The disappointments of adulthood permeate Nicholas Ray’s gangland fable Party Girl, the story of a criminal defense attorney (Robert Taylor) and a nightclub dancer (Cyd Charisse) who struggle to break free of their ties to a Chicago mobster. Although well-known for his films about youth (They Live By Night  and Rebel Without a Cause ), the poet of nightfall – as François Truffaut called Ray (1) – is no stranger to the twilight of middle age: these characters are reminiscent of the equally cynical and world-weary Dix (Humphrey Bogart) and Laurel (Gloria Grahame) in Ray’s 1950 noir drama In a Lonely Place. And Party Girl looks back even further, evoking a distanced nostalgia for classical gangster pictures in the matte-painted, palpably unreal 1930s Chicago of the film’s first shot.
From these very first moments, Ray’s carefully composed CinemaScope frames – as in the director’s other widescreen works of the ’50s – establish both the social context of this criminal milieu and the individual life of the people under pressure to survive in it. As a tracking shot draws us inside the nightclub in which dancer Vicki Gaye (Charisse) works, each of the leading dancers is introduced one-by-one in a long shot. A group of hoods working for the mobster Rico Angelo (Lee J. Cobb), sitting at the front table, leer at these girls – they have been sent to pick the choicest women for Angelo’s “party”, and while prostitution is never shown onscreen, it is more than implied.
When the lawyer Thomas Farrell (Taylor) meets Vicki at the mob party, he advises her to give Angelo his money back so she can escape her role as purchased goods. But he might well heed his own advice. As the mob’s criminal defense attorney, Farrell exaggerates his pronounced limp and arms himself with a sentimental story about its cause – a childhood injury – to win over the sympathies of juries. Clearly Ray is drawing a parallel between Farrell’s corruption and Gaye’s prostitution, but one also senses the director’s pleasure in watching Taylor’s character make mincemeat of an institution as corrupt as the gangsters it lets off the hook (Ray’s skewed perspective of the American justice system dates back to his relatively more earnest 1949 feature Knock on Any Door). The cynicism felt by both character and director is palpable in these scenes; only when Vicki’s life is put in danger after Farrell becomes a police witness to Rico’s crimes will the lawyer face the consequences of his manipulative courtroom work.
It is tempting to read Farrell’s limp – made salient by Ray in a tracking shot that follows Farrell as he approaches the jury – as a sign of impotence. But while the lawyer is unable to dance with Vicki at the party because of his injury – an early indicator that this film, despite its pair of Charisse-centred dance numbers, will not be the musical Ray always dreamed of directing – Ray elides straightforward psychological commentary or Freudian overture. Farrell, far from being disadvantaged, is a shrewdly intelligent character, able to turn the weakness of his limp into a professional strength just as Vicki’s failed ambitions to become a serious dancer are channeled into the living she makes in the nightclub’s spectacle. So while many of Ray’s earlier couples find romance through a shared reservoir of tender feeling (as in They Live By Night, On Dangerous Ground , and Rebel Without a Cause), it is the shared intelligence and cynicism of Farrell and Vicki that binds them, and ultimately saves them. Late in the film, when Rico, who treats Farrell as a “son”, becomes suspicious after he asks to be released from his obligations, it is only Farrell’s skillful wordplay that wins over the sentiments of the mobster and buys the lovers precious time, demonstrating an effectiveness that parallels his earlier courtroom rhetoric.
Ray did not like Party Girl very much; he curtly dismissed it as a “shit film” (2). A job for MGM (Taylor and Charisse, under contract to the studio in a decade of growing independence for actors, were also obliged to make the film), Party Girl was Ray’s last contract with a Hollywood studio (his final features would be independently and internationally financed). Indifferently received by American critics, it is not too much to say that Party Girl was rescued by Cahiers du Cinéma, with the Sorbonne-educated Iranian critic Fereydoun Hoveyda waxing rhapsodically over Ray’s transcendence of the conventions of the gangster genre through mise en scène: “transforming, as if by magic, a screenplay written by someone else and imposed on the director into something which is truly an author’s film” (3). But what first appears as the abstraction of cinematic technique – the film’s bold use of colour and its bravura camera movements – is in fact organic to Party Girl’s depiction of violence. For example, while the sudden shock of red blood circling in the overflowing bathtub of Vicki’s roommate, who kills herself before Vicki brings Farrell back to her apartment at the beginning of their romance, is glimpsed for just a second by Ray’s camera, the intensity of the colour alone is enough to paint a larger world of palpable misogynistic violence. Colour here complements a larger theme developed elsewhere in the film. One comical scene in which Rico fires a gun at a picture of Jean Harlow, his Hollywood crush who has done the gangster the disrespect of getting married, tersely illustrates the pathetic violence that drives male fantasy in this dream-like gangland. And later, after Rico threatens Vicki when Farrell tries to quit defending the gangster’s thugs, the stark whiteness of her bandaged face gives the audience a blank state upon which to imagine, in the moment before she is revealed to be unscathed, the horrors that have been committed upon her.
Ray’s achievement, not unique to this film but perhaps best exemplified by it, is not to transcend genre material but to refract the literal content of the screenplay through a visual architecture that inflects what his characters say with ambiguity. In one of Party Girl’s most memorable scenes, Farrell and Vicki pull their car over as a bridge’s gears shift the direction of its girders. Against the backdrop of a Chicago night cast in melancholy blue, Farrell tells Vicki how he got his limp – a childhood accident involving a game of chicken on this very bridge. “Like being caught in a meat grinder”, Farrell tells her, also an apt metaphor for the criminal network in which both are entangled. His anecdote recalls the chickie run in Rebel Without a Cause, but while James Dean’s method acting aims at revealing authentic interior emotion, it’s impossible to tell if Farrell is revealing his soul to Vicki or merely spinning another tale. But Vicki and Farrell will have to believe in this fiction – as deeply as Bowie and Keechie believe in their love in the first moments of They Live By Night – if they want to escape the meat grinder. Even if tender-hearted romanticism is an impossibility in Ray’s hard-bitten coda to Hollywood filmmaking, with Party Girl, his cinema nevertheless comes full circle.
- François Truffaut, The Films in My Life, trans. Leonard Mayhew, Da Capo, New York, 1994, p. 143.
- Quoted in Bernard Eisenschitz, Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, trans. Tom Milne, Faber and Faber, London and Boston, 1993, p. 346.
- Fereydoun Hoveyda, “Nicholas Ray’s Reply: Party Girl”, Cahiers du Cinéma 1960-68: New Wave, New Cinema, Reevaluating Hollywood, ed. Jim Hillier, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1986, p. 123.
Party Girl (1958 USA 99 mins)
Prod Co: MGM/A Euterpe Production Prod: Joe Pasternak Dir: Nicholas Ray Scr: George Wells, based on the story by Leo Katcher Phot: Robert Bronner Ed: John McSweeney Jr. Art Dir: Randall Duell, William A. Horning Mus: Jeff Alexander
Cast: Robert Taylor, Cyd Charisse, Lee J. Cobb, John Ireland, Kent Smith, Claire Kelly