Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Monday, June 6, 2011

The Phenix City Story

Directed by Phil Karlson
1955
The United States of America


It’s not easy to startle or offend me anymore these days. I guess that I have just seen too many movies. I’ve seen every kind of villain commit every kind of evil imaginable: Hannibal Lector eating a man’s face, Marty Augustine destroying an innocent woman’s face, Amon Goeth playing the piano while Jews are gunned down in their homes. I’ve seen every kind of gore and violent effects: Lionel Cosgrove standing ankle deep in zombie blood and guts, Marion Crane being stabbed in the shower, Derek Vinyard curb-stomping a black teenager in the middle of the street. And finally, I’ve seen every act of kindness and righteousness: George Bailey saving Bedford Falls, black witnesses in the balcony standing for Atticus Finch, Will Kane standing alone against four ruthless killers. I’ve seen every act of compassion, villainy, and nobility that the imagination can muster and then-some.

Over my movie-watching career, I’ve noticed that more and more films rely on the shocking and visceral, the gory and exploitative, the base and disgusting to attract audiences. There is a belief that movies have to out-do each other and directors one-up each other. As a result, simple things like suspense and genuine human drama have become rare commodities. That’s why I adore the old masters of suspense like Alfred Hitchcock, Henri-Georges Clouzot, and early John Carpenter. But even now, their films are rapidly aging. I don’t squirm as much when Alice Huberman knocks over the bottle of uranium. I don’t get quite as powerful a stomach-ache when Mario and Jo have to drive their jerrycan over that old rickety bridge. I don’t cover my eyes when I know that Michael Myers may not be on the screen, but he is in the room. As B.B. King once crooned, the thrill is gone.

Or at least I thought so.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered a little known film entitled The Phenix City Story, a curious little film noir from the mid-50s. It was directed by Phil Karlson, a man who was known more for the quantity of films he could make than their quality (he released eight films in 1946). It featured a cast of small-time, marginally successful actors like John McIntire and Richard Kiley. And finally, it was set not in a big, sprawling urban hell-scape like New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, but in the small town of Phenix City. Alabama, current population approximately 30,000 people. And yet, I can say that this is unequivocally one of the most intense, suspenseful, and shocking films that I have ever seen in my entire life. Yes, I am serious. I am ranking this film up there with the famous films that I have so far mentioned in this review. So powerful was The Phenix City Story that I had to literally stop the film at three different times, walk away, and recollect myself and my nerve before I could continue. Don’t let the fact that it was released in the 50s fool you. The Phenix City Story is not a film for the weak at heart or the fragile of temperament. To watch this film is to endure a crucible of agony and fury. It is a film of monstrous evil, heart-breaking sacrifice, and selfless heroism.

The most amazing part is that The Phenix City Story is based on a true story. The film revolves around the real-life assassination of Albert Patterson, a 1954 candidate for Alabama attorney general, in Phenix City. The film somewhat awkwardly begins and ends with brief newsreels that address the real-life events the film was based on. These include interviews with participants in the story by journalism legend Clete Roberts. The newsreels may seem like a cumbersome and cheap device for providing extra thrills. But watch how the newsreels set up the story for the viewer. In thirteen minutes the entire stage for the movie is set: Phenix City, Alabama was once the center of vice and sin in the South. Despite its small size it was a hotspot for gambling, prostitution, and other illegal rackets that were viciously controlled by the mob. Clete Roberts speaks with a man who tells him that he always carries a gun around for fear of retaliation from the mob for his involvement in the assassination case. As a result, we learn that not only was the mob an overpowering force, they had no qualm with murdering innocent bystanders who got in the way.

Facts are meted out with calm precision. Albert Patterson was running for Alabama attorney general on a campaign that promised a crackdown on the mob and illegal activities. As a result, he was murdered. It was then left to his son, John Patterson, to take up his father’s mantel and drive the mob out of town by calling in the national guard, placing Phenix City under martial law, and forcing the mob into court. The newsreel literally spoils the entire film for the viewer. And yet, it does nothing to detract from the overall power of the film.

Once the film itself begins we are plunged into a city with two faces. On the outside there are sunny streets and bright window fronts.


But the other face is of a twisted center of crime, populated primarily by gangsters who attend to the needs of GIs from an army base one town over.

When people try to confront the gangsters, they are savagely beaten in the middle of the street. Fat, well-paid policemen ignore the slaughter. When people beg them to stop the violence, they infuriatingly reply, “Oh, they’re just having fun.”


But the Patterson family decides to fight back after their son John comes home from Germany after serving on the courts at the Nuremberg War Trials. After seeing justice served to mass murderers, war criminals, and genocidal maniacs in Europe, John is determined to clean up the streets.


But the mob fights back with brutal tactics. A black friend of the Patterson family has their young daughter picked up, murdered, and thrown onto their front yard.


Gangsters use their cars to savagely run over other children. Men are beaten, women are assaulted and brutally raped, and people who investigate the attacks are killed. Another family friend is murdered and thrown in a ditch after discovering the car used to kill a young child. Irrefutable evidence is presented in court, both identifying the driver and solidifying his guilt as the murderer. The jury rules not guilty.

