The Phenix City Story (Phil Karlson, 1955)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Phenix City Story.

Corruption, brutality, and vice plagued Phenix City, Alabama, for 100 years, so who would dare to change it? Based on real-life events and filmed on location in what was called Sin City USA, director Phil Karlson’s semi-documentary tears this jolting tale from its Pulitzer Prize-winning headlines and tells the story of those citizens who risked their lives to bring down the burg’s syndicate of thugs and murderers. Signalling the end of stylish film noir and pointing to the crime-busting exposés that followed, this classic B-noir remains indelible for its shockingly transgressive violence, its unsettling authenticity, and its subtextual awareness of the struggling civil rights movement.

Disc Features:

  • New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Phil Karlson: The Core of Fact, a short appreciation featuring writer/film historian Alan K. Rode
  • New interview with critics and one-time Alabamans Jonathan Rosenbaum and Nathaniel Thompson
  • Historic photos of Sin City-era Phenix City
  • PLUS: An essay by critic R. Emmet Sweeney

Director Phil Karlson was a Chicago-born law student who sold gags to Buster Keaton for extra money and quit with a year left on his degree to join Universal Pictures as a prop man and fall in love with filmmaking. His stay with Universal lasted nearly a decade, working in a variety of positions before leaving to enlist with the Air Force. He started with Monogram Pictures on his return as an assistant director, then became a full director (thanks to a friendship with Lou Costello) making pictures for Monogram, Columbia, and the British company Eagle-Lion. When Monogram transitioned to Allied Artists in the late 1940s and ’50s and committed itself to making more costlier and more artistic features (“B-plus” movies to support and then replace its usual B-movie fare) and Karlson’s time with United Artists left him tarnished and circulating among the independents, Karlson redeemed himself with wonderfully gritty crime films, deep-cut classics for AA and Columbia like Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953), 5 Against the House (1955), and The Brothers Rico (1957). His best known film of the era was The Phenix City Story (1955), an incisive, brutal portrayal of the real life assassination of Albert Patterson, the 1954 Democratic nominee for Alabama Attorney General. The film was a remarkable success for Karlson and AA, costing less than $200,000 and grossing more than $2 million (almost $20 million today).

Karlson’s The Phenix City Story is a crusading message picture told on the back of the Pulitzer Prize-winning coverages of the Columbus Ledger and the Sunday Ledger-Enquirer on the “widespread corruption in neighboring Phenix City, Ala., which were effective in destroying a corrupt and racket-ridden city government.” The filmic dramatization portrays the town’s wickedness under the leadership of folksy kingpin Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews), the apathy of law enforcement to the widespread violence and illegality, and the eventual dismemberment of Phenix City’s criminal machine following the death of Albert Patterson (John McIntire) and the institution of martial law. An opening narration that follows the title credits points out that Phenix City (pop. 24,000), nestled along the Chattahoochee River, next to Columbus, Georgia (pop. 80,000) and close to the Fort Benning military base, boasts profits of $100 million a year in “VICE” (rigged gambling, open prostitution, wanton drunkenness, and remorseless violence). Albert has little interest in the futile organizations he once belonged to aiming at the city’s rehabilitation, focused instead on adding his son John (Richard Kelly) to the family law practice. John, fresh from prosecuting war criminals in Germany, is immediately exposed to the illicit grip that Phenix City’s 14th Street holds over the town and the murderous reprisals against him and others eventually inspires Albert to join in John’s plan to run him for Attorney General and clean up the town. As in real life, Albert is gunned down following his election, leading to John’s quest for vengeance and his dramatic call to Montgomery demanding the imposition of martial law over Phenix City.

The real Albert Patterson was killed on June 18, 1954, and the Alabama National Guard was sent into Phenix City within weeks. Crane Wilbur, who wrote the script at the behest of producer Samuel Bischoff, did extensive research in Phenix City and Karlson and his crew arrived on site while the Patterson murder trial was still ongoing in Birmingham. Accounts of the production assert that it was threatened by remaining criminal elements and resentful citizens, were protected by the Russell County Betterment Association, and even uncovered information contributing to the conviction of Patterson’s killer. This final point might create a false impression as the identification of the murderers in the film is a screenwriting creation, a conclusion particularly rejected by Columbus Ledger reporters who covered the story. In fact, Rhett Tanner and his campaign of terror was also a cinematic invention, as was the popular plea for military intervention. In truth, the imposition of martial law only occurred following the public outrage of John Patterson being turned away by J. Edgar Hoover when an FBI investigation was refused. Factual deviations aside, The Phenix City Story‘s continued notoriety derives to a great degree from Karlson’s almost unnerving realism which includes filming on Phenix City’s actual 14th Street and under the glow of the Poppy Club, an appearance by notorious madame “Ma” Beachie, and going so far as to have John McIntire wear the same clothes worn by Patterson when he was killed. These sights and the people within them are weapons that tear away the glamour of cinema, leaving a wound on the silver screen to fester for 100 minutes.

Preceding many prints of the film is a 13-minute newsreel hosted by newsman Clete Roberts during which he interview widows, witnesses, and reporters directly touched by the true events. Their faces, accents, and demeanours don’t belong on a movie screen. They’re too local and too unpolished, and they lack the reliably comforting studio veneer that assures that even a true story has been reconstituted through central casting. These aren’t even character actors; their faces tell stories unconfined by the frame limits and the authority of that banality is disconcerting. And after a printed rolling title that Jonathan Rosenbaum cites as guaranteeing its “authenticity … by its naïveté,” The Phenix City Story opens in the Poppy Club where Meg Myles performs “The Phenix City Blues” to a bunch of rubes in Army dress, these local faces notable for their slack jaws and overly enthusiastic eyes. There are real people all over The Phenix City Story and it feels wrong, even dangerous. When the punches start getting thrown and the bullets start flying, it doesn’t happen on a set and it’s not surrounded by professional extras, and it feels more unpredictable and more threatening for it. This incursion of reality extends to the film’s professional cast as well. When John McIntire ties an orthopedic shoe with a raised sole, it connects him to these common folks. The same goes for John Larch’s sour scowl and Lenka Peterson’s wifely hysterics. Karlson’s janky locals playing bit parts underline the film’s dull verisimilitude and in turn they mark every foible and overreach of its professional actors as serving the same unpredictable reality.

