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Posts Tagged ‘Melodrama’

Julian: “Why aren’t you in bed?”

Vicky: “I was ordered to, but I was much too excited to sleep. So here I am.”

Julian: “Are you? I haven’t seen you.”

Vicky: “Thank you.”

Julian: “By the way, you haven’t seen me either.”

For all of its balletomanic intensity, and despite the justly-praised plenitude of its palette, Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes is primarily a cinematic soubresaut into the abyss of allegory. From its beguilingly bleak Technicolor title cards (each one a mocking invitation to the dance macabre, with the eponymous crimson seal of aesthetic purity set upon the enchanted but leafless woodscapes they’ve both beautified and blighted) to its harrowing alt-Karenina conclusion, the film rarely misses an opportunity to shine its spotlight upon what (and who) is missing from its mise-en-scène.

We begin with an empty stairwell (with a cultivated horde of youthful barbarians at the gates) and then cut to an empty theatre balcony (soon filled by that same bevy of boorish beauty-lovers). It’s opening night! (For a ballet entitled Heart of Fire) Definitely a time to “be here now”, as the yogis like to say. And the Great Palmer, supposed composer of the piece, is smilingly conspicuous by his presence. So, too, is Boronskaja, the bohemian balletomane’s delight. But this is a production of the “Ballet Lermontov”. And where is Lermontov? The camera takes its time, but it does eventually get around to showing us – and here we get our first glimpse of the film’s taste for dramatic indirection.

 

Yes, that’s Anton Walbrook’s hand, reaching out of the shadows to close upon an irritating summons to appear before the great worldly god Mammon, incarnated in the chummy person of that “great patron of the arts”, Lady Neston. To everyone’s astonishment, the ultra-aloof impresario, whose only god is the ballet, deigns to attend the party. There, he just barely dodges an ambush/dance audition by the hostess’ niece, and then succumbs to an even more mortifying fate when he brags of his escape to a fellow cocktail drinker, sneering “now it seems we are to be spared that horror”. His interlocutor (Moira Shearer), of course, proves to BE that horror, and tells him as much. Lermontov is singularly unperturbed by this mammoth gaffe, opting to press on with the conversation, asking the young lady (her name is Vicky Page) why she wants to dance. Here again, she surprises him, responding with a question of her own: “Why do you want to live?” And there we have them: “Dance” (or “Art”) and “Life”, presented as parallel (although not yet competing) forces, each with their own irresistible imperatives.

Speaking of parallels, the film has also been following the tribulations of one Julian Kraster, the actual composer of Heart of Fire (ol’ Professor Palmer definitely doesn’t teach ethics), who has his own disconcerting dealings with Lermontov after firing off a denunciatory letter concerning the latter’s unauthorized use of his stolen intellectual property. He soon finds himself engaged by the Company (as an orchestra coach), showing up for work the same morning that Vicky presents herself to ballet master Ljubov (played by the celebrated Leonide Massine) as a potential trainee. Now we begin to meet all of the major players (both on- and back-stage), and begin to get a sense of the daily life of the Ballet Lermontov. Powell and Pressburger tease us with the possibility of some sort of antipathy between Ljubov and ballerina Boronskaja (when the latter arrives nearly an hour late and the former explodes), but their seemingly bitter bickering is soon revealed to be merely a form of ritualized play, and the group (most of whom, I believe, actually were Ballet Russes personnel) comes into focus as a singularly convivial and mutually supportive family (complete with grandfatherly set designer Ratov, played by the always comforting Albert Basserman). Everyone’s so very nice, including the big star that Vicky will have to replace if she’s ever to get on with the business of her inevitable ascent. Everyone, that is, except for “Dad” Lermontov, who, in Walbrook’s carefully judged performance, is only ever as encouraging as he needs to be, and never because he actually cares about his people. (After Ljubov warns him that you “cannot alter human nature”, Lermontov remarks: “No. I think you can do better than that. I think you can ignore it.)

