Party Girl

(Nicholas Ray, USA, 1958)


Disequilibrium, or: Love Interest


In Alain Bergala’s indispensable book Godard au travail, an on-set photo of Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo, about to be filmed in a small room, bears this caption: “The first great ‘insular’ scene of Godard’s cinema: twenty minutes of ‘chamber cinema’, free figures far from the sound and fury of the police story”. (1)


So there is a narrative – a public, generic, Hollywood-style narrative that sweeps the characters, and us, all the way to either death or redemption at the end – and then there is, opposed to it, chamber cinema. And this chamber cinema is, for many filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard, always the same thing: a man and a woman alone in a small room. For as much of the movie as possible – eight minutes of À bout de souffle (1960), even longer in Le mépris (1963) or Prénom: Carmen (1983). Didn’t Philippe Garrel indeed once assert that a man, a woman, and a room are all that one needs to make a film? Maybe that could be the motto of the Nouvelle Vague as a whole.


But this time of intimacy in a small room tends to be precious and fleeting, and thus tense. Something always menaces it: the world outside the apartment, the march of history, the demands of the plot. Many years after the Nouvelle Vague, Bernardo Bertolucci in The Dreamers (2003) will pay his homage to the cinema of the ‘60s – and what changed it in 1968 – with his image of the riots in the street literally throwing up rocks that smash the windows of a secluded chamber and force the young characters back out into the world, after the Jules et Jim-type experimental paradise they have enjoyed within those walls. The free figures must re-enter history, and join a new, collective narrative.


But all of this begins further back, in the late 1940s, with Nicholas Ray.


Aren’t all of Ray’s greatest films – They Live By Night (1948), In a Lonely Place (1950), On Dangerous Ground (1952), The Lusty Men (1952), Johnny Guitar (1954), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and others of each cinephile’s own choosing – about an exquisitely elongated, tense, doomed passage of intimacy between a man and a woman? Characters who find themselves alone with each other in a hotel room, an apartment, a cabin, a hideout, a planetarium – under stars real or artificial? Down the decades, many fine critics (from Victor Perkins and Víctor Erice to Jacques Rancière) (2) have tried to nail down the central, thematic nucleus of Ray’s cinema; they have used evocative words like the hunt, solitude, twilight, violence, all of which capture something true to its texture of incidents and atmospheres …


But, rewatching Party Girl anew in the 21st century, after all the modern cinema that has come after Nicholas Ray and which he, in a crucial sense, helped prepare the ground for, I am convinced that what he tried to get to, over and over – and what proved impossible to hold onto – was the simple dream of a man and a woman in a room.


In his brilliant biography of Ray, (3) Bernard Eisenschitz stresses the theme of risk in Ray’s approach to filmmaking. There always had to be something incomplete, off-balance, out-of-kilter in the material he was working with – some margin not yet filled in, some space left for a sudden yet decisive intervention or improvisation, but also the constant possibility of error or outright failure – in order for him to be fully, creatively engaged. A creativity mixed with a gamble, a constant flirtation with chaos, mess, self-destruction or destruction of the work at hand. Jacques Rivette, to cite just one example, has always identified body-and-soul with this level of risk.


One sees this even at the level of Ray’s shots: certain images strike the viewer – even in the midst of so much professional, classical, studio-enforced glamour and gloss – as having been seemingly caught on-the-fly: the camera is too close to the actor, a gesture has not been entirely captured within the frame, super-brief insert shots are uncertain blurs or swishes of action, the sound has had to be re-synched (often clumsily) later – there is a moment like this very early in Party Girl when one showgirl dips into another’s face cream and the camera participates in the chaos.


In such clearly risked moments, which Ray must have sometimes fought to retain in the final cut (or else no one was bothering to take them out), we see the beginnings of John Cassavetes, of Godard, of Maurice Pialat, Kathryn Bigelow, Abel Ferrara, and so many others. The beginnings of a kind of action-filmmaking (like abstract-expressionist action-painting); a cinema of energies, of emotional frustrations and explosions, breakthroughs and short-circuits.


