Filmmaker Nicholas Ray had a singular talent for distilling desperation into bravura cinema, and his 1958 feature, Party Girl, warps the structures of Hollywood spectacle into a searing portrait of anxious romance. A companion piece to Johnny Guitar that trades the trappings of the Western for 1930s gangster narrative, Party Girl depicts the fragile romance between a showgirl and a mob lawyer, each desperate to escape the dead-end lives they’ve built for themselves.
Party Girl shares some of the DNA of the Cinemascope movie musical, but its core impulses come from the sweaty anxieties of film noir. Party Girl‘s introductory chapter, which shifts from a luminous showgirl number to a menacing mob party to a brutal suicide, anchors all that follows in a state of existential panic and dread. Cyd Charisse’s dance numbers recur throughout the picture are as vividly staged as any to emerge from classic Hollywood, but Ray and his collaborators twist them from crowd-pleasing spectacle to depictions of dangerous desire and entrapment. Charisse’s Vicki Gaye survives by dangling herself before tigers.
For all of its many luminously photographed sequences, the scene that left me reeling is an exterior scene set at a Chicago drawbridge sheathed in darkness, its blue steel beams towering over the film’s lovers, its moving machinery looking like it could crush them at any moment. Speaking with Cyd Charisse’s Robert Taylor, playing mob lawyer Thomas Farrell, talks mournfully of the foolish machismo of youth and the agonies of aging. Together, they are two people lost in an inhuman city, dreaming of being two different people in some different place.