Vickie Gaye (Cyd Charisse) is a party girl, a model who wanted to be a dancer who appears in a nightclub show for the benefit of the patrons of this nineteen-thirties Chicago nightspot, many of whom are connected to the powerful gang boss Rico Angelo (Lee J. Cobb). Being older than her fellow performers, Vicki feels she has seen it all and is cynical, even when dispensing advice, but at a celebration she and her colleagues have been invited to after the show, her attention is caught by an older gentleman who turns out to be Thomas Farrell (Robert Taylor), Angelo's lawyer who is not as crooked as she might have thought...
Party Girl arrived at a time in director Nicholas Ray's career which might in hindsight be described as his heyday, as the fifties spawned a bunch of well-regarded movies such as Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause; he may not have realised it back then, but they were his golden years. As such, Party Girl may not have been one of his most popular efforts but like most of his work from this period it gathered a cult following, partly thanks to the lurid excesses he conjured up for his underworld milieu, something bristling with barely contained violence. Indeed, it was one of the most bloodthirsty studio movies of the era, even if it didn't cross the line into straight ahead exploitation.
That said, it was still strange to see classy performers like Taylor and Charisse appear in a movie which inspired one of the most violent scenes of Brian de Palma's career, where for The Untouchables he lifted the whole sequence where Al Capone substitute Angelo holds a dinner for a fellow hood, then beats him half to death with the presentation silver pool cue he had made especially, both illustrating his out of control personality and a profligacy borne of just how much money he is raking in from his rackets. Farrell seems too reserved to have gotten involved with such illegality and danger, but he suffers from a crippled leg thanks to a childhood accident and has to walk with a cane: it's implied this is what drew Angelo to him.
We are shown how effective Farrell is in the courtroom when he manages to get scummy henchman John Ireland off a murder rap, much to the horror of the judge and the newspapers, but we are also aware of how Farrell has made a pact with the Devil and he will have to pay his dues before long. As if recognising how manipulated by dark forces they each are, he and Vickie are drawn to one another and before long are improving their lives by supporting their aspirations, so Vickie gets to dance as she always wanted - you couldn't have a movie starring Cyd Charisse in the fifties and not have her dance, and she performs two energetic numbers here which look about as far from the thirties as the decade could get. Meanwhile, Thomas is persuaded to have his leg seen to by a doctor.
Things grow complicated when a new breed of punk emerges, epitomised by Corey Allen's Cookie who has been littering the city with corpses because as is observed he is a psychopath who loves to kill, and Farrell is ordered by Angelo to get him off this new investigation scot free. The lawyer resists, so the boss threatens not only to bust his hip and undo the doctor's good work, but to throw acid in Vickie's face into the bargain; he is indignant, but what can he do? He has been too close to these brutal men for too long, and his chickens are coming home to roost. Interestingly, although Farrell is seen to he behaving in a dubious manner by assisting the criminals, his stoic nobility is never in doubt, possibly because Taylor would not have played him any other way, or possibly because the story is desperately needing a hero, as Kent Smith's moral lawyer is not a particularly sympathetic character, even by contrast. There may be a lot that's hokey about Party Girl, and the ending is pretty absurd, but the dilemma at its heart and the gusto of its presentation marked it out. Music by Jeff Alexander.