Yet for all the literal violent action in Ray’s films – the wars, the fights, the murders, the attacks, the cowboys (and cowgirls) and cops – he was not, in the conventional sense of the term, a typical action filmmaker. He was a softie, a lyric poet, a romantic. Love was what he craved: love as Utopia, as a sweet, blessed escape from the world. Ray’s life was full of every kind of sex, but in the movies of the 1940s and ‘50s, sexuality had to be merely suggested and, in fact, extravagantly sublimated: the bisexual passions and complex relationship-entanglements of this modern artist had to be purified into an acceptably mythic story-form.


And, like the typical decadent pop star of the 1950s or early ‘60s who could only channel his or her energy and experience into songs about holding hands at the drive-in on a Saturday night, Ray came to embrace this cover-up – not as a lie to be exposed with irony (that’s not Ray’s register), but as an intense, trembling, touchingly innocent strategy of make-believe that, ultimately, bears witness to the most profound truth. Hence Ray’s return, over and over, to that corny old Hollywood convention that, in his hands, promised, every time, to break every Hollywood convention: the romantic idyll of a man and a woman.


If there is risk in Ray’s cinema, there is also tension, disequilibrium. Some feeling or longing that can never find a place of rest, never just settle in or settle down. We must imagine that this feeling – whatever its specific and no doubt changing content over time – was central to Ray’s life and his art. The precious scenes of intimacy in Ray are like extremely precarious moments of equilibrium, of balance and grace, amidst the wildly raging storms of society, history, community. Scenes of rest that are, very soon, about to slip agonisingly out of kilter – which is the pain, the ache, the tragedy we all wait for, every time, in Ray’s films (that’s what Gloria Grahame’s final recitation of the poem in In a Lonely Place is all about).


These chamber scenes freeze the narrative, or rather delay its onward march for as many minutes and seconds as possible. Passages of passionate time and intimate space that are far shorter, and far more abbreviated, than the eight minutes or more of chamber cinema that Godard could linger with in the 1960s or the ‘80s. And therefore even more precious.


We, as spectators, count these seconds in Ray, we feel their virtual depth, their ephemerality. And we catch their intensity. Because it is as if we can feel the weight of the entire Hollywood machine – its screenwriters, producers, editors, publicists – bearing down with its onerous complaint: What are you doing wasting time with this? Get on with the plot! Haven’t we had enough of the ‘love interest’? Ray had to claw out every moment of this one-on-one screen intimacy from every force of the system that was trying to hurry him on.


That film-industry phrase used the world over, in every studio and by every script-editor and mogul – love interest – tells us a lot: that love is an optional, sometimes necessary ingredient in the narrative, but it must never be all-consuming – never anything like the amour fou that it can be in real life. This was particularly so in the genres – essentially, masculine action genres – in which Ray mainly found himself employed in the 1950s. He was pulling, in a sense, toward a type of melodrama typically labelled female – but even that would not (and did not) provide a full outlet for the juices that drove him.


Nicholas Ray is a director who is dear to many cinephiles, but he proves hard to get a grip on, beyond the superficialities of his recurrent themes (shared by a hundred other filmmakers: city and country, hunter and hunted, generational and familial dysfunction) and his ostentatious stylistic flourishes (the red of dresses and flames, the blows or blasts that are thrown at, near or from the camera/audience range). He is a myth, a cult – and thus more than a little mystified, obscured.


We cannot tell, sometimes, whether we are really watching the films themselves or the image we project onto them, after our voluminous reading of Cahiers du cinéma or Movie magazines, or books like Colin McArthur’s Underworld U.S.A. from 1972 – which fondly introduced me to Ray when I was 14 years old. (On the Internet, filmmaker-blogger Christopher Funderburg testifies that: “Reading Godard's words and seeing in them my own sentiment about Ray made me wistful and happy and confused – like seeing an old girlfriend after years of estrangement”.) (4) And after our equally voluminous viewing, so many years later, of Godard and François Truffaut and Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders and Pedro Costa – all those filmmakers who were themselves captured by the Ray myth, and fashioned that fantasy into their own, very different kinds of cinema.