Matters come to an early head, and the symbolic conflict between Art and Life really takes hold, when Boronskaja interrupts a practice session to announce, in a very heartfelt scene, that she is engaged to be married. The whole Company mobs her with their congratulations. It’s an eruption of emotion that is every bit as moving as the dances we have seen – although Lermontov clearly doesn’t see it that way. And we don’t see Lermontov at all. Neither does Boronskaja.

 

“He has,” she concludes, “no heart… that man.”

It’s an astonishing moment. Astonishing and surprising. It’s not exactly the most original bit of scripting. In any other film it would seem ridiculous and over-the-top. But here, thanks to actress/dancer Ludmilla Tcherina’s perfectly calibrated tone of tragic realization, and to Powell’s remarkable staging of the discovery (using a golden pillar and a billowing curtain to indicate the absent man in question), it conveys the film’s allegorical drift brilliantly: Art has left the building.

 Soon, Lermontov spells this out for us (and for Vicky, who is standing nearby, literally and symbolically “waiting in the wings” when he issues his balletomanifesto) in his characteristically sneering manner: “A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never.” Vicky takes the bait, readily leaping into the Red Shoes that Lermontov has been cobbling for her, in his mind, ever since his discovery that she actually has the skills to back up her aspirations and her sexy talk about dancing because she must. Quickly, the impresario asks Kraster to write a new score for Hans Christian Andersen’s grisly fable about a young girl who finally attains the pinnacle of her desire (to dance at a ball in the eponymous footwear) and is eventually consumed by it (the shoes, it seems, like “Dance” itself, have a mind of their own, and, like Lermontov, no heart). Walbrook seems positively possessed as he recounts the events of the tale, gripping a slipper-clad sculpture en pointe as he tells Kraster: “time rushes by, life rushes by, but the red shoes dance on”.

In a fascinating bit of foreshadowing, Lermontov seems to forget what all of this insane terpsichore is building toward – and when Kraster jogs his memory, asking “what happens in the end?”, the impresario lets go of the foot and replies, offhandedly, “oh, in the end she dies.”

Indeed she (Vicky) does, although, in the “backstage” plot of this film, the protagonist dies while seemingly rushing toward what the allegorical structure asks us to accept as “Life” (leaping off the balcony where she first made contact with her off-stage lover Kraster – the place neither of them was supposed to be, in the dialogue quoted at the top of this post – and the train that enshrouds them in the earlier scene, insulating them, it would seem, from the demands of “Art”, so that “Life” can have its brief fling, is destined to become the instrument of her destruction), rather than expiring  under the unyielding lash of pure aestheticism.

In fact, the only real similarity between the tragedies involving the ballerina Vicky and the character she plays on stage is that, in both cases, red shoes are found at the scene of the crime. Red Shoes that cannot be filled for long. There’s a great deal of symbolic slippage going on here. Do the Red Shoes mean the same thing in P & P’s film that they mean in Andersen’s story? It seems not. They are connected, of course, but the shoes in the fable act unilaterally upon the girl, fanning the flames of her aesthetic desires and then literally subsisting upon them until that energy expends itself. Vicky’s shoes seem motivated by a very different agenda. They certainly don’t get much mileage out of her (Lermontov insists that she’s got a long way to go before she gets a toehold upon the peak he envisions for her). Can we then say that “Art” (and Lermontov) is only one of the shoes that weigh her down? Meanwhile, that other foot, so firmly planted in the banal world of “Life” with Julian, is just as murderously clad in crimson. It is, in fact, the Art/Life dichotomy itself that carries Vicky, and those shoes, in uncharacteristic lockstep toward the precipice.

There’s a lot to say about the patriarchal gender dynamics of the piece – about the culturally-prescribed factors that pushed Powell and Pressburger to dramatize the eternal artist’s dilemma through the subjective experience of a woman- but last night’s viewing caused me to consider a more purely theoretical reading of the film this time around  – i.e. it isn’t the hubristic pursuit of a career (or the resentful decision to “settle” for being a housewife) that kills Vicky, it’s the overweening logic of the film’s (and, certainly, patriarchy’s) organizing allegorical structure itself. And if that is the case, then perhaps the film isn’t suggesting, as many people have inferred, that its protagonist is predestined to die for her “Art”, but rather that she is murdered by the power that she (and, of course, society) invests in the only-superficially-dissimilar devils that she finds on either one of her shoulders (and imprisoning both of her talented feet), whispering and weaving (together) a web of mutually reinforcing lies about the incompatibility between experience and expression that works to limit the horizons of human agency.

