Friday, June 17, 2011

The Phenix City Story

THE PHENIX CITY STORY                          B         
USA  (100 mi)  1955  d:  Phil Karlson 

I've always cited this movie as the best ever made in (Alabama), as well as the most authentic. Maybe that's in part because watching it is experiencing the apotheosis of Southern sleaze-a bit like festering for hours in the seediest possible Alabama Greyhound depot in August without air conditioning… Though the movie's politics are liberal, its moral outrage is so intense you may come out of it wanting to join a lynch mob.

—Film critic and Alabama expatriate Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing in his book Essential Cinema.

All that's necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.      
 —Edmund Burke

An industry that flourished for half a century because the good men looked the other way, an industry run by men I went to school with.  Their father’s ran it, and their father’s fathers before them.  An industry that made Phenix City the most vicious town in the United States.  That industry was vice.

film narrator John Patterson, (Richard Kiley)

“Fancy women, slot machines, and booze…”
Phenix City Blues, song sung by Meg Myles

I like old friends. It gives you sort of a warm feeling just to know they’re around. 
—Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews)

An incendiary, highly provocative, and near documentary portrait of life in Alabama during the 1950’s, zeroing in on the vice racket controlling the border town of Phenix City, just across the river from a more upscale Columbus, Georgia and nearby Fort Benning, where for over 100 years the crime syndicate was openly running the gambling, liquor, and prostitution business, manufacturing their own marked decks of cards, diluting their liquor, rigging their own slot machines and roulette wheels, where generous bribes made the police and prosecuting attorneys look the other way as beaten bodies or corpses would regularly be dumped in ditches along the side of the road.  Opening with a 15-minute Jack Webb-like man-on-the-scene newsreel sequence where reporter Clete Roberts interviews actual residents of the town of Phenix City, Alabama, the tone is so amateurishly dry and dead serious that one gets the feel this is all a fabricated work of fiction, something of a mock put-on, perhaps by Sam Fuller, but it’s based on a true story which only came to light after the election night murder of the newly elected State’s Attorney General from Phenix City, who vowed to crack down on his city’s crime.  All this is explained ahead of time before the newsreel ends and the actual film begins, immediately immersing the audience into the lurid subject matter with a brilliant jump cut from a behind-the-scenes look at putting on the fix in vice racket operations to the sensual lounge act of the scantily dressed night club singer Meg Myles singing “Phenix City Blues” to a room filled mostly with leering men.  This is the hook that lures them in and promises them a good time, where they can then be swindled by the business. 

When anyone complains of marked cards or getting cheated, they are immediately beaten silly by the house goons, dumped in the gutter outside and hauled off by the police—no questions asked.   The guy running the operations is Rhett Tanner, Edward Andrews in his first feature film appearance before becoming a regular fixture on American television for the next several decades, a town elder who rarely misses a Sunday appearance at church, so ingrained in the town’s social establishment that people greet him fondly on the street.  His muscle on the premises is John Larch as Clem Wilson, almost always seen with a toothpick in his mouth, whose job is to get rid of unruly customers and handle all the sordid details of the dirty operations.  It’s Tanner that pays a friendly visit to Albert Patterson, John McIntire, a paternal institution in town as the highly respected defense attorney, who despite all the attempts to bring down the syndicate through vigilantism or organized citizen meetings, has taken the stubborn position not to make waves, as he’s seen it all before and nothing’s changed in 100 years.  Both Tanner and the citizen’s groups lobby to gain his support, as he represents the moral center.  When Patterson’s son, John Patterson, Richard Kiley the film’s narrator, returns from serving in the Army overseas where he was prosecuting war criminals, his father wants him to join the firm and make a home in Phenix City, which immediately draws the suspicion of John’s young wife (Lenka Peterson), who hears nothing good comes from 14th Street, otherwise known as Sin City—not exactly the place to raise their two kids.  Matters escalate when John attempts to intervene in a fight between Wilson and his thugs against a citizen group, but only ends up getting beat up himself, which places him right in the center of things, now more than ever motivated to join in the efforts to rid the town of its organized crime.       

While Karlson is not an especially well recognized director, and this little known film probably exists somewhere on the fringe, it’s an extremely accurate, though fictionalized, portrait of life in the South, where the existence of brutality is a major factor, where historically the Klu Klux Klan was immersed in the social fabric of the communities as well, and ironically supported Patterson in his 1958 run for Governor three years after the filming.  This director does not shy away from showing how difficult it is to stand up to the tyranny of men with guns who scour the neighborhoods with impunity, getting revenge or payback whenever they want, sending a message, leaving behind a trail of tragic consequences filled with bitterness, heartbreak, ugliness and blunt trauma.  This film takes a very direct approach in articulating the harm from a community remaining complacent, depicting how violence and corruption affects everyone, but it’s so hard for people to act in a coordinated effort, as if this is in some ways capitulating to the problem, where they’d rather be left alone, where there are still non believers who refuse to believe it’s happening in their back yard, while others look the other way and continue to facilitate this kind of heinous criminal activity.  Shot on location in Alabama, where it carries the weight of authenticity, much of this is cringe-worthy in its illustration of stark realism without resorting to the typical melodramatic effects, though it is also sensationalized, with the tag line “ripped from the headlines,” trying to create excitement by embellishing a menacing noirish atmosphere with social relevance, a mix where it’s hard to find another film that approaches the subject head-on with this kind of blistering intensity.  The irony is, because it didn’t happen to someone who became famous, and there are no stars in the cast, few have heard of this film or this particular chapter in our nation’s history. 

trivia  from imdb
In the film, John Patterson (Richard Kiley) is depicted as supportive of African-American Zeke Ward (James Edwards) and his family. In real life, following his term as Alabama attorney general (1954-1958), he ran for governor in 1958, ran an openly racist campaign and won. One of his opponents, George Wallace, had run as a racial moderate and told his friends after the election, "John Patterson out-niggered me, and I'm never gonna be out-niggered again." Four years later, in 1962, Wallace won the governorship of Alabama as an avowed segregationist.

1 comment:

  1. My father was Leroy Miller and I can assure you, although I know you are using a sarcastic tone, it is not fabricated. My father was there the night that Patterson was killed. His name is mentioned in newspapers and in books. He's deceased now as well and would rarely speak of what happened that night except to say that the man who was incarcerated was NOT the man that committed the crime. It is now a legend that will never be truly solved.