Phil Karlson’s The Phenix City Story begins as a documentary, using the somber visage of a reporter to invite viewers into a world of sin, corruption, and murder; a device that, for a good ten minutes of running time, promises genuine grit without cinematic detachment. The people we meet – all actual citizens from Phenix City, Alabama, circa 1954-55 – introduce us to the slightly fictionalized story about to unfold before us, one that involved the gradual loosening of mob control over a small Southern town. The head gangster, a slimy Randy Quaid-type named Rhett Tanner, runs his kingdom with the usual flair afforded the type; charming and ruthless in turn, he’s got the Lyndon Johnson touch with women, secretaries, and the like, but god forbid you threaten his gambling receipts. Mind you, he’s not the sort to get his own hands dirty. Like all powerful men, he employs an endless supply of goons and lackeys, all of whom punch, kick, stab, and throw chairs in service of their sweaty boss man. Phenix City, just across the river from Fort Benning, Georgia, is a typical Dixie burg in many respects, complete with its seedy district that seems to disgust everyone on Sunday morning, while intoxicating the very same once church lets out later that afternoon. Given that this is the 1950s – and Alabama – one might wonder whether the air is thick with impending civil rights matters, but this is not that movie. Instead, viewers are treated to one of the most unromantically grim portraits of the age; a graphic, stark examination of “local control”, which, in almost all cases, is synonymous with tyranny.
As we learn from the introduction, The Phenix City Story is a pulled-from-the-headlines study of an assassination, whereby Albert Patterson, a man at first committed to minding his own business, eventually turns against Tanner’s machine, and is shot multiple times in the face for his trouble. When we first meet this genial attorney, he insists that he’s too old to fight, and simply wants to enjoy his practice with his son, who has just arrived in Alabama after years of military service in Germany. Tanner wants Patterson under his wing, of course, but he won’t bite. He’s not a saint, mind you, just too fond of staying above ground. Let me write contracts, argue divorce cases, and hand everything down to my boy. It’s a reasonable argument. Patterson’s son, John, is similarly inclined until, of course, he gets a taste of Tanner’s reach. Elections are rigged (as are the gaming tables), women are bought and sold like bales of cotton, and the city’s primary industry appears to be loaded dice. John grew up in filth, “cutting his teeth on slot machines”, as he tells his wife, but things, he believes, have changed. Within hours of his arrival, however, he’s soon badgering his father to clean up the town. How many people have to die while the town’s elite profit from injustice?
As the movie speeds along its gloriously dizzy pace (few films of the period feature more beatings), kids are punched, tables destroyed, and women reduced to hysterical rants against their clueless husbands. One by one, a few of Phenix City’s silent majority start to speak up, and the blood begins to flow. The town’s one black person (all nobility, but safely a janitor) dares trip a thug who’s about to slam a crowbar against John’s head, and we know it’s but a matter of time before his darling daughter is kidnapped from a bridge, beaten and strangled, and tossed from a speeding car onto John’s front lawn. The scene was surely shocking for its time, even if the tossed corpse was stiff and painfully doll-like. Still, the director gives us a close-up once John’s kids start to scream; and the glassy-eyed stare, complete with flowing blood, is something few would dare show today. Was it acceptable because the child was black? Perhaps, but this is the same film where a white child is brutalized for passing out campaign literature, so who knows. The black girl’s savage murder finally gets Albert’s blood going, and he announces his run for state Attorney General, a move that guarantees his untimely death, though a town’s awakening.
Lest all of this sound dull and overly familiar, consider the overall mood of the piece. Good people die, small town life (in the Eisenhower 50s) is exposed as hypocritical and sin-soaked, and violence is close-up and personal. By the end, when a sweet young woman is found riddled with bullets, we know that all bets are off. Unlike Hollywood’s usual portrayal, this B-movie believes in blood that stains, drips, and pours from its victims, even if the saintly black man pleads with John to refrain from avenging his father’s death. “The Bible tells us thou shalt not kill,” he cries, signaling to millions of white folks across the South that their official brutality will never be countered with more than token resistance. It is in matters of race, however, where truth becomes far more fascinating than fiction. Remember, this is a movie where characters speak to injustice and democracy, where the greatest act is casting a ballot free from fear. Take election day: citizens of Phenix City, despite being pushed away, threatened, and seduced (hookers are hired to distract male voters until the polls close), stand tall and exercise the franchise. Sure, Tanner stuffs a few ballot boxes, but Alabama responds: Patterson wins, proving that a true man of the people can prevail.
Populism runs through this film with an unchecked force, even more so when the murdered man’s son takes up the cause to fill his father’s seat. In a scene of unintended hilarity, National Guard troops are shown arriving in town, destroying slot machines and closing the underground casinos. The bad guys are in jail, honesty is restored, and in the end, good government works. Indeed. What we don’t learn from the movie, however, is that the real John Patterson, Attorney General for a time, then Governor just prior to George Wallace, did in fact fight organized crime like a flip-side Atticus Finch, but he fought civil rights with equal vigor. Yes, our “hero” banned the NAACP from operating in the state of Alabama, blocked boycotts, and received heavy backing from the Ku Klux Klan. An arch segregationist, Patterson expelled black students from Alabama State University, railed against the feds for challenging local election fraud, and refused to protect Freedom Riders as they traveled throughout the state. In other words, he was a typical Southern governor; rewarding his white friends, winking at violence against blacks, and getting fat on the decidedly un-democratic methods he had once railed against. In other words, a scoundrel, a hypocrite, and a fool; not at all the man we see in The Phenix City Story.
Despite the lies this movie does not address (how could it, when Patterson’s actions as governor came years after the film’s release), it is among the most effective crime exposes of the decade. It’s fun, fast, and loose, and the acting shockingly strong for such a low-budget release. The on-location shooting enhances the heat and humidity of a particular time and place, and the emphasis on physical repulsiveness – fat, big-bellied men with crooked, craggy teeth – brings a level of realism that would have been missing had major stars took on a similar project. Though it remains unsung today, The Phenix City Story is prime for rediscovery, if only to see behind the curtain of a culture that, in the same breath, could insist that it fought for a nation’s freedom as it enslaved a large portion of the very same.