4 September 2008 | artihcus022
In Defense of Party Girl
''Party Girl'', Ray's final film for a major Hollywood studio(after this he worked with independent producers) is a highly baroque work. Screechingly mannerist in places, occasional head-first dives into camp but also remarkable instances of poetry and subtlety and a highly charged social portrait. It is a very discordant work which is to say that it deliberately skewers audiences expectations of a genre film by working as a genre film but stylized in a manner that the clichés and conventions look highly abstract, not unlike a film by Douglas Sirk.
''Party Girl'' is shot in CinemaScope and Metrocolor, is produced by Joe Pasternak who was in charge of the second-tier MGM unit. The Leonine studio had by the mid-50's devolved into an organization of penny-pinchers and according to Ray, the only reason this film got made was because it's backers wanted to get rid of it's two stars...Cyd Charisse and Robert Taylor so as to exhaust their run of contracted films as quickly as possible. This explains the fact that more than ''Johnny Guitar''(with it's superlative cast of actors), ''Party Girl'' is the closest Ray came to make a B-Film. The storyline is a standard-issue crime drama and it is by a safe distance the most generic of Ray's major films.
That it's still a major film is for me little doubt. Though lacking the strength of his early crime films and his 50's melodramas, ''Party Girl'' is still a deeply compelling film about the universality of compromises in society. The title ''Party Girl'' is essentially a slang for prostitute or for being under someone else's thumb. It refers to Cyd Charisse's character Vicki Gaye, a showgirl who works part-time as escort to various underworld types alongside other gals who work at the ''Rooster Folliers''(no joke). But it also includes mob lawyer Tommy Farrel(Robert Taylor) and applies to everyone else.
Ray's distaste for plot apparent in all his films is full in abundance here as the generic outline of this story of crooked lawyer turned straight through the power of love takes on several asides. Like the one-scene appearance of a fellow showgirl who's waiting for her man and whose depression, Vicki stifles as a result of habit and accord over the years. The scene where she walks into her roommate's bathroom and finds her swimming literally in a pool of her own blood in a bath-tub is one of Ray's most embedded images even if(in accord with then censorship) the image lasts only a few micro-seconds before a quick fade-away. Much of the secondary section of the film centers on Tommy's relationship with Rico Angelo(Lee J. Cobb in a towering performance) and there's very little plot driving their very powerful scenes. Tension arises from flaming egos by a mob underling played by John Ireland over Tommy's relationship with Vicki.
The film's sense of decor and colour is what we'd call now Fassbinderesque. It's pictorially fascinating and the colours are very eye-catching but the underlying design behind it is a sense of decadence of vulgarity. This reflects perhaps that the underlying subtext of this film is less about gangsters than about Hollywood. With Lee J. Cobb's mix of charisma(like Vito Corleone in ''The Godfather'') and crass vulgarity(like Joe Pesci in his films with Scorsese) stand-in for many studio heads of that period and the two musical interludes(numbers is the wrong word for it) by Cyd Charisse while visually striking is poorly choreographed and seems like a parody of the dying MGM Musicals.
''Party Girl'' is a reflection ultimately of what are the results when a great artist and a few good actors are working with conventional plots can achieve. It's a work that's of it's own kind. Not a gangster film entirely, mostly a Film Noir though in colours, visually creative but mostly functional. The decor of the film makes it's genre trappings apparent and obvious revealing and critiquing it's functions yet the scenes between Taylor and Charisse are very much played straight conveying genuine compassion between two characters who have long lost their innocence and are merely doing their best to survive and find a semblance of happiness, a happiness that's threatened not only by the mob but also by the cops who want to use them to catch the bad guys(which has much benefits for their own political careers).
What may put off most fans of Nicholas Ray is the graphic violence of the film which is quite unexpected and strong for a film of the 50's. Plenty of bloodletting is on display on this film...of course Ray would say "that's not blood...that's red."