By the time Ray had become a firmly entrenched cult in the ‘60s, his much loved and even fetishised Hollywood career had already come to a sad and definitive end, and he had turned his ever-more ragged energies to the radical, experimental counter culture: McArthur ends his chapter on Ray with the ambivalent declaration that “his early return to the commercial cinema is earnestly to be hoped for, though hardly to be expected”. (5) Ray had become a walking contradiction by then, but a newly re-romanticised and enabling type of contradiction: the maverick who had been expelled by the system, the rebel who no longer had the constraints of formula or genre to push against. It was a kind of free-fall (with magnificent moments of a totally new kind of work in many areas: video, teaching, theatre) for Ray, as it was for many of his generation, once the studio system had collapsed underneath them.


What we need to be able to grasp today, in retrospect, is how profoundly Ray was a transitional figure in the American cinema of the 1950s. Like, in different ways, Elia Kazan, Samuel Fuller, Joseph Losey and even George Cukor, his work embodied the possibility, and offered fugitive glimpses, of a new kind of cinema, then only dimly imaginable or possible (the burgeoning art cinemas of other countries were still, in so many ways, so far away, so utterly foreign and unassimilable) – and it was precisely this vision, this crack that let in some light from the future, that made him so special to budding filmmakers like Godard and Truffaut.


And yet this vision and these signs are not always easy to see or discern, when we look back today (and many dull viewers and reviewers could not see or sense them at all back then): the spectator needs a certain, intoxicated leap of faith to see into the films, to catch the true intensities, to register the traces of Ray’s special, personal intervention and investment into the material.


Because everything is, on many levels, still so rule-bound, so conventionalised and formulaic: those with dull eyes and minds see only just another Western or gangster movie or melodrama or war movie … And even as we warm to the films and get close to them, even then we can sometimes only see the flaws, the oddness, the clunky bits, the ill-fittingness of the parts: all the material that was struggling to be reborn into a cinematic modernity, but was not yet in the right place or time or cultural situation.


My claim here is a bigger or different one to the old auteurist wisdom (as Paul Willemen diagnosed it) that the cinephile taste for a director such as Ray necessarily requires “a form of cinema that is perceived as being highly coded, highly commercial, formalised and ritualised. For it is only there that the moment of revelation or excess, a dimension other than what is being programmed, becomes noticeable”. (6) What I am pointing to has more to do with the drama, at once cultural and biographical, personal and political, of the uneasy and uneven transition between classical and modern cinema – and how special films, moments in or aspects of them, give certain people (cinephiles, critics, and especially budding filmmakers) glimpses, flashes, intuitions and intimations of what is to become of their art.


For Eisenschitz, Party Girl is not the movie to go looking in for the visionary, combative, risk-taking Ray who still inspires us today. With access to the production documents, he can see how tiny Ray’s space of control and interference was; he knows how little the project meant to MGM (a retro ‘30s gangster movie when the genre was no longer hot, starring two players – Robert Taylor and Cyd Charisse – at the end of their contracts and maybe their careers); he has the proof that the zany musical numbers were handled (as was the studio custom) by someone else, in this case Robert Sidney.


Eisenschitz knows well that Ray remembered and regarded it as a “shit film”, and he basically (a few fine, well-orchestrated passages like a murder montage aside) concurs. Even the do-or-die pronouncements of Cahiers critics in the ‘50s, much quoted by Ray aficionados and derided by non-believers ever since (“Party Girl gives me a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven”: Fereydoun Hoveyda) (7) are presented by Eisenschitz as hollow and rather misguided – mere fan projections.


But something in the movie insists; there is – somehow – some magical alchemy left in it still to intoxicate our senses and inflame our critical passions.


To begin with, it is a film that sits uneasily within a single genre, or even an amalgamation of diverse genres – for the revolutionary spark of Ray’s man-and-woman-in-room dramas is that this precious, beating, secret heart of the movie is quietly pulling free from the orbit of all genres, resisting all the conventions. Like all filmmakers trying to slip away from the comfort and the trap of genres (Robert Altman, Monte Hellman, Bob Rafelson), Ray moves swiftly between various generic references and templates, shuffling the deck in order to eventually stage his getaway.


