one that they must be wary of at all times. 

The aforementioned shot of Wayne that opens and closes the movie, is such a fantastic way to introduce the character at the start, and illustrate how he has changed by the end, it is by far my favorite part of the film.   Before I started it, I was more than expecting to see Stagecoach 2, but instead I got a thoughtful, elegant film with masterful performances by its actors, and subtle yet powerful guidance by its director.  The Searchers more than deserves to be on this list of best movies ever!