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Party Girl

23 Mar

Last time, I had a look at a gangster/noir crossover movie, an early example of the emergence of a darker sensibility in crime movies in Hollywood. Let’s jump ahead almost two decades, to the point at which film noir was nearing the end of the classic cycle. Again, the film in question is something of a hybrid, a fusion of styles and influences, but the principal elements remain the gangster story and shadowy world of the dark cinema. A lot of film noir throughout the 1950s featured the involvement of organized crime so Party Girl (1958), despite abandoning the more usual contemporary setting, can be viewed as a continuation of that trend. Having said that, the movie could be classed as a marginal entry – it’s shot in lurid technicolor and at times resembles a hard-boiled variation of the classic studio musical. However, in spite of what sound like stylistic contradictions, Party Girl is categorized by many writers as a genuine film noir, and I guess its themes do have the requisite darkness and ambiguity to qualify it for inclusion.

Chicago in the early 30s – Tommy Farrell (Robert Taylor) is a mob lawyer, and a successful one. He’s respected and feared by judges and prosecutors not simply due to his connections but because he’s the top man in his line. Farrell is first glimpsed at a party thrown by crime kingpin Rico Angelo (Lee J Cobb) – actually it’s as much a wake as a party since Rico is laying to rest a broken heart on hearing the news that Jean Harlow, whom he’s adored from afar, is to be wed – and he’s surrounded by a group of city dignitaries hanging onto his every word. One might assume that Farrell has it made, but this is only the silver lining obscuring the cloud. Farrell is almost a cripple, his hip and leg twisted as a result of a youthful escapade gone wrong. It is often the case in movies that physical imperfections are mirrored by deeper psychological scars, and so it is with Tommy Farrell. This man who glides effortlessly through the powerful social milieu in spite of his pronounced limp is emotionally wounded. His beautiful but callous wife left him since she couldn’t overcome her disgust at his physical deformity, and Farrell has been unable to heal that emotional wound. However, his rehabilitation begins at Rico’s party when he agrees to escort home Vicki Gaye (Cyd Charisse), a dancer and one of the “party girls” hired for the evening. Although the evening ends with a rather gruesome discovery, Farrell and Vicki do make a connection that will blossom despite a few bumpy stretches along the way. The whole movie is principally concerned with Farrell’s rediscovery of his self-respect after years of loathing himself. Running parallel to the developing relationship with Vicki is the thread that follows Farrell’s attempts to distance himself from Rico and the corrupt and violent world he inhabits. Just when it looks like the hero may have achieved the spiritual peace he’s long been seeking, Rico’s machinations and threats haul him back to defend one of his paymaster’s psychotic associates. However, having had a taste of life beyond the cheap neon glamour of the underworld, Farrell is determined to get out for good. The trick is to find a way to protect Vicki, bring down Rico, and save his own skin at the same time.

Nostalgia for certain periods tends to come in waves, and the late 50s saw a resurgence of interest in the old gangster movies. Party Girl tapped into that vibe and director Nicholas ray added his own personal touch to it. Ray only made a handful of noir pictures altogether – all are interesting in their own way, and two (In a Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground) are pure bred classics. All of Ray’s best movies dealt with those who were in some way removed from the mainstream of society, and Party Girl follows that template. Farrell is superficially a man at the heart of city life. Yet, he’s an outsider in every sense; a lawyer who essentially makes a mockery of the law, an apparent mob insider who is revolted by the crassness and brutality around him, and a man bedeviled by his own sense of inadequacy. Aside from the fact that the mobsters and hoodlums who populate the film are themselves social pariahs, Vicki is another character existing at the periphery of decency. The struggle which Farrell and Vicki undertake to break free of the dark influences that threaten to drag them down is classic Ray material. Another feature common to Ray’s work, and seen in abundance here, is the unrestrained use of color. Party Girl is a riot of technicolor hues that seem to allude to the heightened emotional state of the characters.