Finally, John’s father, Albert, decides to run for attorney general to clean up the town once and for all. His campaign is brutally attacked. Voters are intimidated and beaten at the poll stations, campaign trucks are overturned and set on fire, and, once again, little children who pass out pamphlets are assaulted.


But when he wins a preliminary election, the mob assassinates him in the middle of the street. I won’t explain what happens next, as I don’t want to rob you of the power contained within the last scenes. But they are nigh unbearable.


Such a film took amazing courage to make. It was made less than a year after the events it depicted took place. Many of the mobsters portrayed in the film were still in trial. Some of them were still on the street. Phil Karlson’s attention to detail was so great that he even had some of his actors wear the actual clothes of their real-life counterparts. Amazingly, this included having the actor portraying Albert Patterson wear the actual suit that the real Patterson was assassinated in. The film ends with another newsreel that shows the real life John Patterson swearing to continue his father’s fight.

So I return to the original point of this article: how did this movie shock and amaze me after being so desensitized by other movies? Perhaps it is the film’s brutal honesty in depicting the battle between good and evil. The photography and pacing are frenetic and violent all on their own. But methinks that it has more to do with the story. The central story is so compelling, so outrageous, and so devastating that it is impossible not to feel anger or sorrow towards what happens on-screen. I will continue to ruminate on why this film is so powerful. But in the meantime, I will post this article, shake my head, and step outside for a moment so I can catch my breath.

Sources:
http://www.noiroftheweek.com/2008/05/phenix-city-story-1955.html
http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/374120|0/Cult-Movie-Picks-April-2011.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Phenix_City_Story
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0048488/trivia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phenix_City,_Alabama

30 comments:

  1. Prospector that you are you seem to be striking the lode in unexpected places! Tantalizing write-up.

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    1. Wow I live in Phenix city and i didn't no all of this.

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    2. There is history everywhere...even where we least expect it!

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  2. Thank you! I hope that you will watch the film and write a review of your own!

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  3. Fantastic review!

    This sounds like a tough watch indeed, but I think I should watch it nonetheless.

    I might not be able to watch it right now, as tonight I was thinking of watching Dune and Deep Red, but I'll get around to it as soon as I can.
    Thanks for putting it on Youtube by the way, it's a great help!

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  4. You're more than welcome!

    Just to warn you....Dune....isn't very good....at ALL. So...just prepare yourself...

    But I do hope that you watch this film and write your own review!

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  5. Yeah, I've heard Dune is pretty awful. But I've decided to watch all of David Lynch's films now so I thought I might as well get it out of the way... Next there's Eraserhead and Lost Highway and then I've seen all his work.

    Is Dune his absolute worst? Because I thought Inland Empire was pretty horrible...

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  6. You're telling me that you didn't enjoy Lynch's most bizarre and abstract film? For shame....

    Anyway....as somebody who has seen all but two or three of Lynch's films, I can say that personally I believe that Dune is his worst. Eraserhead is FANTASTIC! I haven't seen Lost Highway, though.....

    But as soon as you're done, watch The Phenix City Story! I'm dying to know what you will think!

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  7. There's a cruel streak in many Karlson films. In the Fifties he specialized in pitting heroes against overwhelming odds and in portraying power as the perpetual boot in the face. A film like Phenix City excels at provoking sympathy and anger, but Karlson's 99 River Street is nearly as good with a more personal noir-style story. If you've seen any more Karlsons I'll be curious to know what you think of them.

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  8. Really? This was actually the first that I have ever heard of Karlson or his work. But if you claim that the rest of it is just as compelling, I'll definitely check it out. Any films besides 99 River Street in particular?

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  9. great post on a great little B/NOIR film...you must see KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL to appreciate the PHIL KARLSON of the 50s!!

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  10. I've heard of that film, actually! I'll have to look it up! Many thanks!

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  11. I saw "The Phenix City Story" for the first time last year as part of a newly released Warners Home Video film noir boxed set - Vol. 5. I thought the opening scenes a bit awkward - Clete Roberts interviewing individuals who had been involved in the actual events. But the documentary-style film picked up as the dramatized story began. Most shocking to me was the murder of the little black girl. I didn't expect anything that brutal from a 1950s Hollywood movie. The true story that followed the assassination is also interesting. John Patterson, son of the assassinated Attorney General candidate, took his father's place on the ticket, ran for and won that office. In 1959 he was elected Alabama's youngest governor. Though he supported the state's segregationist policies as governor, he later - at age 87 - supported Barack Obama's presidential candidacy.

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  12. I know! I found all of that out while I was researching this film. What REALLY amazed me about the black girl getting killed was the police reaction: "Some nigger girl just got shot." That was BRUTAL. I'm curious if that may be the earliest use of the word in Hollywood history. Nevertheless, it was a brutally intense film.

