The Phenix City Story (1955)

The Phenix City Story (1955) is a violent semi-documentary true-life film classic film noir story set in the super-corrupt Alabama town of Phenix City.

The film depicts the real-life 1954 assassination of Albert Patterson, who was nominated as the Democratic candidate for Alabama Attorney General on a platform of cleaning up Phenix City, a city controlled by organized crime. 

Patterson was murdered in Phenix City, and the subsequent outcry resulted in the imposition of martial law by the state government. Full length prints of the film include a 13-minute newsreel-style preface which stars newsman Clete Roberts interviewing many of the actual participants.

This opening gives The Phenix City Story not only a documentary and even a propaganda noir theme, but frames the story in quite a seamless manner, transitioning from newsreel-style to a more regular film noir story-telling style, showing step by step how the mob manages its control of this small but sinful city in the south.

Focused on a joint called The Poppy Club, we see the full operation of the bent municipality. The manager of the joint, named Rhett Tanner, runs a wide-open red-light area which is known for prostitution, taverns, and crooked gambling. Most of the police do not even try to do anything about the corruption, since they are on Tanner's payroll.

When we say corruption, we see the full glory of what happens down around the Poppy Club. First the games are fixed, and if it isn't crooked dealers, it is the use of crooked machinery like slot machines. Next, if anyone complains about any of this, they find themselves beaten up and on the streets — and instead of receiving any help from the police once they are beaten up — these unfortunate saps are usually arrested.

As a further bulwark against morality, Tanner has his own gang of thugs, who beat up anything that moves against them, including local religious leaders and indeed, anyone who stands in their money-grabbin' way.

The human angle in The Phenix City Story focuses on a father and son, played by John McIntire and Richard Kiley. As the patriarch, local attorney Albert Patterson is initially neutral and complacent about the rackets and the violence and general civic disturbance.

However, he is urged to run for State Attorney General and clean up Phenix City, although he wants no part of this impossible job. Instead he welcomes home his son John (played by Richard Kiley) from military service and tries to look the other way.

When John is in the streets however, he witnesses too much — enough to get him mad enough to intervene. It starts with his intolerance of bad behaviour down at The Poppy Club, but soon after that,  violence breaks out as the local gang of thugs try to silence the reform-minded citizens committee by beating the crap out of them in a parking lot.

John is not so much caught in the middle when Clem Wilson, a thug who works for Tanner, and others assault innocent citizens. He is moved to action when drawn to their defence and finds himself carrying that all-American task of standing up for what is right, even if it means a violent beating.

Old man Patterson finally agrees to get involved in reforming the town, but as soon as he wins the Democratic nomination for state attorney general, he is killed. It is then up to John to avenge his father, which he attempts to do, even though his own family ends up at risk.

This story of lawless small-town America is rooted in similar stories from the Wild West and also has echoes in a film like In The Heat of The Night (1967) in which white-run and WASPish  towns in the south live effectively off the grid when it comes to the law.

In the real life case of Phenix City, it did take the enactment of martial law to clean things up. To reach this low point The Phenix City Story is one of the most violent and realistic crime films of the 1950s.  As well as the bracing energy of actual life which is captured in its establishing shots and key scenes, there are explosive action scenes which merge screen drama with vivid real life activity and characters, appearing to leave no seams to show where the two join. 

This documentary-like look is from the school of classic noir, which had long looked to news-reel and verisimilitude as well as a documentary style to wow the audiences into the moral depths. Elections are rigged in the town, as are the gaming machines, and the city's main industry — seen in one documentary-style scene — appears to be the manufacture of loaded dice — all hand made.

At the same time, while some of it is real, some of it most definitely is not. Likely the most horrifying and crass incident in the film is the murder of a small black girl, whose body we see being thrown out of a moving car and on to the lawn of Richard Kiley's neat southern family home. It has been commented by Ray Jenkins, one of the two reporters who covered the Phenix City story for the Columbus Ledger, whose coverage won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service, that "Nothing remotely like this episode actually happened."

