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A line of showgirls enters a swank Chicago apartment as "guests" for an informal 2 AM party. A greeter hands out complimentary makeup compacts with a $100 dollar bill inside. Each dancer discards the metal box in the ladies' room and finds a place in her clothing to hide the money. It might be a rough night ...
The reputation of Nicholas Ray's Party Girl soared in the years of auteurist film criticism, when French and English critics lavished praise on anything signed by the maverick Hollywood director. The Metrocolor and CinemaScope gangster film is a good drama that displays plenty of graces begging for analysis, but its director later maintained that he had much less personal involvement in the production than usual. That disclaimer doesn't make the movie any less interesting.
Party Girl was a work-for-hire assignment for Nicholas Ray at MGM, a studio at the end of its days of greatness. Ray was attracted to the script because its two leading characters are morally and physically compromised. In gangland Chicago of the early 1930s, mob "mouthpiece" lawyer Tommy Farrell (Robert Taylor, years past his prime as a matinee idol) and club dancer Vicki Gaye (Cyd Charisse, musical star) take money from the mobster Rico Angelo (Lee J. Cobb), an Al Capone type who can't afford to lose control of people who know too much about his operation. Vicki picks up gratuities for attending mob parties, where she must rely on her wits to avoid being "personally entertained" by guests like Rico's lieutenant, murderer Louis Canetto (John Ireland). A cripple from childhood, Tommy Farrell is now an unprincipled courtroom con-man, who uses gimmicks like his own bum leg to gain sympathy with the jury. His ability to extricate Rico's men from serious, even capital charges makes him an irreplaceable asset to the mob.
Tommy and Vicki's relationship blooms despite an initial exchange of insults. Adopting a more positive outlook on life, Tommy resolves to seek a cure for his leg in Sweden. When Rico expects him to defend the obviously psychopathic Cookie La Motte (Corey Allen from Rebel Without a Cause) Tommy quits, a move that puts both him and Vicki in danger. Rico is a very unpredictable man.
Party Girl is almost entirely studio bound, on mostly MGM-generic sets. Ray admits that he had little control of the film's look or style. Cyd Charisse and Robert Taylor were two of the last MGM stars still kept on the studio payroll. Ray was able to cast only a few small roles, which perhaps accounts for some obvious choices, like Vito Scotti as an excitable Italian and Jack Lambert as a sullen bartender. Ray was pleasantly surprised to find that Robert Taylor took the role seriously, even studying up on leg injuries; Ray complimented Taylor's technique by calling him a Method actor.
But Cyd Charisse preferred the company of her choreographer and producer Pasternak and had as little as possible to do with her director (who, it must be admitted, had a reputation as a very weird and self-destructive character). Often criticized as a cold actress, Ms. Charisse does generate some sympathy in the role. She criticized Ray's direction, citing the "meaningless" scene in which Vicki Gaye cries into a bouquet of fresh roses, leaving drops of water on her face. Ray has Charisse appear in a bright scarlet dress at key dramatic high points. The image evokes the "Girl Hunt Ballet" in Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon, where Charisse bursts forth from a dark coat wearing a similar red dress. The French critics almost certainly associated these design accents with the Charisse / Minnelli musicals they admired so much.
Participants remember Ray often being absent from the set, implying that the MGM production machine barely needed a director in the first place -- especially when the lead actress wasn't taking his direction. Party Girl is a producer's movie, really, carefully controlled by the studio. One tiresome sequence uses a set of rear projected stock shots of European capitols and beaches to visualize Tommy and Vicki's fling on the Continent; Sam Fuller did a better job with his awkward "home movie" European tour in The Naked Kiss. Ray seems to have had little to do with the film's two dynamic (and wildly anachronistic) musical numbers, which were choreographed with stand-ins in Mexico because of a musician's strike. The dance performances were filmed at the end of the shoot, with Cyd Charisse working to a bongo track. Andre Previn (uncredited) didn't compose the accompanying music tracks until later. 2
Despite these drawbacks Party Girl generates a good gangland atmosphere, and many of the dramatic scenes definitely show Nicholas Ray's sensitive touch. The 1958 release placed the film before the late 50s resurgence of historical gangster epics. Ray's touches of violence contrast well with the MGM house style. Rico Angelo threatens to smash Tommy's leg with a crowbar. At a testimonial party he beats a man senseless with a miniature silver pool cue, after a famous Al Capone incident that Roger Corman depicted in The St. Valentine's Day Massacre and Brian De Palma revisited in his The Untouchables. Ray claimed that he cast a Zen Buddhist (!) as the victim, so that he wouldn't flinch in anticipation of Rico's attack! Tommy offers himself up to be assassinated, but Rico instead tries to force the lawyer's cooperation by threatening to burn Vicki's face with acid. To demonstrate, Rico first pours the acid on a scarlet Christmas decoration that matches Vicki's dress. When Tommy sees Vicki led blindfolded into the room, he at first fears that she's already been disfigured.
Cyd Charisse's presence somewhat distorts Party Girl; it's the kind of star vehicle the actress never received earlier in her MGM career. English critics delighted in the presentation of the "meat parade" of female flesh from which Lois Canetto selects party girls to entertain his boss. Since the story revolves around Vicki & Tommy's different but similar situations of "prostitution" for Rico's money, it's not difficult to extrapolate a critique of the American rat race. Unlike many of Nicholas Ray's ill-fated couples, these lovers ultimately prevail. Party Girl at least coheres, unlike some of late-career Ray's more brilliant but compromised personal films.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Party Girl is a good-looking enhanced presentation that deserves an eventual full restoration. Colors are excellent but the picture has its share of flaws -- dirt, speckling and an occasional minor scratch. Yet it's the best video copy yet available. When American pictures unreleased on disc here come out as Region 2 DVDs, they're almost always given a 4% PAL speed-up, which plays havoc with dialogue, music and pacing.
The audio track is solid, including the title song warbled by Tony Martin, Cyd Charisse's husband (surprise!). Although witnesses say that Nicholas Ray wasn't around for all of the filming, his touch is felt throughout. A juicy montage of gangland slayings is every bit as creative as the gun-downs in the Godfather movies. An angle showing a pair of hoods blasted as they try to catch a train is particularly inspired. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Party Girl rates:
1. Research source: Nicholas Ray, An American Journey by Bernard Eisenschitz, Farber and Farber, London 1993. Translated by Tom Milne, highly recommended reading.
2. Party Girl was filmed in 1958. We're told that for 1956's Forbidden Planet Dore Schary hired Louis and Bebé Barron to do "electronic tonalities" to circumvent an ongoing musician's strike. Just how often did strikes like that occur? I'm almost feeling sorry for the studio bigwigs, and that way lies madness.
3. A funny but true SPOILER note from Edward Holub, Jr., 9.21.09:
Hi Glenn, I enjoyed your review of Party Girl. I used to have the laserdisc, but sold it. The only thing I miss about it is one of THE funniest death scenes ever. When Lee J. Cobb SOMEHOW ACCIDENTALLY throws the acid on himself, THEN falls out of a window screaming like a little girl .................... I lose it. Eddie
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