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"One almost can't believe what is happening on the screen; the horror of it suffocates."
Jack Shadoian, Dreams and Dead Ends
"I've always cited this movie as the best ever made in (Alabama), as well as the most authentic. Maybe that's in part because watching it is experiencing the apotheosis of Southern sleaze-a bit like festering for hours in the seediest possible Alabama Greyhound depot in August without air conditioning...Though the movie's politics are liberal, its moral outrage is so intense you may come out of it wanting to join a lynch mob." Film critic and Alabama expatriate Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing in his book Essential Cinema.
Part semi-documentary, part social problem film, part film noir, Phil Karlson's The Phenix City Story (1955) is a one-of-a-kind window into a sordid and fascinating period in American crime history. The namesake suggests a glorious bird arisen from the ashes of defeat, but Phenix City, Alabama, at this point in its long history, was anything but glorious. A small town just across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, Georgia, Phenix City had long been controlled by mob and criminal interests in gambling, prostitution, drugs and racketeering. The crime town was a boon to the criminal underworld. Curious tourists with trouble in mind kept gambling coffers full and a steady flow of soldiers from nearby Fort Benning in Georgia kept prostitutes on their backs. During World War II, when the brazen crime kingpins ran 'mattress vans'-- canvas-covered pickup trucks containing prostitutes--to the gates of Fort Benning, Phenix City had the highest venereal disease rate in the nation. General George Patton, in command of the base at the time, threatened to clean up his soldiers' "R and R" hot spot with the kind of law upheld at the end of a tank turret.
Yes, for a good time, all anybody had to do was take a short walk across the bridge from Columbus and there you were in what was dubbed "Sin City, U.S.A." by the national press. Aside from such blatant crime running rampant, the most troubling aspect of the criminal enterprises, often conducted in the glaring light of day, was the permissive blind eye from the otherwise law-abiding citizens of the town. Mostly the average citizen regarded much of the notoriety as being perfectly normal. One resident who had grown up in Phenix City remembered that as a boy, he would spend leisure time "playing the slot machines with no sense of wrongdoing. They would be found not only in the honky-tonks but also in the drug and grocery stores and clothing shops, even within two blocks of the high school. They came equipped with wooden stools for those to short to reach the handle." Either out of laziness, lethargy or fear, Phenix City taxpayers just weren't interested in cleaning up their own town, even though they knew their failure to address the problem might become hell to pay later on. The impetus for significant action took place on June 18, 1954, when local lawyer and Alabama State Attorney General nominate Albert L. Patterson was gunned down outside his law office by the crime syndicate opposed to his plans to take charge and clean up the town. With a hometown hero dead and the heated flush of embarrassment coming from the rest of the state, Phenix City residents were finally compelled to turn the tide against the syndicate's invaluable status quo.
Director Phil Karlson had grown up in Chicago, Illinois during the heyday of Al Capone's criminal rule, so Karlson knew a little something about a city bending to an illegal will. He said in an interview, "I went through the days of killings and whatnot in Chicago. I remember getting twenty-five cents to stand on a corner, and if the cop was on this side of the street, to whistle real loud, and if he was on that side of the street, just to whistle softly. I was keeping a brewery going by a little whistle." After serving in World War II, Karlson began his directing career with Monogram Pictures, a poverty row studio known for four to five day movie shoots with zero budgets. In the late 1940s, the tattered suits at Monogram strived to make their films a bit more sophisticated and attractive to audiences under their new name Allied Artists. These Allied pictures were not big-budget productions, but they were a long way from the quickies with which Karlson began his career. Ironically, he may have wished he was still on a week-long shoot while making The Phenix City Story: it was shot on location in Phenix City during the same time the actual trial for Patterson's killer was taking place. Karlson and his crew received Phenix City-style threats and interruptions from the shadowy syndicate and the citizens that bristled at outside interlopers. But Karlson was not intimidated. Not only did he credit himself at the time with digging up information during filming that helped convict Patterson's killer, but he also insisted on shooting the film on the city's notorious 14th Street, the central location for the syndicate's illegal operations. Karlson further thumbed his nose at the syndicate by having actor John McIntire, playing Patterson, wear the actual suit that Patterson was killed in.