Ultimately, what is missing from this film is anyone real for Vicky to interact with. Far from being the “creation” of Lermontov, Moira Shearer (who really is magnificent in the part – never straining to convince us of her aesthetic ambitions, because we can perceive them in her every movement)  is the only truly living being in the piece (at least, after Ludmilla Tcherina leaves the stage), surrounded and continuously mocked by the golden pillars and billowing curtains of an unyielding literary formula.

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Consider this one my contribution to the get-David-Cairns-to-do-a-Dieterle-Week fund:

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In 1933, as it must to all directors (well, maybe not all),  the Foreign Legion film came to William Dieterle. Like Six Hours To Live, The Devil’s in Love was made at Fox, rather than at the director’s 1930s home studio, Warner Brothers, where, I must agree with Andrew Sarris, he sometimes came across as a second-string Michael Curtiz (although, even during that period, he did manage to slip in a few wonderfully distinctive pieces-i.e. The Last Flight, Jewel Robbery, Scarlet Dawn, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Great O’Malley, Another Dawn, JuarezFog Over Frisco, on the other hand, while justly celebrated for its technical bravura, does seem like ersatz Curtiz–although I’ve only seen it once… I’ll post on it when I revisit it)

Anyway–the Fox Dieterles provide about as clear a forecast of the brilliant period that stretches from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) to The Turning Point (1952) as any aficionado could want! Devil, in fact, plays like a trial run for 1937’s Another Dawn–a pretty amazing snatch of “orientalist” romance starring Kay Francis and Errol Flynn (among other things, the two films share a no-win love triangle between three very likable characters, a European imperialist millieu AND Herbert Mundin in pretty much exactly the same role–scoundrel/affectionate sidekick).

The story is completely wack, but it is perfectly concocted to liberate the director’s expressionistic genie. To wit: have you ever seen an image that more perfectly evokes a court-martial death sentence than the above shot?

Forget “love”–Victor Jory is in trouble! Framed for murder by one of J. Carrol Naish’s patented weakling/bastards (although a much more sympathetic specimen of the type than he often played):

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As always in a Dieterle film, arbitrary authority is the only “evil.” In this case, the real devil of the piece (although he shows no signs of being in love) is a sadistic base commander who treats his servant (Naish) so badly that you are cheering for the guy, until you realize that the craven fellow plans to exact his revenge by pinning the justifiable homicide upon the outpost’s resident humanist, doctor Victor Jory–who is basically the liberal saint of Dieterle’s Muni/Kay Francis (as Florence Nightingale)/Robinson biopic cycle, transplanted from the history books into the more wonderfully manured garden of melodrama.

All of this happens within a few minutes of the title credits! Before you’re two sips into your coffee (you all drink coffee with your avi files, don’t you?), prosecutor Bela Lugosi is bearing down upon our noble protagonist with the irrefutable evidence that the doctor and the sadistic major were sworn enemies (with diametrically opposed views of the West’s proper role in Africa).

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Luckily, Jory’s best friend, played by apparent Dieterle favourite David Manners (who has been steadily rising in my estimation for years–to the point where I actually love his jokey scenes with the amazing Helen Chandler in Browning’s Dracula) is a captain who knows when to subvert military discipline, and he quickly engineers the doctor’s escape.

After that, we get about 40 minutes of Jory hiding in plain sight in a city close to the base, where he becomes known as the “Consul of the Damned,” thanks to his untiring medical efforts on behalf of the region’s sickly underclass. Along the way, he meets two women, both of whom prove to be wonderful human beings… One of them, a fellow crusader at the local Christian mission, captures Jory’s heart (but when does he become a devil, the viewer wonders?). This comes as no surprise, since she is played by the eye-poppingly young Loretta Young.