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  13. Nate, your introductory paragraphs were so fascinating that I deliberately did not read anything about the story, skipping down to the end of your article. I am going to watch this movie tonight! I can't thank you enough for putting it on Youtube!

    I've heard the title often, but never knew anything about it, thinking it was just another film noir that I would watch sometime. (I knew it wasn't about the city in Arizona, but I always found it curiously irritating to see a city spelled Phenix with the "o"! LOL!)

    I feel the same way as you about what is really scary and what is just gross or shock-inducing. It takes something unique to shake me up. It sounds like I'm going to see it tonight! I'll come back and read your assessment of the story after I watch it...

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  14. Please do! I'd love to know what you think about the film! I also would love it if you would write your OWN review! Please leave a comment when you finish!

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  15. Nate - I just finished watching Phenix City Story on Youtube. It's 1:30 a.m. and I am bleary-eyed, had a long day, but I couldn't stop watching. It is everything you said. I've got to get some sleep, but I'll be back tomorrow to read the story description part of your review and comment further. Wow...

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  16. It's morning and I can read and think again! Your description of the story and its impact were right on the nose. Actually, I'm glad I didn't read the story itself -- the tension and emotions evoked had much more of an impact going in cold. It was very disturbing, and an excellent film. I'm trying to think whether or not that disgusting word had been used in a previous movie, but at the moment I can't bring one to mind. I know that variations of it had been used in the earlier days of movies, but I don't think in that form and in that manner. To Kill a Mockingbird did, but I'd have to look up the dates --- this one preceded that, didn't it?

    I wouldn't even bother to write my own review of it. It would sound too much like yours because my take on it and reactions are the same. I couldn't help but think of Fargo, Frances McDormand's cop character, as she drives the murderer to jail in her police car. All that killing and vicious acts -- "...and for what? A little bit of money. I don't understand." Neither do I.

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  17. @Becky

    I don't think that we have the capacity to understand these people. They're in their own little world...

    Thank you for your kind words about my review! But I would still encourage you to write your own review.

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  18. Excellent review Nathanel!

    Karlson is one of my favorite B Film directors. KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL is a must! Other good ones include SCANDAL SHEET, 99 RIVER STREET, TIGHT SPOT, FIVE AGAINST THE HOUSE, GUNMEN'S WALK. He even directed a couple of good Charlie Chan films, DARK AlIBI and THE SHANGHAI COBRA.


    - John Greco

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  19. Thanks John! I actually watched Kansas City Confidential the other night. It was excellent! I think that in the future I will be revisiting the work of Mr. Karlson quite frequently...

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  20. An excellent review of an interesting little film I saw for the first time when TCM aired it at the end of April. You have perfectly captured the invasive nature of both the city’s vice and the tactics used to control the city. I was struck by Karlson’s portrayal of the benignly deceptive means by which the residents contributed to their state as a city held hostage (the same means could be applied in any city large or small). The depiction of men and women going about their every day business, parading past the locations that were the source of their city’s captivity, making each one a part of the problem. I also find it interesting that sixty-plus years later, the story and the film can still prompt an incredulous response, “How could these events have happened in this country?”…and now, for something completely different. I wanted to let you know I recently watched Apart From You (1933) and Every-Night Dreams (1933), both of which were directed by Mikio Naruse and recently released as part of Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series.

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  21. One of the key ideas behind the film is that if good men do nothing, bad men live. I, too, was amazed by how complacent the citizens of Phenix City were. The most powerful scene for me was the one that I mentioned in the review when the mobsters assault somebody in the middle of the street and a passing policeman says, "They're just having some fun." Rough, deadly stuff...

    As for the Mikio films, I haven't seen either of those. How were they? I've been meaning to get my hands on that Criterion Collection for a while.

    I want to post the two Mikio films that I reviewed a few weeks on my blog's youtube account. However, I can't for the life of me find a program that lets you permanently add a subtitle track to an avi file on a Mac. As soon as I do, I'll post those two Naruse films.

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  22. Excellent film, one that pulls no punches. I should also note that the club singer is portrayed by Meg Myles, who was both a vocalist (I believe she cut an album for Capitol) and a popular pinup girl of the '50s. She was featured in Steve Sullivan's book "Va Va Voom!"

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  23. You don't say? Because I was thinking "Va Va Voom" the entire time that she was on screen!

    Just kidding, just kidding.

    I'm glad that you liked the film. It has so much emotion that it's stunning, and frightening, to watch.

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  24. Hi Nathanael!

    I just finished watching this film, like I promised I would :)

    I didn't like it as much as you did, but it's still a very good film. Horrifying stuff really and to know it was entirely factual made it even more horrifying.
    I don't know if I'll have time to write a full review for it but I'm glad I watched it.
    Thanks for recommending it and putting it up on Youtube, very helpful of you!

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  25. Well, trust me, I'm truly glad that you watched! Thank you for your time!

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  26. I'm sorry, i can't seem to find the movie on YouTube, has it been removed? Thank you for your time.

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    1. Yeah, sorry. It got flagged so I had to remove it.

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