This is just as well, not in the last for the inflammatory brutality it depicts. In an industry rightfully shy of depicting child murder, although the effect of the body itself is not good, the idea behind it, that a child could be killed merely as a warning to a political opponent, is beyond nasty.

That said, The Phenix City Story is not a movie laid deep with civil rights matters. Violence in general seems to be the theme instead, and while discrimination adds an extra flavour to it from time to time, and while we have James Edwards playing the heroic and much downtrodden Zeke — it is his young daughter that is killed for no reason — there is a relentless stream of violence against all comers, as chairs and faces are busted and a white child is brutalised and assaulted simply for handing out campaign literature.

Indeed, the scenes of voting in The Phenix City Story are remarkable for the amount of people that are punched and kicked out of voting stations, some even wandering bloodied and dazed as others walk past them to cast their ballot. Meanwhile hookers are hired to distract male voters until the polls close.

Police corruption plays a fine film noir role here, as it did in Kansas City Confidential and Tight Spot. The police radio scene here depicts the nadir of police corruption: it is the exact opposite of the competent police manning the radio in Kansas City Confidential.

We also see a television broadcast being made, suggesting some media and journalism noir, staples of the style which was looking more and more at the links between crime and the cinema itself. This is one of many scenes in which Phil Karlson shows media being created. Karlson is fascinated by the rise of television, and it runs through his films — and this is also parallel with Karlson's interest in the concept of the police radio room.

An outdoor staircase is featured along the alley leading to the Poppy Club's parking where some of the the uglier violence takes place. It perhaps recalls the tenement staircase that opens Scandal Sheet and of course this being film noir — there are isolated shots of outdoor staircases later, one showing a fight, while another has Ellie taking a sly a look out of a remote window in the Poppy Club, finding a staircase outside the window.

The office is also upstairs in a downtown building and we also see the interior staircase leading to it. Such staircase shots are film noir staples. The courtroom is also reached by an indoor staircase because Phil Karlson can't get enough of stairs, these two level transitional contraptions that story-tell the variety of doubts and violent fears the characters harbour.

For such a violent film, one of the main subjects of The Phenix City Story is the value of non-violence. The film repeatedly makes the point that earlier efforts to clean up Phenix City failed, because they were violent vigilante tactics. Instead, a campaign based in non-violence and the ballot box is followed instead.

The film does not explicitly mention the Civil Rights movement. But it evokes it, by having the black man Zeke being one of the principal advocates of non-violence in the film.

The Phenix City Story (1955) is one of the most political of all film noirs. It is unusual in that it deals with sensational events taken right from current headlines. The dialogue and the treatment of issues like race relations still seem daring. While other social films will take the line of playing cautious compromise, with craven calculation on whether it will appeal to the public or the authorities, by 1955 Phil Karlson is eager to let freedom reign 

The film has an uninhibited approach still seems almost unique at the time and this is topped with a  good deal of formal excellence too, stamping its status as a classic film noir with no doubts whatsoever. with its steadily mounting drama, and a wealth of good performances.

Daniel Mainwaring (also known as prose mystery writer Geoffrey Homes), who co-wrote The Phenix City Story with Crane Wilbur, also wrote The Lawless (1950), directed by Joseph Losey. Both films depict break downs of law and order on a truly massive scale in the USA. And they are both remarkable films, with plenty to say.

The Phenix City Story (1955) and the desk to camera trope

The Phenix City Story also deals full on and at an early date with the problems of black people in the United States. On docu-style display and in drama, the systematic discrimination and prejudice against African Americans is on stark display in a manner that was most rare in the 1950s.

It has sympathetic and dignified black characters who are light years away from the stereotypes that populate the movies of the times. It turns out to be the most bluntly pro-equality films made in the old Hollywood era.


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