Even though I’m a great admirer of his work in general, I think it’s fair to say Robert Taylor gave an excellent performance as Farrell. As he aged, and his looks took on more character, he did some first-rate work in westerns, and the same can be said about his noir pictures. He brought a dour toughness to his role as the tortured lawyer, and worked well with Charisse. For her own part, Charisse adopted the right kind of world-weary air that befits a woman who has spent her time dodging unwanted passes and living off dubious handouts in seedy nightclubs. She was of course an immensely talented dancer, one of the greats, and the movie features a couple of set piece numbers designed to show off her moves. With the club setting, and her character’s profession, these sequences are blended seamlessly into the narrative. They may capture the look and feel of a musical yet they never have that jarring, artificial sense that such movies frequently evoke. The other big hitter in the cast was Lee J Cobb. This was an actor who could explode out of the screen at times, his inherent power always in danger of turning into bombast. In Party Girl, Ray managed to get the right kind of balance from Cobb for the most part. Sure there are instances where he drifts awfully close to scenery chewing, but there are some quietly effective moments too – his chat with Taylor where he blackmails the lawyer into cooperating under the threat of disfiguring his girlfriend is all the more chilling due to Cobb’s restraint. The supporting cast was headed up by the ever reliable John Ireland as Cobb’s slimy and dangerous right hand man. Also featured were Kent Smith – despite his long and varied career, I’ll always associate him with one of his earliest roles in Val Lewton & Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People – as the straight arrow prosecutor, and a manic Corey Allen as the unbalanced hood Cookie La Motte.

For a long time, Party Girl wasn’t the easiest movie to see. However, it has been released on DVD in France and Spain and as a MOD disc via the Warner Archive in the US. I have the old French Warner Brothers DVD which is pretty good. The film is presented in anamorphic scope and the print used for the transfer seems in good shape. There’s plenty of clarity, the colors are strong and quite vibrant, and damage (if there is any) is so slight I can’t say I noticed. There are no extra features on the disc – subtitles are optional and can be disabled via the setup menu. The blending of styles and genres just about works in the movie, drawing in elements of melodrama, the musical and a crime tale to create a fairly unique film noir. Aside from a trio of good performances, what holds the whole thing together is the direction of Nicholas Ray. In the hands of a lesser director, the disparate elements could well have pulled the movie apart. As it stands, Party Girl remains one of Ray’s interesting experiments which I feel more or less succeeds. Of course much of this depends on how one reacts to Ray as a filmmaker; as such, it’s another of those films that I’d cautiously recommend.

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42 Comments

Posted by on March 23, 2013 in 1950s, Film Noir, Nicholas Ray, Robert Taylor

 

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42 responses to “Party Girl

  1. Judy

    March 23, 2013 at 7:52 am

    This sounds like an unmissable combination of ingredients – late 1950s Technicolor, noir themes, Robert Taylor, Cyd Charisse dancing… and Nicholas Ray as director! Yet another film you have me keen to see, Colin. I’m pleased to hear from your review that Charisse is also good as an actress in this, since I’ve found her slightly unconvincing in one or two of the more dramatic scenes in the musicals I’ve seen her in so far. Anyway, another great review, as ever.

     
    • Colin

      March 23, 2013 at 8:30 am

      Thanks Judy. The ingredients are certainly all there and it all mostly comes together for me. I believe the film wasn’t all that highly regarded when it was first released but its reputation seems to have grown over time. For me, all of Ray’s films are of interest to a greater or lesser extent and there’s always something to engage me.
      Obviously, Cyd Charisse was a dancer first and foremost but I thought she was just fine in this dramatic role and quite convincing.
      Actually, I just realized this post ties in nicely with your own recent piece on Minnelli’s The Band Wagon.

       
      • Judy

        March 23, 2013 at 12:37 pm

        Thanks for the plug, Colin. I’m quite into 1950s glossiness at the moment. And must agree that all of Ray’s films are of interest.

         
        • Colin

          March 23, 2013 at 3:59 pm

          You’re most welcome Judy.

