The Phenix City Story (1955) Phil Karlson
Film Noir Collection Vol. 5 (Warner Home Video)
The Phenix City Story is one of those odd films you’re not exactly sure how to handle. Is it film noir, crime drama, true crime expose, or something else? Some writers of works dealing with film noir include it while others ignore it. It’s a question best settled by each individual viewer.
The film suffers greatly from the first 15 minutes, which consists of interminable on-camera documentary-style interviews with some of the actual locals of Phenix City, discussing how the city is going to hell due to corruption of the local officials and powers that be. Those 15 minutes really aren’t necessary, but many filmmakers at the time felt that the quasi-documentary “feel” would generate wider audience appeal. (Some prints do not include this opening; the DVD in the Film Noir Collection Vol. 5 does.)
Yet once the film gets going, Karlson knows how to set off a powder keg as we take a look inside the sordid world of Southern politics and corruption. Phenix City, Alabama – located just west of Columbus, Georgia across the Chattahoochee River – became a popular hangout for soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Benning. In fact we see a multitude of Army uniforms in the clubs of Phenix City’s “red light” district, which is presided over by Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews, above left). It soon becomes clear that Tanner and his illegal activities (including – but probably not limited to – gambling and prostitution) are all overlooked by the local authorities, most of whom are on Tanner’s payroll. Like many of the locals, Lawyer Albert Patterson (John McIntire, above right) is fed up and decides to clean things up around town, running for Alabama Attorney General, with the help of his son (Richard Kiley, final photo) and the support of the community.
Well, not all of the community… Shenanigans ensue including some of the most stark and vivid violence that had been seen up to that time in American film. Watching The Phenix City Story in the 21st century, we might be appalled that such horrific scenes and depictions ever saw screen time, but everything we see (including some brutal violence to children) was approved by the Production Code Association (PCA). Maybe part of this leniency had to do with the fact that the events depicted in the film were based on actual events. I grew up in the Deep South (Mississippi) and although The Phenix City Story was released several years before I was born, I never heard anyone talking about it. Maybe this was one of “those movies you don’t talk about” or pretend really doesn’t exist, but I’d like to know how Southerners felt about the film at the time. (Stories and anecdotes welcome!)
Regardless of how the original audiences felt about the film, no one could deny then or now that director Phil Karlson was an expert in knowing how to make films that seemed true to life and yet boiling over with tension. The brutality of the film can conceal the fact that The Phenix City Story is often a masterfully constructed tale of corruption, those who tolerate it, and those who fight it. Karlson was a no-holds-barred type of filmmaker who’s certainly never boring. (You can read more on Karlson in my review of 99 River Street. Karlson also explored Southern corruption and vice in another film that went on to become a cult classic – especially in the South – the original Walking Tall from 1973.) The film does, however, border on the pretentious at times, especially during some of the crowd scenes, and yes, some of the acting leaves a bit to be desired, but The Phenix City Story is one of those films you’re not likely to forget. (Martin Scorsese cites the film as a personal favorite as well as a major influence on his career.)