The violence depicted in The Phenix City Story is not for the faint of heart; barroom brawls and beatings of courageous citizens are bloody, bruising and real, and we see the shocking depiction of two children being murdered by the syndicate thugs. The Production Code Administration approved the film's basic story in January 1955, but still objected to the "unusual amount of violence and brutality." One of the cuts the PCA recommended was the murder of Zeke Ward's daughter. Ward is an African-American character in the film who lends help to the town reformers; because he is black, the syndicate singles him out first for a horrendous reprisal--his daughter's lifeless body being tossed out of a moving car. Although the film was finally approved by the PCA, this and other objectionable material remained in the film.
The Phenix City Story also has a subtext that was surely recognizable by audiences at the time; that of the Civil Rights struggle. The crime syndicate is in many ways a symbol of the entrenched racism and prejudice that was ingrained in Southern culture at the time. Aside from the wincing violence against Zeke Ward's daughter, it's the callous nature of the corrupt, white police force that says more about race than it does about the complicity of the police; when her killing is reported, the police dispatcher says to the patrol cars without any measure of urgency, "Somebody just threw a dead n***** kid out on Patterson's lawn. Go out and have a look." There's one telling line in the script when Tanner, the main character representing the mob, justifies his syndicated business to his former friend Patterson, "Half the trouble with the people in the world today is they just don't want to let things stay the way they are." The Civil Rights struggle was all about changing the way things had always been in the Deep South. The way it was written implicitly compares Tanner's, and by extension, the syndicate's, viciousness cloaked in sweet Southern hospitality with the good ole' boy network that systematically oppressed African-Americans with coercion or violence at every turn. An interesting footnote regarding the Civil Rights era in the South: The Phenix City Story aided Albert Patterson's son, John Patterson (played in the film by Richard Kiley), in his campaign for governor of Alabama. He was able to defeat opponent George Wallace due to the good publicity he received in the state because of the film. Unfortunately, Patterson was too inexperienced to lead effectively, and in the next election, lost to Wallace, who would leave a lasting legacy on the story of race in the South.
The film is very much a historical document for its time, but the culture of fear and violence that is depicted in The Phenix City Story certainly has a film noir aspect to it, which was not accidental. The screenplay was written by Daniel Mainwaring who also wrote the noir classic Out of the Past (1947) and the noir-infused sci-fi thriller Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), both of which were concerned with the corruption of small-town ideals with urban iniquity. Phil Karlson and his film also influenced other depictions of criminals and criminality. After the release of The Phenix City Story, Karlson was hired by Desilu studios to direct The Scarface Mob, the pilot TV movie that would launch The Untouchables TV series. It was Karlson's gritty eye that created the dark look the TV series was known for.
A few familiar faces to look out for in the film include the actors James Edwards and Edward Andrews. Edwards, who plays Zeke Ward, figured prominently in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) as the parking lot attendant who runs across hired marksman Timothy Carey. Edwards also played one of Frank Sinatra's fellow soldiers plagued by nightmares in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Edward Andrews is the affable, slick crime boss Tanner. Andrews was a character actor who appeared in countless TV shows and Disney films throughout his long career. His penultimate film role may be the most recognizable though: he played Molly Ringwald's solicitous grandfather in Sixteen Candles (1984).
Producers: Samuel Bischoff, David Diamond
Director: Phil Karlson
Screenplay: Daniel Mainwaring, Crane Wilbur
Cinematography: Harry Neumann
Art Direction: Stanley Fleischer
Music: Harry Sukman
Film Editing: George White
Cast: John McIntire (Albert Patterson), Richard Kiley (John Patterson), Kathryn Grant (Ellie Rhodes), Edward Andrews (Rhett Tanner), Lenka Peterson (Mary Jo Patterson), Biff McGuire (Fred Gage), Truman Smith (Ed Gage), Jean Carson (Cassie), Katherine Marlowe (Mamie), John Larch (Clem Wilson), Allen Nourse (Jeb Bassett), Helen Martin (Helen Ward), Otto Hulett (Hugh Bentley), George Mitchell (Hugh Britton), Ma Beachie (herself), James E. Seymour (himself).
by Scott McGee