Party Girl (1958)

NICHOLAS RAY

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

USA, 1958. . Story by , Screenplay by . Cinematography by . Produced by . Music by . Production Design by , . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

It’s Chicago in the 1930s and the city is overrun with tommy gun-toting gangsters and the showgirls who do their bidding. A divine is one of these glittering ladies, who follows a night selling glamour on the stage by taking money to appear at the party of a mob boss (), proudly announcing herself immune to the charms of men but happy to play their game for profit.

At the soiree she meets Cobb’s fancy lawyer (), a thoughtful, classy yet morally complex man who escorts her home on the night that she steps into a tragedy involving her roommate. She is fascinated by Taylor thanks to his hesitation to take advantage of her, later observing him in court where he very successfully defends one of Cobb’s closest henchmen () and gets the obviously guilty man off a murder rap.

Charisse and Taylor eventually fall in love and are inspired to pursue a better life, she follows him to Stockholm where he undergoes restorative surgery on his leg, which had sustained an injury in childhood and left him with a limp, and the two become a couple despite the fact that he never divorced his money-grubbing showgirl wife. His attempt to extricate himself from his criminal employer isn’t so easy, however, and he agrees to defend one more of Cobb’s buddies as a final gig; when it ends in a bloodbath, Taylor becomes a witness for the Chicago police and is in danger of being rubbed out by the bad guy, who doesn’t hesitate to use Charisse as collateral to get his way.

One of the most visually explosive films in Nicholas Ray’s filmography, this film doesn’t even pretend not to be brimming over with salacious content from the get-go, opening with talk of love for sale, unwanted pregnancies, moving on to suicides and ending with a mass shooting. Because of Ray’s treating the seamier side of the story with such honesty (or at least as much the time’s censorship code would allow), the romance at the centre is that much more affecting, with the usually very endearing Charisse and the surprisingly effective Taylor (who was always stylish but rarely this sincere) creating a great deal of concern for their well-being.

The emotional resonance of this central relationship makes the more ornate elements of the film feel that much richer, from the gorgeous widescreen cinematography to the dazzling production numbers that show off the female star’s remarkable dancing skills. Taylor and Cobb co-starred in this production a few years after the former testified against the latter in HUAC hearings, which must have made for a wonderfully comfortable on-set experience, but the end result was a very successful film that ranks as one of Ray’s biggest hits.

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