In Dreams and Dead Ends, Jack Shandoian observes the intersection of The Phenix City Story‘s excessive violence and its dreary commonness, stating:

Karlson brings to his film an element of sordid horror. His environments are noisy, crowded, fetid. The sky over Phenix City is gray and dismal. The musical number at the Poppy Club [“Phenix City Blues”] is an anti-number, coarse, unprofessional, talentless. A dead child is thrown from a car onto a lawn. Voters, men and women, are beaten up at the polls and stagger into the street, dripping blood. The “heroine” gets killed, as does her pleasant young suitor. A crippled lawyer [Albert Patterson] is shot in the mouth. One almost can’t believe what is happening on the screen; the horror of it suffocates.

The PCA approved but objected to aspects of Wilbur Crane and Daniel Mainwaring’s story (for white slavery, prostitution, and excessive brutality) and demanded cuts to the completed film (for references to prostitution and the child’s murder), yet the film still obtained an MPAA certificate notwithstanding this content remaining in the movie. Shandoian’s description of the film’s viciousness is no exaggeration. The film makes a special point to emphasize that the Phenix City syndicate’s violence extended to women and children as well, showing bloodied ladies dumped out of cars crying and newspaper boys paintbrushed by goons. Jonathan Rosenbaum, an Alabama expatriate himself, remarked that The Phenix City Story “looked, sounded, and felt like Alabama in 1955, and everyone I knew in Florence [his hometown] who saw the picture agreed.” Reconsidered now, Rosenbaum calls it “the apotheosis of Southern sleaze,” and compares it to “festering for hours in the seediest possible Alabama Greyhound depot in August without air conditioning.”

One moment of fictionalization stands apart from all others in The Phenix City Story: the murder of a young black girl and the tossing of her body onto the Patterson’s lawn while their children play. Attached to the dead girl is a note which reads “THIS WILL HAPPEN TO YOUR KIDS TOO.” The interjection of race into Karlson’s film is more than a black body inspiring white awareness and action. The Phenix City Story goes out of its way to align its criminal machine with racist attitudes. When the dead girl is reported to police, the dispatching officer offhandedly passes along the notice to his fellow officers by remarking, “Somebody just threw a dead nigger kid on Patterson’s lawn. G’out and have a look.” When Rhett’s righthand goon Clem Wilson (John Larch) testifies at the public inquest, he casually remarks on the record, “I got nothin’ against niggers, as long as they behave.” His words recall those of Rhett when he first sits down with Albert – “Half the trouble with people in the world today is they just don’t want to let things stay the way they are.” Karlson’s film could be told without these references to race, perhaps even more simply and directly, but their inclusion situates the film in a broader place and time and aligns those opposed to the civil rights movement on the same side as Phenix City’s fearsome and immoral tyrants. The movie was released less than 18 months after segregation was ruled unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education and a month before Emmett Till’s body was discovered in the Tallahatchie River and Rosa Parks refused to change seats on a Montgomery bus. The unhidden metaphor of the civil rights struggle inserted into The Phenix City Story is an admirable, but also uneasy aspect of its legacy. The film no doubt aided John Patterson in becoming Attorney General in 1955 and Governor in 1959, but while he was a progressive in many respects, Governor Patterson was staunchly segregationist, opposing the application of Brown and expelling black protesters from Alabama State University.

There is precedent for the idea of The Phenix City Story finding a home in the Criterion Collection. The movie was released by Warner Brothers in its fifth Film Noir Classic Collection and Criterion has previously dipped into these sets to release The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950). More on point, the FilmStruck streaming service celebrated the 2017 Noirvember by programming eight films by Karlson including The Phenix City StoryMMC! would be happy to see any number of Karlson’s noirs bear a wacky “C” but the unique blend of reality and fiction, professional and non-professional, makes it our choice for a spine number. With that in mind, we’d suggest the India ink hyperrealism of French illustrator Jean-Claude Claeys to provide a cover treatment that captures the film’s merciless detail and monochrome anguish.

Credits: The provided cover summary is an amalgam of the Warner Brothers synopsis and Eddie Muller’s comments in Dark City. To that we’ve added Alan Rhode’s piece on Karlson for FilmStruck and have imagined a conversation between a pair of film critics from Alabama. Jonathan Rosenbaum brilliantly wrote on the film in his essay “Reality and History as the Apotheosis of Southern Sleaze: Phil Karlson’s THE PHENIX CITY STORY,” while Nathaniel Thompson considered the film for FilmStruck’s StreamLine Blog with “Stranger Than Fiction: THE PHENIX CITY STORY (’55).” R. Emmet Sweeney was chosen to provide an essay for his StreamLine Blog post for FilmStruck, “Just the Facts: ‘Directed by Phil Karlson.'”

This post also owes credit to Bosley Crowther’s review for The New York Times, Bruce Eder’s synopsis for AllMovie, TCM’s full synopsis, notes, and articles, Ian McDowell’s entry in the encyclopedia of Alabama, and Nick Pinkerton’s “TCM Diary” essay for Film Comment.

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