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But of course there are problems. She’s engaged. To Manners. It was inevitable. But it’s great! And, as always with Dieterle, the film doesn’t just tell you the characters are in love–it makes you believe it, and even need it. Only Borzage does this as well.

I won’t say any more, except that, of course, events do conspire to bring all of the principals into close proximity–and Jory does get pretty scarily demonic in this scene (when he confronts Naish with his suspicions about the latter’s role in the opening shenanigans):

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Amazing stuff!

Bonjour les amis!

Dave

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With Peg O’ My Heart (1922), the director’s first film for Metro Pictures (soon to be engulfed by a Metro-Goldwyn Merger), we are introduced to a crucial element of King Vidor’s cinema–the underdog female. The film’s eponymous protagonist (played by Broadway star Laurette Taylor) is a clear forerunner of Rose Maurrant (Street Scene), Doris Emily Lea (Cynara), Manya Novak (The Wedding Night), Stella Dallas, Peal Chavez (Duel in the Sun), Rosa Moline (Beyond the Forest) and Ruby Gentry (to name only the characters who come immediately to my mind!) Of course, last time out, we met Colleen Moore as Gwen–a very interesting female character whose spiritual struggle ambushes center stage during the last third of The Sky Pilot; but Gwen is the daughter of a wealthy rancher–more in the tradition of Valette Bedford (So Red The Rose)… So, yeah, in my opinion, the long, fascinating march to Ruby Gentry (my personal favourite) begins here!

Not that we’re anywhere near those exalted heights in Peg O’ My Heart. One of the great things about going through an “auteur’s” entire oeuvre is watching as the director gains the confidence (and stature within the industry) to steer material in the direction of his/her presumed thematic bent… TANGENT ALERT: I say “presumed”,  of course, to distinguish my project from the old naive auteurism–which laboured under the delusion that critics could use films to learn the “truth” about an individual artist… I’m not watching these films in order to “get to know” King Vidor… “King Vidor”, for me, is an organizing principle–a regal rope that cordons off a huge chunk of Hollywood material (made during a crucial period in American cultural history) and gives me (and you, and every cineaste we know) an opportunity to hitch my interpretive wagon to the stars! (I’d say END OF TANGENT, but let’s face it–I’m pretty much ALL tangent)

Where were we? Oh…yes… the tale of a 28-year old director, a largish Hollywood studio that’s about to go nova, and a very well established stage property. When a major Broadway moneymaker comes West, complete with star, no one short of (in 1922) D.W. Griffith is going to stand much of a chance of getting their “auteur” on…  Still, Peg O’ My Heart does present us with a lot of Vidorian elements–it just doesn’t put them together in a way that hits home (and that’s a pretty major point–because using modernist techniques to maximize the emotional impact of 19th century melodrama tropes is the absolute heart of King Vidor’s cinema).

Right then–to the elements!

As I mentioned earlier, the most important one is “Peg” herself–real name Margaret O’Connell (“Peg” is her Irish rebel father’s term of affection)

There she is, with dear ol’ Da’ himself, going over a rabble-rousing speech… They do make an endearing pair, traveling over hill and dale, regaling their fellow citizens with tales of English oppression (“life was happy for those two wandering patriots”–an intertitle tells us). They give their speeches out of the back of a covered wagon–and they know just what to do when the authorities come a knockin’ (they order the flock to scatter; he plays a harmless drunk-; she plays with her dog Michael and looks coy):

They come by their radicalism through heart-wrenching personal experience, having watched Peg’s mother die of societal neglect (regular Irish folk, the film tells us, have no hope of paying for medical treatment–and this fact is exacerbated by the knowledge that Mrs. O’Connell’s English family COULD have sent the money to save her–if only they hadn’t written her off for marrying a Catholic). Their embattled idyll (a very Vidorian idea) comes to an abrupt close when one of those same English relatives repents on his deathbed, setting money aside for young Margaret’s education, IF she will go to England and learn some manners from her “better” relatives. Of course she refuses–but her father has not forgotten the painful sight of his beautiful wife dying in squalor (the carefree life of a “wandering patriot” is liable to be tripped up by the slightest viral infection)–and he orders her to accept the Chichester family’s offer.

