Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 3, 2022)
If you glance at the Blu-ray cover to the left, you would assume 1958’s Party Girl offers a bright, musical spectacle. With an image of a sexy, colorful Cyd Charisse, one wouldn’t anticipate a gangster flick.
However, that becomes the film’s focus, albeit one with a different slant given that Party involves females more than the average thriller. Party takes us to Chicago circa the 1930s.
Tommy Farrell (Robert Taylor) works as a lawyer who defends local criminals. He experiences some pangs of conscience in regard to his work, but he continues in this role anyway.
This changes when Farrell meets Vicki Gaye (Charisee), a professional dancer with whom he falls in love. Vicki encourages Farrell to go straight, but mob boss Rico Angelo (Lee J. Cobb) has other ideas.
Though Party revolves around the world of gangsters, much of that element resides in the background through the movie’s first two acts. Instead, those segments concentrate on the romantic narrative.
Matters changes for the film’s final third, as the gangster drama comes to the fore. Unsurprisingly, the best parts of Party stem from these scenes, mainly because they allow Cobb more screen time.
Without question, Cobb delivers the most compelling aspects of Party, as he embodies the mob boss in a terrific manner. Cobb makes Rico a broad, charismatic leader but also imbues the role with the appropriate menace.
Clearly the Rico character stuck with Brian DePalma. Via the scene in which Al Capone goes nuts with a baseball bat, 1987’s Untouchables would obviously emulate the Party scene in which Rico uses a “gift” to beat a subordinate.
Taylor also fares nicely as the weary, cynical Tommy. He gives the role the appropriate gravitas and allows us to see Farrell as a lost soul but not one devoid of potential for redemption.
Unfortunately, Charisse comes up short in terms of performance among the leads. She gives off the appropriate bitterness in her early scenes and creates a decent sense of romantic growth as the story progresses, but she just lacks the naturalism and realism of Cobb and Taylor.
It doesn’t help that Tommy looks way too old for Vicki. In reality, Taylor was only 11 years older than Charisse, but he feels more like her father than a romantic partner. Of course, women often go with substantially older men for power/money, but the “visual age gap” still feels tough to swallow.
It also becomes weird because the movie makes it clear that Tommy is supposed to be younger than Rico. While Cobb looked older than his 47 years circa 1958 as well, he still seems like a spring chicken compared to weathered old Taylor.
At least Taylor’s performance helps overcome some of these concerns, and director Nicholas Ray paints a pretty compelling drama overall. Party sputters only occasionally, and usually due to choices related to its leading lady.
Charisse’s main claim to fame stemmed from her talents as a dancer, so to fit her talents, Party shoehorns in a couple of stage performances for Vicki. These seem disconnected to the rest of the narrative and send the movie off-track for brief periods.
Still, most of Party becomes effective, largely thanks to its two lead male actors. It would fare better with a more competent main actress, but I nonetheless find a lot to like here.