Party Girl sits somewhat nicely in between Nicholas Ray’s classic middle period and his late religious epics – capturing, one could say (and don’t the auteurists love to fit a narrative to a filmography) the style of the former and the languorousness of the latter. Or so the auteur theory, or the politiques des auteurs if you prefer, would have you believe. Watching Party Girl, it is difficult not to think of Cahiers’ critics’ influential treatise, especially since you are probably watching Party Girl because of the cachet they bestowed on Ray’s cinema, amongst others.
Despite the title, the film is primarily focussed on the morality of a gangster lawyer Thomas Farrell (Robert Taylor). He meets and develops a relationship with nightclub dancer Vicki Gaye (Cyd Charisse), who castigates him for his moral prostitution, mirroring his criticisms of her own lifestyle, after seeing him lie in court to save the skin of gangster Louis Canetto (John Ireland). They all work for the violent and unhinged Rico Angelo (Lee J. Cobb) and the law is closing in.
Party Girl begins well – excepting the dance number, which, like all the numbers in the film, feels too lazily integrated – with a bawdy, gaudy dressing room scene that seems like something out of Kenneth Anger for some reason. Farrell looks a little Anger-esque in a few scenes in which he seems to have been heavily made up. After that, there are a few nice touches that would remind fans of the seething tensions and explosive emotions of In A Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar and Bigger Than Life and Rebel Without A Cause (though, and it tears me apart to say this, it is becoming increasingly challenging to be emotionally invested in a film that has one scene much too similar to Tommy Wiseau’s The Room for comfort). A depressed Rico emptying a gun into a picture of his beloved Jean Harlow after finding out that she has just got married, and then immediately feeling chipper is one such moment. Another is a weird moment in which Farrell stares at a sleeping Vicki for a little too long and a little too hungrily before shaking his head and going away.
So, Party Girl begins looking like Kenneth Anger, morphs into a murky morality play that Douglas Sirk would have made a good melodrama out of, with occasional moments of violence that seem to point forward to Scorsese or Tarantino – a long speech about a metal pool cue preceding a battering seems particularly like the latter, so boring there and yet so shockingly unexpected here. But the film soon grows dull – the morals become simplistic, the plotting routine and the climax disappointing. Several pointless scenes follow Farrell and Vicki discussing and re-discussing the stakes, interspersed with gangster killings, which recall the endings of The Godfather films. There is a long stretch of the film in which Farrell and Vicki are waiting for Rico to make his next move, while Rico seems happy to wait and see what they are up too. So, everyone discusses the stakes again instead. Farrell eventually comes up with a plan that should get him killed immediately, but somehow doesn’t. And, in the end, Ray, or his writers (those hardworking creatures that the politiques liked to forget about unless they needed someone to blame) dispatch Cobb in the most ridiculous and lazy fashion, giving the gangster his comeuppance without trampling all over the newly – and so easily – found morality of our heroes. And then you remember that the film was called Party Girl, an odd title since the film only rarely pays attention to Vicki – and never in preference to Farrell.
In the end, Party Girl has some nice moments, but not nearly enough to sustain its running time. Nicholas Ray deserves his reputation, especially for the four films mentioned above (plus They Live By Night), but it does not shine through all of his films (see also Knock On Any Door). But where does that leave that old politiques des auteurs? There are better, or should that be worse, examples of films that have unjustly received attention, if not acclaim, thanks to a director’s previous track record. But it is difficult to sit through something like Party Girl, especially if you have a sense of expectation, and not feel that the politiques des auteurs hasn’t in some way negatively effected how we watch, or choose to watch, films. Indeed, giving Howard Hawks or John Ford or, indeed, Nicholas Ray more attention over a filmmaker like, say, Michael Bay (for whom cinema is a business enterprise and the viewer is the sucker) is an argument for this necessary evil, and a good one. But it leaves you with a list of films – in the case of John Ford, there is well over a hundred – that have the prestige but not the quality to struggle through. Meanwhile a film like, and here I’m being embarrassingly honest, Twilight or Die Hard With A Vengeance or Hostel or non-canonical works from canonical directors like Donovan’s Reef, How To Steal A Million or Man’s Favourite Sport? for me, hold more interest (in terms of gender, politics, economics or just plain entertainment). Better, anyway, than Hitchcock’s Number 17 or Ford’s The Rising of the Moon or Sirk’s Lured or Ray’s Party Girl, with significantly less good feelings and over examination. Equally, The Gunfighter is as powerful a revisionist Western as any of those by Robert Altman, but without imparting a reputation of revisionism on its director Henry King.
So is there an alternative to the politiques des auteurs or are we stuck with it? Or does it even matter anymore? These are probably not questions that anyone is still debating these days, beyond specialist circles where the latest Malick is either formal perfection or self-parody. But to sit through a film like Party Girl is a stark reminder of its still-present effect.