Of Nicholas Ray’s 1950s heyday as a director, Party Girl sits in the second-tier, mostly forgotten today and certainly nowhere near the heights of masterworks like Johnny Guitar or even the overblown melodrama of Rebel Without a Cause. It still retains a glut of interesting details and revealing moments, being quite dark and nihilistic even for Ray’s already close-cut preferences, especially considering the film was made by MGM studios, Hollywood’s traditionally most glamorous and lavish big studio. The juxtaposition between the vivid splash of MGM’s sets and production design (aided by Ray’s exquisite eye as a director) and the moody, noirish nature of the material provides Party Girl with its main source of interest, but there isn’t an awful lot else going on here.
Set in 1930s Chicago (and unlike most Hays Code Hollywood films, freely admitting to the existence of *gasp* the mafia), the basic plotline is that criminal lawyer Tommy Farrell (Robert Taylor), long a mouthpiece and the ‘get-out-jail-free man’ for the mob gang headed by Rico Angelo (Lee J. Cobb), falls in love with dancer Vicki Gaye (Cyd Charisse). At her encouragement he begins to change his ways, looking to get out of defending blatant criminals, thus worrying his former boss that he might rat on him.
It’s not really an “honest girl makes loveable rogue change his ways” story; both characters are lonely and downbeat. Vicki has long been a showgirl and dancer for Angelo’s nightclub, and it’s hinted that she also occasionally dips into prostitution to stay financially afloat, whilst Tommy openly admits to his drive for respect and money from the beginning, cast as a result of his feeling emasculated due to his limp leg.
It’s a bit of a cliché to say this, but Hollywood (especially Old Hollywood) often uses disabilities or physical handicaps as a way of implying a character is morally corrupt, and so it goes with Tommy. As he falls in love with Vicki, he also undergoes surgery to fix his limp. He literally becomes less handicapped at the same time as he becomes a better man. It’s a cheap trick, and loaded with all sorts of prejudices that sadly haven’t really been stamped out from mainstream filmmaking. It also doesn’t help that both Taylor and Charisse give fairly cold performances; one rarely gets the sense that their relationship is motivated by much else other than desperation and a desire to be free from the strictures of either wage-slavery (in Vicki’s case) or the strictures of the criminal underworld (in Tommy’s case).
Then again, that kind of dynamic would fit perfectly at home in Nic Ray’s world. This is a film with suicide, acid attacks, and a graphic (for its time) montage of people getting killed onscreen. Pretty damn dark for the Hays Code era, and one can see in this film the beginning of what would be a long, gradual acceptance by the moral guardians of Hollywood cinema that there is more to the world than its black-and-white worldview. Particularly engrossing is Lee J. Cobb’s performance, fitting both cigar and scenery into his mouth as mafia boss Rico with great gusto and drama, stealing every scene he’s in and bringing energy to a film without much of it. I wonder if Robert De Niro was watching; many of his great Mafiosi characters (Goodfellas, The Untouchables, Casino) seem to be echoing Cobb’s excellent work here, an angry, bulldog fighter of a performance, a character with intelligence, temper, and arrogance. From a purely filmic perspective, it’s probably Party Girl’s greatest aspect. A shame then that the rest of the film has so little energy, with Ray unable to take the film’s dark undercurrents to further heights.