Party Girl begins in an opportunistic mish-mash of gangster film and musical (its cinematographer was Robert J. Bronner, whose essentially light-comedy credit-list includes Rouben Mamoulian’s Silk Stockings [1957]). The credit sequence and snappy theme tune recall a Technicolored Frank Sinatra hit like Pal Joey (1957) or Guys and Dolls (1955). Yet the gangster trappings, in colour, are already well and truly retro in 1958 (as those musicals certainly were), and the stage dance numbers, at least at the start, have a tawdry, world-weary air reminiscent of a French hit of the ‘50s like Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi (1954) and its hilarious meat-market parade of feathered female flesh.


An odd and unforgettable bit of plot invention intervenes in this flow: a lovesick gangster shoots the photo of the star actress who has never even met him! Soon we are into a backstage conversation between showgirls that evokes gritty, female-centred working-girl melodramas such as Our Blushing Brides (1930) or, more up-market, The Women (1939), both with Joan Crawford). And even – especially in the harshest implications of the rape suffered and recalled, allusively, by Cyd Charisse’s character of Vicki Gaye – another, later beyond-genre shuffle, Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976/1978).


And then it becomes a courtroom drama, with more than a touch of Otto Preminger, as we observe how Tommy Farrell (Taylor) seduces and swings a jury with his act and his tricks. Women’s melodrama of a kind more keyed to the corporate ‘50s emerges in the bitchy face-off between Vicki and Tommy’s wife (Claire Kelly). Back, now and again, to being a gangster film, with a classic scene of Rico Angelo (Lee J. Cobb), this Capone-style mobster, and the violence he inflicts with a baseball bat: an iconic spectacle replayed (in various ways and keys, up and down cinema history) in Roger Corman’s The St Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967), Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) and Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987) – but here with the indelible touch of a miniaturised, although still lethal, bat in silver! A film of all genres (seemingly), in order to be, finally, of no genre at all.


Then there is the love interest. In the ‘50s, the signs of modernity creeping slowly into Hollywood production had less to do with narrative construction or mise en scène (although Ray did outstanding things on those levels, too) than with elements of acting and, hand in glove with that, a changing conception of character psychology. This is something that, again, we often have to read between the cracks of the given stereotypes and conventionalised performance modes – which is as true of Party Girl as it is of Fuller’s House of Bamboo (1955), Kazan’s East of Eden (1955) or Cukor’s A Star is Born (1954).


Alain Masson remarked that, in relation to Hollywood’s depiction of personality and emotion, where the 1930s was a decade of light-hearted “vivacity”, and the ‘40s (thanks to Jean Renoir, Fritz Lang, Joseph Mankiewicz, Douglas Sirk and others) ushered in a mysterious, ghostly, mercurial set of presences even at the heart of naturalist drama, the ‘50s were a period of “wrenching conflicts” particularly informed by the growing cult of popular psychoanalysis. (8)


Ray, who was famous for mixing trained and untrained actors (the bald guy who gets beaten with the bat was a Buddhist of Ray’s acquaintance who wouldn’t flinch as he anticipated the blow!), was fixed on bringing out peculiarities of unique, frequently damaged personality types, especially in wordless, unusual physical gestures (of which Party Girl boasts many). Indeed, when he once declared that his heroes needed to be as screwed up as himself or the average spectator in order to be successful figures in a drama, he indirectly confessed that all his characters (whether nominally good or evil according to their stereotype) were neurotics of one shade or another.


How do we ever get to the love interest between such neurotic cases? That was always Ray’s question, and his drive. In his films, love is the miracle that survives – and briefly overcomes – mutual suspicion, rigid personal defences, bitter memories, and a history of relationship failures. Colin McArthur sensitively sums up Party Girl as being about “scarred and mutually hostile people being humanised by loving each other”. (9) Scar is the word: pushing metaphor as close as it can go to the literal in 1958, Tommy’s injury (the result of larking around on a bridge – the only location-shooting touch Ray could introduce – in childhood) is transparent code-speak for sexual impotence or difficulty (his body disgusts his wife, we are told); while Vicki’s understandable lack of fondness for man-woman intimacy, her icy exterior, is hooked up to a constant aura of menace horribly threatening her physical beauty (the acid frighteningly wielded by Rico and his crony Louis [John Ireland]). Let us note a very small, fleeting but striking gesture: when Vicki recalls her rape, and presumed loss of virginity, she is sewing up a dress!


