Party Girl (1958) Blu-ray Review: Neon Underworld

Fans of director Nicholas Ray (best known for the James Dean vehicle, Rebel Without a Cause) should enjoy Party Girl (1958), a candy-colored spin on the gangland melodramas of the ‘30s. It’s a gem.

1930s Chicago: After shystering for a despotic mob boss, Rico Angelo (Lee J. Cobb), a crooked lawyer with a bum leg (oh, the symbolism!), Thomas Farrell (Robert Taylor), tries to go straight. Meanwhile, Thomas falls hard for Vicki Gaye (Cyd Charisse), a dancer whose roommate just killed herself. Consoling each other, these two scarred survivors of the underworld have whored themselves enough. And they want out; but agents of the law foil their plan, and Rico has ways of keeping Thomas quiet. Ways that could involve throwing acid on someone’s face. Vicki’s face.

That the love story is even glancingly effective is a testament to Ray’s touch with the actors, all of whom do fine work. With his neat little mustache, Taylor sells us on Thomas, a broken man who holds his cards close to his white-piped vest.

Charisse, striking as ever in two nightclub dances, has a similar aloof quality. As a girl in a male-dominated space who’s had to be icy just to get by (without making waves), she gives an otherwise cliched role an enigmatic slinkiness.

Cobb, though, operates on another level. Both petulant and sweet, he turns his Little Caesar-like kingpin into an oversized kid for whom loyalty (and the garish celebration) is all. He gifts diamond-encrusted cigarette cases and shoots a portrait of Jean Harlow. He’s an all-or-nothing guy. Pure id, barely masked.

Shot in glorious Metrocolor and Cinemascope, the story, which is standard, gets a neon boost from Ray’s direction. With its cartoonish displays of bright red blood and a sharp, creeping mise en scene that evokes the characters’ turmoil, the movie pops.

Fusing ‘30s corn with a vivid and sly, modern feel (at least for the ’50s), Party Girl is a cinematic bon-bon. Flamboyant but tight, with a soft (not squishy) center. I liked it.

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray serves the film well. It looks great. The sole feature is the movie’s trailer.

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Jack Cormack

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