West Side Story in 70mm

Note: I wrote and posted this article years before Steven Spielberg’s remake.

I caught the last screening of West Side Story at the Castro last night. This was the brand new 70mm print with DTS (almost as good as the original magnetic analog) sound. I’d seen the classic, Oscar-winning musical before, of course, but not for decades and never in anything approaching its original roadshow glory. Quite a different experience.

This new print differs from the original ones in one important detail: It lacks an intermission. Whether or not this was the right decision depends on your priorities. The original 70mm roadshow prints had an intermission, so the historical purists would say that’s the proper way to show it. But co-director Robert Wise didn’t want one, and successfully kept it out of the regular-release 35mm prints, so the auteurists would prefer the omission.

West Side Story doesn’t depend on the big-picture 70mm esthetic like Lawrence of Arabia. This is essentially an intimate story, set in a few blocks of Manhattan and shot mostly on a Hollywood sound stage. In fact, the 70mm print made those fake exteriors look at the more artificial, especially when compared with the actual location footage.

But it sounded terrific. I don’t know if the DTS track differs much from the original six-track magnetic version, but my guess is that it doesn’t. It had that aggressive use of stereo so often found in early widescreen films and almost unknown since; when someone on the left side of the screen talks, their voice comes from the left speaker. To listen to this score, well-recorded and superbly reproduced, is to realize that Leonard Bernstein was one classical conductor and composer who really understood jazz.

As a movie, West Side Story swings erratically from glorious brilliance to astonishing ineptitude. The songs and dances–especially the Jerome Robbins-choreographed dances–create a world of violent intensity and eroticism that both carry the story and shine in their own right. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better choreographed widescreen movie. But dialog is often stilted and stage-bound, and juvenile lead Richard Beymer is so bad as Tony that he sinks every scene he’s in–even the songs.

But it’s the supporting cast–Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris, and especially Rita Moreno–who carry West Side Story. They’re strong enough to cover up for Beymer’s ineptitude and Natalie Wood’s miscasting.