When we first meet Maria, she is begging Anita to lower the neckline of her lily white party dress. When Anita refuses, Maria asks, "Could we not dye it red, at least? White is for babies." This encounter sets up the importance of the color red throughout the film. The most notable use of the color red is during the "Tonight Quintet." This scene leads up to the climax of the conflict between the Jets and Sharks and is intentionally bathed in red light. Each shot of the sky, the streets, and the city is drenched in red, foreshadowing the coming bloodshed. The final poignant use of the color red circles back to Maria. Maria, who made her debut at the dance in a pristine white dress, is last seen on the ground clutching her dead love wearing a bright red dress.
New York City
Before we are dropped into a specific scene, director Robert Wise shoots New York City from above, as we hear a distant whistle. We see cars crossing bridges in tidy rows, and the geometric patterns of apartment complexes and tenements shot from above. The footage distances the viewer from the city, and makes it almost seem like the city is empty. Then, when the camera swoops down into Jet territory, the film has really established a sense of place before any action has even occurred.
The dance is shot in a particularly colorful and compelling way. One minute we see Maria at home spinning in her white dress, and as she spins, the screen turns different colors, then to red, and we see several other blurry figures spinning in circles. As the shot comes back into focus, we have been transported to the gym, as slinky jazz music plays. Wise shoots the choreography of the dance in a wide shot, and we watch as the teenagers all do choreography in unison, wearing brightly colored dresses and blazers.
The Jets dancing
Directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins were very intentional in shooting the opening musical number in the film. West Side Story pairs gritty realism with beautiful, more dreamlike tableaus. This is epitomized in the beginning of the film. We first see the Jets on a basketball court, snapping and whistling. As they walk down the street, they start to break into dance, exhibiting balletic grace that contrasts with their tougher personae.
West Side Story (1961 film) Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for West Side Story (1961 film) is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.