In this circuit of suggestions and substitutions, certain gestures take on an enormous power of implication and affect: Louis being too-close-for-comfort to Vicki in her dressing room; Vicki’s sexual invitation, or gesture of abandon, in letting her fur drop to the floor in Tommy’s apartment. But the room is not yet right for their love …


There is something uncanny here that passes – or is mysteriously, even prophetically transmitted – into the life-long careers of the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers who worshipped Ray as one of their heroes. Issues of impotence, of crippling or disfiguring injury, of illness, old age and death, especially as they afflict men, will come to haunt the works (and also sometimes the lives) of Godard, Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Demy and most of the rest of that crew. There is even something of Ray’s necessary, Hollywoodian sublimation of explicit sexual passion recreated in Godard’s no-kissing policy, Truffaut’s genre-cushioned chasteness, Éric Rohmer’s Marivaudage and medievalism, Demy’s hetero-only romances, and Rivette’s fairy-tale ambiences. And what a strange rhyme (Eisenschitz notices it) between the shocking scene of Vicki in face bandages, peeled off to reveal her still intact, and the Brechtian tale that Jean-Pierre Léaud spins as he unwraps a similar mask in La Chinoise (1967)!


The worship by cinephiles of Nicholas Ray has certainly taken its place in the history of polemical struggles that have, here and there, found it necessary (and fun) to make use of exaggerations, hyperbole and absolutist claims to drive a wedge into cultural taste and make a decisive, generation-forming alliance around a shared, endangered object. (No wonder, as Frieda Grafe points out, that the cult of film in the ‘50s was also a cult de femme – and that Charisse’s perfect beauty does a dance here with an ever-present bottle of disfiguring acid). (10) Of Bitter Victory (1957), Godard once (in)famously wrote that it “is not a reflection of life, it is life itself turned into film, seen from behind the mirror where cinema intercepts it. It is at once the most direct and most secret of films, the most subtle and the crudest. It is not cinema, it is more than cinema”. (11)

But: this magic, poetic talk of mirrors and interception, of secrets and crudeness. But: “Party Girl gives me a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven”. Are these such outrageous, merely provocative statements, after all? Is that all they are?

These lovers of cinema, and of Nicholas Ray’s cinema, were trying, in their flamboyantly dandified way, to pierce something that is hard to see, hard to point to with a remote-control freeze-button, hard to put into words. Something that is not mystical or transcendental, but only half-formed, shrouded in the fog of the present and trying to evade the weight of the past. Something that is moving in a blur of disequilibrium, something struggling to settle down and fill the time and space of an eternal scene. Something like tomorrow; something like love.

MORE Ray: We Can't Go Home Again

1. Alain Bergala, Godard au travail. Les années 60 (Paris: Editions Cahiers du cinéma, 2006), p. 27. back

2. V.F. Perkins, “The Cinema of Nicholas Ray”, in Ian Cameron (ed.), Movie Reader (New York: Praeger, 1972), pp. 64-70; Víctor Erice and Jos Oliver (eds.), Nicholas Ray y su tiempo (Madrid: Filmoteca Española/Instituto de la Cinematografía y las Artes Audiovisuales, 1986); Jacques Rancière, “The Missing Shot: The Poetics of Nicholas Ray”, in Film Fables (London: Berg, 2006), pp. 95-104. back

3. Bernard Eisenschitz (trans. Tom Milne), Nicholas Ray: An American Journey (London: Faber and Faber, 1993). back

4. Christopher Funderburg, “Nicholas Ray: Part IV”. back

5. Colin McArthur, Underworld U.S.A. (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972), p. 137. back

6. Paul Willemen, Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory (London: British Film Institute, 1994), p. 238. back

7. Fereydoun Hoveyda, “Nicholas Ray’s Reply: Party Girl”, in Jim Hillier (ed.), Cahiers du cinéma 1960-1968: New Wave, New Cinema, Reevaluating Hollywood (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 127. back

8. Alain Masson, “Un passé romanesque: sur huit films américains inédits”, Positif, no. 228 (March 1980), pp. 26-32. back


9. McArthur, Underworld U.S.A., p. 132. back

10. Frieda Grafe, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (London: British Film Institute, 1996). back

11. Jean-Luc Godard (trans. Tom Milne), Godard on Godard (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972), p. 66. back

© Adrian Martin March 2010

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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