by Tony Dayoub
Halfway through Nicholas Ray's Party Girl, the film's big baddie, prohibition-era Chicago wiseguy Rico Angelo (Lee J. Cobb), holds a banquet honoring one of his henchmen. Angelo is the type of street tough you'd expect to find in this opulent MGM picture, one which bears little resemblance to the kind of real-life thug he's meant to represent. Up until this moment in the film, the eccentric Angelo (who we're introduced to at a party he throws for himself after actress Jean Harlow, unknowing object of his affections, gets married) has talked the talk—all "youses" and "dat guys"—but hasn't really come across as very threatening. Even his crippled lawyer, the lame Tommy Farrell (Robert Taylor), is unafraid to openly admit he'll defend the creep, but he won't sit to eat with him because Angelo is a "slob." So Party Girl finally gets a bit of a charge in this banquet scene, where Angelo is awarding an employee with a trophy shaped like a miniature pool cue, before his cadence and demeanor begin to turn from complimentary to seethingly resentful. Anyone who's seen Brian De Palma's The Untouchables will figure out what happens next, for this scene surely inspired it—Angelo begins beating his flunky with the pool cue until the poor sap lays bleeding in front of his horrified confreres.
Though Ray chose to stage the sequence in a far less luxurious dining hall (a decrepit warehouse where the film's climax will also play out) than the one in which De Palma staged his, a touch of the MGM artificiality is still present: the elevated train zooming by outside the window behind Angelo is an impressive translite motion effect. But the gimmick is still as stylized as the rest of the film. How else to classify what may be the only instance in American cinema—at least that I can think of—of a film noir musical? Done to great effect years later in Jon Amiel and Dennis Potter's BBC serial, The Singing Detective (1986), Party Girl leans a bit heavier towards the musical side than the gritty TV show did (in look and feel if not in actual amount of musical numbers). This isn't entirely surprising given that musicals were MGM's specialty and that Ray (who had failed in pulling off his pseudo-musical, Hot Blood, two years earlier) always harbored the desire to helm a movie from that most colorful of film genres. For though Party Girl only has two extended musical sequences (aside from the opening) showcasing the titular character played by dancer Cyd Charisse, the stylized lighting and color palette feel like that of a musical—one gangster wears an orangey-gold satin shirt and curtains are lit in brilliant purples and blues. And then there's the casting of Charisse who (along with Taylor) was one of MGM's last contract players and star of many of their musicals.
Party Girl was essentially a lush, shiny excuse to burn off the last film each of the stars owed MGM (according to TCM) before the studio abandoned their contract system. For the increasingly troublesome, and troubled, Ray—coming off of two films where his creative control was compromised—a studio musical set in 1920's Chicago probably never looked better. But with little practical experience directing musicals and MGM refusing to allow him to use period-accurate music—a subject which Ray did know of considering his time tooling around the Midwest documenting such music for the Library of Congress—the auteur was basically relegated to director-for-hire, and didn't even direct the musical setpieces that piqued his interest in the first place, according to Charisse. Still, Ray's small touches are evident throughout particularly in his use of color to reinforce the uncharacteristic mash-up of the two distinct genres that form the foundation of Party Girl.
Tommy's absolutism (his ability to justify his work as a mobster's attorney) and his grim circumstances as a man physically deformed by a childhood injury are reflected in the black-and-white color palette of his wardrobe and his public surroundings. Ray allows a little bit of color into Tommy's private surroundings, but it is still rather muted. Charisse's dancer, Vicki Gaye, is the opposite, splendidly clothed in a colorful red gown soon after we are introduced to her. As the two grow intimate, the color schemes begins to intermingle. Tommy is seen wearing a red tie (dark red, but still), and Vicki—who's been living a fast life until becoming involved with the mature Tommy—starts donning muted colors. At one point, when she finds out Tommy left her behind to travel to Europe for corrective surgery, her depression is represented by her black and white outfit, a red carnation on its lapel symbolizing her undiminished ardor for Tommy. Reunited in Europe after Tommy's surgery is successful, Ray finally allows Tommy and Vicki to both wear bright, colorful clothing to underline their new, carefree attitude.
Of course, this doesn't last long, as Angelo has no intention of cutting Tommy loose from his service. A district attorney (Kent Smith), Angelo and one of his associates, the smarmy Louis Canetto (John Ireland), start applying pressure to Tommy and Vicki—the two thugs mostly by threatening to disfigure Vicki's gorgeous face with acid. The final scene, in which Canetto, Angelo, Tommy and Vicki all end up in the warehouse from the earlier banquet sequence, finally pays off the use of the elevated train effect. Angelo has Canetto bring in their hostage, Vicki—her face covered with a shroud—while he explains to Tommy the type of damage acid might inflict on his beautiful lover. It's a scene that anticipates a similar one in Tim Burton's first, more noirish, Batman (1989). As Tommy braces for Angelo's unveiling of Vicki, the sound of the elevated train roaring down the tracks, the squealing of its brakes, increases in volume until it crowds out everything else from the soundtrack. Francis Ford Coppola would rely on a similar effect in a famous sequence of his celebrated gangster movie, The Godfather (1972), in which the sound of an elevated train is used to reflect the state of mind of one of the characters just prior to his execution of another.
All of this begs a question. With all of these rather obvious homages appearing in its filmic descendants, isn't Ray's Party Girl just about due for a definitive reappraisal?
Party Girl plays on TCM tonight at 5 a.m. (ET).