Directed by Phil Karlson
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.