           
  2. chrisk

    March 23, 2013 at 8:15 am

    Your review is interesting and the casting i.e. Robert Taylor, Cyd Charisse and Lee J Cobb was good. I enjoyed watching Party Girl a long time ago as it was in Technicolor. There are not that many film noir in color. After Party Girl, I believe Robert Taylor and Cyd Charisee did not star in any other memorable roles. Best regards.

     
    • Colin

      March 23, 2013 at 8:38 am

      Chris, there aren’t that many color noirs – aside from this movie, Niagara, Leave Her to Heaven and Slightly Scarlet immediately spring to mind. It does seem like a contradiction in terms I guess but film noir doesn’t have to be shot in black & white.

      I agree Charisse’s roles after this were less memorable. However, Taylor followed the film up with The Hangman for Michael Curtiz – a movie I think I rate higher than a lot of people do – and of course he was concentrating on his TV show The Detectives.

       
  3. Vienna

    March 23, 2013 at 8:54 am

    Thanks for highlighting PARTY GIRL which I like a lot. Robert Taylor is good as the shady lawyer with a limp. I sometimes wonder if Farrell ended up as a mob mouthpiece because he didnt feel part of society and at least now he gets respect. He obviously hates himself even as he gets the gangsters off .
    Typical of Ray is Farrell’s complexity .Farrell meeting and believing in the Cyd Charisse character is his salvation.
    Lee J Cobb must have grabbed his character with both hands – such a juicy role for him to play.
    I always liked the fact that one of Hollywood’s greatest dancers was given chances in non-musical roles. She really only came to life when dancing but she’s fine here ( as in her film with Rock Hudson, TWILIGHT FOR THE GODS).
    A pity John Ireland had so little to do. I love Corey Allen’s name, ‘Cookie LaMotte’.
    One plot strand which didnt work was Farrell disappearing for what was supposed to be a year for treatment abroad, then returning without much improvement.
    Oh, Colin , what a put down for musicals! – “jarring artificial sense that such movies frequently evoke.”

     
    • Colin

      March 23, 2013 at 9:06 am

      Sorry for taking that shot at musicals, but the truth is I really do struggle with the genre. For me, there are a few notable exceptions but, for the most part, I’ve ended up sitting through most I’ve seen with something approaching gritted teeth.

      That brief plot stand you mention – Taylor heading to Europe – does misfire a bit for me too. It’s almost like an insert from a Douglas Sirk movie that didn’t quite come off.

      On your point about Farrell becoming a mob lawyer to compensate for his sense of being an outsider. He does say as much to Vicki when he talks to her about his past and the way he has earned the respect of others, if not himself.

       
  4. Vienna

    March 23, 2013 at 9:02 am

    Color Noir is a contradiction in terms. Surely the whole concept is black and white, shadows etc.Even calling a western like BLOOD ON THE MOON a noir doesn’t make sense. Surely the very basis of Noir is the 1940s and 50s .

     
    • Colin

      March 23, 2013 at 9:13 am

      A lot of people do take that position, and I quite understand it, even if I don’t necessarily share it. I’m of the opinion that noir is arguably best served when shot in black & white, and that the best examples of the style are such. However, where I differ is that I feel the themes of a movie are what ultimately decides on whether or not it’s noir. There are numerous examples of 40s and 50s black & white films that display the visual motifs of noir, but whose stories and themes don’t fit at all.

       
      • Chris

        March 27, 2013 at 4:24 am

        If I may I’d like to volunteer They Live By Night (1947) as another pure bred Nicholas Ray Noir Classic.
        Like you I don’t have a problem with Noir being in colour. Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo (1955) the first I thought of, let alone the modern descendants of the genre all the way through to Eastern Promises and No Country for Old Men (2007) and Drive (2011)
        Best, Chris B

         
        • Colin

          March 27, 2013 at 8:46 am

          They Drive by Night is another quality movie, and probably features Farley Granger’s best performance. Personally, I’d rate it a little below On Dangerous Ground and In a Lonely Place, but I’m likely in the minority on that score.
          Once you get into the area of post/neo noir then there are, of course, countless examples of color movies. Clearly, there are far fewer from the classic period – I’d completely neglected Fuller’s House of Bamboo – but there certainly are a number which I feel deserve to be considered proper film noir.
          Thanks for adding your thoughts on this Chris.