So it’s off to England! (With canine companion Michael in tow.) Naturally, upon reaching her destination in the upper crust of the abyss, she is mistaken for a servant and sent to sulk in the scullery. There, we get a fine comedic sequence in which Peg endeavors to fit everything in the room into her hungry mutt’s mouth:

Laurette Taylor is fantastic here–demonstrating why Broadway loved her; and why Hollywood asked the director to let her loose. (Michael is great too–and, at several points, this pair looks ahead to the quintessential girl and her dog moment in American cinema: the “Over the Rainbow” scene–directed by King Vidor–in The Wizard of Oz.) Taylor is an extraordinary light comedian. The problem with the rest of the film is that it asks us to take Peg/Margaret’s ordeal seriously. It’s not that the actress lacks emotional range. It’s just that everything falls into place so schematically (and the camera generally adopts such a respectfully objective perspective upon the events), that a favourable outcome is never in doubt. That’s not a problem in the bravura set-up that Vidor gives us within the main hall of the mansion on a stormy night:

Nor do we notice the film’s deficiencies while it gambols through the apple orchard next door (owned by “farmer” Jerry–who, of course, turns out to be an English Lord with a heart of gold–to make up for the terrible Chichesters, who lord it over our Peg like a pack of wicked Cinderella cast members):

Every time the director gives us Peg (and Michael) shooting toward the camera out of a sublime natural background, we are back in prime Vidor territory. The problem is that these are undercut by the “stagier” (not a term I generally bother with, but in this case it actually insists upon itself) “plot point” moments:

The story of King Vidor’s oeuvre will be a gradual movement toward the complete eradication of scenes like the one above (do you care what’s happening in it? Of course you don’t)–a process that will disclose the startling fact that the 19th century melodrama of coincidence and external vicissitude can provide a magnificent vehicle for dramatizing the confused journey of the modern subject through the deceptively bright murk of  “participatory” democracy.

But all of that’s still to come! For now, I’ll content myself with pointing out a very characteristic Vidor gambit which livens up the intertitles at the eleventh hour. As I hinted earlier, good ol’ Lord Jerry eventually comes through and professes his undying love for Margaret (whom HE also takes to calling “Peg O’ My Heart”). This is how melodrama always deals with politics/class oppression (i.e. by resolving conflict through a fantasy relationship):


The interesting thing, however, is that Vidor tacks on one last axiom (uttered by the ol’ rebel himself–Jim O’Connell) which superheats the sentimentality of the above words :

Same surface meaning–but what a difference! These words could easily serve as the interpretive key to the director’s entire filmography. For King Vidor, love can, indeed, affect the world. However, very soon now, the gloves will be off, and the effects won’t always be so pretty. In fact, more often than not, they’ll be as twisted as life itself.

good night friends!

Dave

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Keep those curtains wide open. There’ll be plenty to see (and discuss) around here for the next little while. The topic? The films of King Vidor.

Aficionados know all about this guy’s snakes and ladders journey across the first perilous century of film criticism. One of the most revered figures in Hollywood during the 1920s, Vidor’s rep probably took an even bigger hit than Frank Borzage’s during the latter stages of his own lifetime (1894-1982).

It’s not hard to see why.

For one thing, during the classical (sound) era, the director gravitated increasingly toward the kind of no holds barred melodrama that critics in search of cultural capital felt duty-bound to deride. Today, looking back from the other side of the “high-/low- brow” divide, we understand that the people who savaged Vidor’s “bourgeois sentimentality” (usually expressed in the same gendered terms used to marginalize ANY art centered upon the emotional life of the modern subject) were far more trapped within the middle-class looking glass than they knew. To me, nothing smacks more of “false consciousness” than the pallid observations of critical theory. I mean, really, how you gonna have a revolution without Ruby Gentry or Rosa Moline (or the intense dissatisfaction they represent)?

