[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]
Not that any of this is visible in the film's opening scenes, which portray the staid, conventional showgirl act that acts as the background noise for the drunken antics of the club owner, mob boss Rico Angelo (Lee J. Cobb, eyes never quite focused even when he turns into an icy monster later). Beneath the stage, the dames bicker viciously, insulting looks and brandishing nails with promises of hair yanking of Biblical proportions. The only supportive woman among this bevy of befeathered and besequined harpies is Vicki Gaye (Cyd Charisse), who tries to comfort her co-worker and roommate, a despairing, crumbling woman named Joy in one of life's cruel ironies. Pregnant with the child of a married man, Joy's childish pouting belies a serious problem, but Ray has a knack for removing foreshadowing from his atmosphere. When he follows through on this brief subplot with a shocking quick shot of gruesome finality, the effect is stunning, and I found myself for the first time truly unsettled by Ray's use of red.
Joy's fate does, however, open up new opportunities for Vicki, particularly at the behest of Tommy Farrell (Robert Taylor), Rico's mob lawyer. Disabled from a childhood accident on a drawbridge, Tommy hobbles around on a cane and handles the paperwork for the bosses. Rather than portray him as a weakling, Taylor makes Farrell as slick and cynical as an enforcer, only far more cunning. With his ever-furrowed brow, slicked-back hair and thin, vaguely ominous mustache, Taylor looks as likely to have someone rubbed out as Angelo. But underneath his rough exterior lies, well, not a gentle soul but at least a gentleman. Where other mobsters paw all over the showgirls, he escorts Vicki home and provides non-suggestive comfort when Joy is discovered. Afterwards, he tries to cheer Vicki up by convincing Rico to let her plan the dances, allowing her to finally exhibit her skills outside the stale, pedestrian style we saw at the beginning.
From this point, Party Girl moves in fits and starts to Ray's whims, a prospect that sounds potentially tedious until the genius of his imagery takes over from the pat screenplay. The arbitrary dance numbers don't seem so awkwardly inserted when the screen floods with pink and red or stark shadowplay. Vicki is already a figure of great sensuality—see how she meets Tommy in a visual position of power, a low-angle shot highlighting her fiery red dress as Tommy sits, shrunken. When unleashed on the stage, however, she explodes. Her dancing bears little resemblance to a Prohibition-era speakeasy act. Instead, her acts feel like worlds colliding, first dancing like a gypsy to hot jazz as her pink dress flows into a red cape and later shaking around in interpretive dance to tribal rhythms against deep shadow. Even with the frenzy of the music, a certain stunned silence emanates from the crowd, which looks so out of place when Ray occasionally cuts back to them watching the self-contained universes of Vicki's dances that it is they, not her, who look odd.
Ray even finds room for the twisted gender roles of Johnny Guitar in this visual phantasmagoria. Vicki meets Tommy in a visual position of authority, a low-angle shot highlighting her red-clad presence as reverse shots place Tommy in a position of relative weakness even before his disability is revealed. Indeed, as the film continues, even her inevitable realignment to traditional values—and she of course becomes the damsel in distress as the bargaining chip Rico uses to force Tommy to remain loyal—does not fully overpower her sense of confrontational, gender challenging verve. Beside her, Tommy's greasy mafia look turns into a boyish stab at toughness, and his sensitivity and frailty makes him even more feminine than Sterling Hayden's lovesick roamer in Ray's mad Western. The men all seem to want a strong woman, not merely Tommy: at the start of the film, Rico has the women throw him a bizarre commemoration for Pre-Code goddess Jean Harlow, who recently married. "The way he figures it, she double-crossed him," Vicki says, but then, wouldn't that be exactly the sort of thing Jean Harlow would do? During the "party," a more-sloshed-than-usual Rico pumps his revolver into a picture of Harlow, a symbolically suggestive act that also shows his petulance and heartbreak for losing the woman of his dreams, a woman whose entire presence was predicated on her aggressive persona.
The ideas never coalesce into a smooth whole, but such oddball tics barely begin to get at the idiosyncratic delights within. Ray sets up a court scene of Tommy defending a mob brute by way of a court artist already scribbling "Guilty" over his portrait of the defendant. But then Tommy draws out his limp, starts charming the jury and pulls out a watch, clearly preparing for some grandstanding. But just as Tommy gets ready to work his magic, Ray cuts forward to the aftermath as the courtroom is in a Brothers Karamazov-esque furor as the artist pencils "Not" next to his preemptive declaration. Other trials are headed off with internal action, and a fast but coherent montage of Rico dealing with Cookie and his crew presages the climax of The Godfather in its grim bloodbath. In (slightly) less dark terms, Tommy's wife, a horrid dragon lady named Genevieve, returns when advanced surgery gives Tommy the chance at normalcy to cause yet more trouble for the already besieged Tommy and Vicki. Her unwieldy addition is made striking and engaging by Ray's dark framing and Claire Kelly's serpentine performance (she does everything but flick out her tongue to smell the air). Vicki only looks more appealing next to her, and it's no wonder Ray later frames a shot that rings her head in a halo.
With an ending so predictable one can even foresee its ironic punctuation, Party Girl never manages to write its way out of its trope grab-bag of sympathetic but stern detectives, sadistic mobsters and reforming underworld serfs. Yet the movie never flags, and Ray makes the inevitable finale visually unexpected, lurid and even perversely beautiful in its carnage. Rapidly expending his last vestiges of goodwill in the industry, Ray was all but done in Hollywood (though MGM would distribute his 1961 epic King of Kings, produced by an independent company). With its mad run through so many mainstream clichés, Party Girl is at once a sardonic kiss-off and a sincere, almost wistful goodbye for the system he had subverted to mastery over the span of a decade. What an absolute shame it goes almost unmentioned today.