           
          • Chris

            March 27, 2013 at 2:30 pm

            Farley Granger is always terrific, but it’s hard to compete with two perfect noir duos in Gloria and Bogie, or Ryan and Lupino (or Ryan and anybody for that matter). Dangerous Ground is actually my pick of the bunch, sounds like yours too. Funny how all three have genuinely emotional conclusions, not something you usually associate with Film Noir. Ray certainly knew how to pack a punch.
            Cheers, Chris

             
            • Colin

              March 27, 2013 at 7:59 pm

              Ray’s stuff was always watchable in whatever genre he worked in, although I do wish he’d made a few more noir pictures. His fondness for stories where the protagonists were outsiders who get caught up in events that quickly spin out of control meant he took to noir easily. Only Knock on Any Door, and even it does have its moments, stands out as a weaker picture.

               
  5. Cavershamragu

    March 23, 2013 at 9:38 am

    Always been a big fan of this one and even bought the excellent LaserDisc (way back when just being able to see it it in Scope with strong colours seemed like nirvana). The use of red and greens is splendid, especially in the bathtub scene and the climactic showdown with Cobb – great review Colin.

     
    • Colin

      March 23, 2013 at 9:43 am

      Thanks Sergio. Ray really knew how to use color to enhance the drama and manipulate mood. His black & white films are masterful, but he was equally at home shooting in color and his scope compositions are excellent too.

       
      • Cavershamragu

        March 23, 2013 at 10:07 am

        Apparently the film was made a bit reluctantly by MGM, using up the last of their contract artists and so forth and making it all on the backlot – it is also, I think, one of those films made in 1958 that suffered during the Hollywood musician;s strike so only stock music could be used (CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF was another MGM casualty – to a small extent so was VERTIGO, where the score had to be recorded overseas, also suffered in this regard).

        But compared with some of the other gangster revival movies of the era I think it is the bold use of colour and Scope that really makes it stand out. But I agree, Taylor is very good as the physically and morally challenged protagonist – Cobb is a bit on autopilot I suppose and Charisse a bit out of her depth as the euphemistic ‘party girl’ (have you seen the trailer in which she says “I’m a party girl” straight to camera and with barely a straight face several times? It’s a hoot …) but I’ve always enjoyed this one a lot.

         
        • Colin

          March 23, 2013 at 10:42 am

          That’s very interesting; I wasn’t aware of those issues with the music. Now that you mention it though, the score is pretty unmemorable outside of Charisse’s dance numbers.

          I honestly haven’t seen much of Charisse in dramatic mode, so I haven’t anything to compare her performance here with. Frankly, I thought she was OK as the girl who had been around the block a few times and was looking for an out. I just had a look at that trailer, and yes, it made me smile.

           
          • Cavershamragu

            March 23, 2013 at 11:01 am

            I don’t mean to slight Cobb incidentally – it’s just that he could play the role virtually from memory by that point …

             
            • Colin

              March 23, 2013 at 11:16 am

              Indeed. Cobb had that kind of part down pat at that stage. He seemed to be enjoying himself though and his excesses are generally reined in – either by Ray or just himself. He does let fly on a couple of occasions though.

               
              • Cavershamragu

                March 23, 2013 at 11:22 am

                Ray was pretty good at getting the best out of his actors but, except maybe when playing the odd Chinese warlord, I’ll watch almost anything with Cobb

                 
                • Colin

                  March 23, 2013 at 11:31 am

                  Ah yes, The Left Hand of God. That film is a nightmare of miscasting and a bit of a mess all round. Still and all, it does have curiosity value, looks terrific, and I find the whole thing strangely entertaining.