Another major aspect of the “Vidor problem” is the director’s wild rightward shift across the political spectrum, during the 1940s and 1950s. HOW did the director of The Crowd and Our Daily Bread wind up making An American Romance? It’s a real puzzler–at least on the surface. Not a good idea just to dismiss it either–not if you really want to understand what the hell happened to the country as a whole, after the end of the Great Depression.

And you know, it’s exactly the kind of problem that a student of Transcendentalism (and its effects upon American aesthetic and political culture) might be able to do something with. That’s me. Also, as luck would have it, Vidor was enough of an intellectual to proclaim his Emersonianism in a number of places–most notably in his aesthetic autobiography (A Tree Is A Tree) and in the 1964 documentary Truth and Illusion: An Introduction To Metaphysics. So the stage is set–and (thanks to the magic of avi files) I now have access to ALL of the sound films and a large percentage of the silents (including all of the key entries from Vidor’s glory days at MGM under Thalberg).

So we’re gonna do it. Chronologically, I think (with an introductory piece on Truth and Illusion to kick things off). I’d love to promise one entry every week, but I won’t go quite that far. This blog is never gonna be completely stable. I’m sure King Vidor would approve of that.

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You’d never do such a thing, of course–but if you asked me to name the ultimate product of Hollywood’s Studio Age, I’d pick Lynch’s Mulholland Dr (it’s also my favourite film). If pressed to choose a movie that was actually made during the period in question, I’d have to go with one of two very late exercises in Metrocolored auteurism (both released in 1958)–Minnelli’s Some Came Running (more on that one some time soon) or Nick Ray’s Party Girl:

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There are other 1930-1960 Hollywood films that I like as much or more (Vertigo, Portrait of Jennie, Love Letters, Little Man, What Now?, Strange Cargo, Moonrise, Trouble in Paradise, The General Died at Dawn, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Front Page, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Duck Soup, Kings Row, Ruby Gentry, The Wedding Night, H.M. Pulham Esq., Curse of the Cat People, History is Made at Night, Possessed (1931), The Strange Woman, The Black Cat, Dracula, Freaks, Out of the Past, Murder, My Sweet, Sirk’s Imitation of Life, Easy Living, Scarlet Street, Alice Adams, Swing Time, It’s A Wonderful Life, The Narrow Margin, The Killers, You Only Live Once, You and Me, Meet John Doe, The Miracle Woman, Stage Door, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Sullivan’s Travels, Christmas in July, Kansas City Confidential, Fallen Angel, High Sierra, The Awful Truth, The Strawberry Blonde, The Roaring Twenties, Juarez, Dark City, Rope of Sand, The Accused, The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Talk of the Town, Thieves’ Highway, They Drive By Night, All This and Heaven Too, Dark Victory, Three Strangers, Red Dust, Mad Love, The Last Flight, Petrified Forest, Rear Window, The Maltese Falcon, Stella Dallas, Holiday, The Seventh Victim, Citizen Kane, Magnificent Ambersons, Casablanca, Three Comrades, The Shop Around the Corner, The Mortal Storm, Daisy Kenyon, Mann’s Raw Deal, Laura, Road House, Angels Over Broadway, The Lost Moment, We Are Not Alone, On the Town, Yolanda and the Thief, Meet Me in St.Louis, The Clock, Nightmare Alley, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Kiss of Death, Kiss Me Deadly, These Three, Wuthering Heights, Vera Cruz, Dodsworth, Shadow of a Doubt, Whale’s Waterloo Bridge, and Ray’s own They Live By Night, Bigger Than Life and In a Lonely Place, to name just a few), but none of them embody the best and worst of Tinseltown’s tendencies the way Party Girl does.

How so?