                   
                  • Cavershamragu

                    March 23, 2013 at 12:11 pm

                    It also has a really haunting musical theme composed by Victor Young, one of his last:

                     
                    • Colin

                      March 23, 2013 at 3:55 pm

                      Thanks for the link. It is a very evocative score – another bonus of the film.

                       
  6. vinnieh

    March 23, 2013 at 10:18 am

    Great post, I’ve been trying to watch more noir lately so I’ll add this to my list.

     
    • Colin

      March 23, 2013 at 10:44 am

      Cheers Vinnie. There’s such a variety of noir available these days that it’s relatively easy to dip into. I wouldn’t call this movie a typical example of the style, but it’s an interesting variant to be sure.

       
  7. Laura

    March 23, 2013 at 6:10 pm

    Loved your writeup, Colin, this is one of the films that first made me a fan of Robert Taylor. I remember being struck by how much was conveyed without dialogue — for example, I loved a worldless scene where he waits for Charisse to get off work and then she gets in his car.

    I picked up the Warner Archive DVD but haven’t watched it yet — you’ve caused me to pull it off the shelf in hopes of watching it in the near future. :)

    Best wishes,
    Laura

     
    • Colin

      March 23, 2013 at 6:27 pm

      Hi Laura. I’m glad to hear you’ve been spurred on to give the film another viewing.

      I know just the scene you’re referring to, and I agree it does work very well. It’s really the beginning of the thaw in Taylor’s character, yet the silence underlines how guarded he remains at that stage. A subtle and very effective moment.

       
  8. Blake Lucas

    March 23, 2013 at 7:29 pm

    Although the color in this is brilliant, typically of Ray’s movies–and brilliant enough for one to say “Technicolor”–it is actually Metrocolor.

    For me, a great movie, but I say this about the majority of Ray’s movies. Still, if you’ve seen it over and over for many years and it always remains great I think that’s justified. I could go on and on about it. I think it’s sometimes missed by people in the climactic scene that it is Farrell’s real watch, not one of the phoney ones, and so the story he tells about Rico (“King of the Kids”) is true and the relationship between the two men more complex than a synopsis suggests even though Vicki is Tommy’s angel and Rico is the heavy.

    The brief European part is for me the one time when the movie becomes conventional and seems like one more MGM movie, instead of the great Nicholas Ray movie that it is.

    Cyd Charisse is also very good in Minnelli melodrama TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN–a straight dramatic role and she doesn’t dance a step. The character does not seem too dimensional but Minnelli says the movie suffered from an ill-advised studio recut and lost important scenes, at least one of them which he described an important one for her.

     
    • Colin

      March 23, 2013 at 7:44 pm

      Blake, you’re quite right about the Metrocolor. In my defense, I did make a point of not capitalizing my use of technicolor. Well anyway that’s my story and I’m sticking to it! :)

      It is easy to miss the significance of that last scene you mention with the watches. It does act as a confirmation of the depth of the relationship between Rico and Farrell, and also shows that the latter is more than just a slick talker who uses his skills to get out of tricky situations. Yet another subtle, but very important touch.

      And I really must try to get my hands on a copy of Two Weeks in Another Town – it’s a kind of loose sequel to The Bad and the Beautiful, isn’t it? I actually have a hazy memory of having seen at least part of this film a long time ago.

       
  9. Mentor

    March 23, 2013 at 9:08 pm

    Party Girl has to be the only bright pink musical film noir I’ve ever seen. It’s gaudy and tacky but it’s a hoot. An orange and pink hoot. ;)

     
    • Colin

      March 23, 2013 at 9:16 pm

      Well it’s certainly distinctive and colorful – I’ll give you that.

       
  10. Blake Lucas

    March 23, 2013 at 10:52 pm

    TWO WEEKS is not a sequel to THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, though it’s related because it’s a
    Hollywood on Hollywood Melodrama, though set in Europe as appropriate to the 1960s, and because many of the same key people (Minnelli, John Houseman, Charles Schnee, Kirk Douglas, David Raksin) were involved in both movies. There is a clip from TBATB presented as if made by the characters in the present film and Raksin’s does a musical inversion of his famous main theme from TBATB as the main theme here. If anyone has seen one of these and not the other, they will want to see the one of the two they haven’t seen.

     
    • Colin

      March 23, 2013 at 11:13 pm

      I see, thanks. I just had a look at the trailer and I’m pretty sure I did see some of Two Weeks in Another Town at one time, but certainly not the whole movie.

       
  11. Jeff Flugel

    March 24, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    Another terrific post, Colin! I’m so far behind on my film noir viewing that I don’t even know where to begin. I do hope Laura has the time to give a little note on her blog about the quality of the Warner Archives MOD print…if it’s a good one, I’ll add it to my ever-growing “to get” list. Like you, I think Robert Taylor got more and more interesting as he aged, and really enjoy him in his 50s westerns. Speaking of Cyd Charisse, I just watched her as the Indian love interest of Stewart Granger’s mountain man in the fine adventure film, THE WILD NORTH. She was pretty good in a limited part. She was an amazing dancer and those legs – oh my! The striptease she does to open THE SILENCERS is something to see.

     
    • Colin

      March 24, 2013 at 6:17 pm

      Thanks Jeff. You know, I have a copy of The Wild North unwatched on my shelves and didn’t realize Charisse was in that – must give it a look soon.

      If you’re curious about the quality of the Archive release of Party Girl, then have a look at this comparison of the US and European discs that DVD Beaver has done.

       
      • Jeff Flugel

        March 25, 2013 at 12:24 am

        Thanks for that link, Colin – both versions look pretty great, with the Warner Archives transfer perhaps a tad brighter. I often check DVD Beaver but usually only their Blu-Ray reviews, so tend to forget that they still look at regular DVDs.

         
        • Colin

          March 25, 2013 at 12:42 am

          I don’t think there looks to be a whole lot of difference between the two releases. For me, it would come down to which was the cheapest/easiest to obtain/preferred media.

           
    • Laura

      March 28, 2013 at 6:29 am

      Hope to rewatch it soon via that Warner Archive disc, Jeff, and when I do I’ll be sure to note the print quality! I’ve had more than one query on that. :)

      Best wishes,
      Laura

       
      • Colin

        March 28, 2013 at 9:16 am

        Laura, if it’s anything like the French release, and those DVD Beaver images suggest that is the case, I don’t think you’ll have too much cause for complaint.
        Screen grabs are useful up to a point, but there really is no substitute for watching a movie in motion.

         
  12. Rod Croft

    March 26, 2013 at 3:59 am

    Colin,

    I was intrigued by your choice of a “follow-up” to “Johnny Apollo” . “Party Girl” is a film of the same genre as the former, ( although released 18 years later), and shares similar elements with its predecessor, however it is in its execution by Director, Nicholas Ray, that this film presents a direct contrast to the simplicity of Hathaway’s Black and White morality tale.

    Nicholas Ray’s glossy, colourful expose’ (with music), of the Chicago Underworld set in the 1930s was to be his only opportunity to direct the “musical” that many of his admirers believed to be inevitable, but in effect was never realised.

    I enjoyed the opening scenes of the film where the eye-catching floor-show is interspersed with a discussion between the gangsters. Prior to the “opening credits” rolling, we are made aware of important information, particularily relating to the characters of Vicki Gaye and Rico and this certainly assisted with the pacing of the film.

    Cyd Charisse has always been an attractive asset to any film, and
    personally, I have no problem with her acting ability.

    “Party Girl” is an interesting entry in Nicholas Ray’s directorial history.

     
    • Colin

      March 26, 2013 at 8:58 am

      Yes, that opening does a very succinct job in establishing context and introducing key characters; it certainly eliminates the need for tiresome exposition later. Generally, the film is well paced, only suffering some slackness during those European scenes that others have mentioned.

       

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