Well, consider the casting:

The leads? Two of the most hermetically-sealed mugs in the history of screen thesping. Just look at ’em:

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Forget “where’s Waldo?”–where’s the “humanity”? You can scan these pans from here to eternity without discovering a trace of method in their maskness. Does that make them ineffective performers? No way. As we’ll see, this is a “right face at the right time” scenario. But we’ll return to that…

Take a look at some of the key character players.

In one film, Ray gives us the ultimate avuncular psychopath (Lee J. Cobb):

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(Messers. De Niro and De Palma clearly paid attention to this one)

The ultimate sleazoid henchman (John Ireland):

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AND the ultimate pseudo-leading man (Kent Smith, in a role–the flawed crusading District Attorney– that, in many other films, would be the lead… that title’s not a knock, by the way: Smith’s ersatzness is absolutely essential to the greatness of films like Cat People and The Fountainhead):

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With that group on hand, you know you’re in for gangsterism–and you definitely get a large helping of “Early thirties Chicago” here–but refried, Ray-style (Ray-fried? Ray-ified?)… All of the elements of Party Girl are recognizable to a veteran classic film viewer, but the director puts them together in unprecedentedly odd ways. It’s a gangster film, yes–with much of its generic momentum provided by a Brando-ized (and much less successful) cousin of Scarface‘s Tony Camonte:

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but all Hoppered up with visions of loneliness/intersubjectivity-in-crisis like these:

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and Sirked way off course by a plot that’s 40% recovery-from-disability narrative:

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And while your brain is slam-dancing with that dissonance, allow me to throw Cyd Charisse’s leopard-printed gams into the mix:

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(I’m afraid Cyd activates my “male gaze” problem wherever she appears–and this film both encourages that mode AND calls it into question far more effectively than anything else she did at MGM… with many scenes, especially early on, that dramatize what the ravages of all of that ogling can do to a woman’s spirit… also note that Ray allows Charisse to look like exactly what she was in 1958–an absurdly beautiful woman in her mid-30s, NOT an ingenue)

The film actually kicks off as if it means to be a precursor of Verhoeven’s Showgirls (I suppose the weirdly off-base title must have something to do with this impression), and Charisse really shows us something (other than her celebrated grace) in these scenes. Vicki Gaye’s deadened pan is clearly shown to be a defensive formation against the forces of objectification. In a manner uniquely his own (although I suspect that Verhoeven learned a lot about how to deploy Elizabeth Berkley from this film… I’d love to know if he ever saw it), Ray skillfully transforms the actress’ limited range into a powerful gesture toward subjectivity. When you watch isolated scenes of this film, Charisse doesn’t seem to be giving any kind of a performance, but I defy you to watch it from beginning to end without finding something compelling in her progression.

Likewise, Robert Taylor’s weird passivity is exploited to wonderful effect in this film. Has there ever been a more diffident leading man? Alan Ladd is a bravura trouper, by comparison. The one thing Taylor can do is be stubborn, and Ray lets him flash this talent in EVERY scene. How would Melville’s Bartleby do as a gimpy mafia consigliere? Party Girl gives us the answer.

It does other things too.

Clydefro is right to draw our attention to Ray’s absolute belief in the personality-altering effects of romantic attraction (whether transient or lasting). NO ONE is better at showing people getting under each other’s skins. Even–or maybe even especially–these two manikins. The scene in the speakeasy, in which the pair stab through each others’ jaded worldviews with ice pick glances, could very well be the best of its type–leagues ahead of the kind of banter that is supposed to achieve the same ends in things like Hawks’ Big Sleep.

And the violence, when it comes stealing into the narrative (as in Cobb’s savage assault upon Jean Harlow’s photo; in the Capone-esque trophy scene shown above; in the glimpse of Vicki’s rommate’s suicide; in the “greatest hits” montage and in the finale) is absolutely jarring, in a way that it never, ever could be in a gangster film devoid of Charisse dance sequences and extended sojourns to special Swedish health institutes.

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All that and a happy ending too!

Godard claimed that Ray IS cinema. I don’t know about that–but Party Girl IS Hollywood Cinema.

a bientot, les amis

Dave

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