Hope rises from the ashes in ‘The Phenix City Story’
Directed by Phil Karlson
Written by Daniel Mainwaring and Crane Wilbur
When a neighbourhood, a town, a city, a state or a country is ostensibly run by the wicked and the corrupt, what does it take for the populace to rise up and fight its oppressors? When the patience of the majority runs thin, when their minds are finally set on uprooting the seeds of vice which have infected their institutions and culture, the results can be shockingly effective. Simply ask the former leaders of Lybia and Tunisia, both ousted in a matter of few weeks in early 2011. The stories feel are the more appalling when they occur closer to home however. Even small town America is not exempt from such tyrannical rule, as is seen in Phil Karlson’s provocative 1955 film, The Phenix City Story (yes, that’s P-h-e-n-i-x).
Phenix, Alabama is the setting, a town whose population of about 25,000 lies or dies under the boot of Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews), the head honcho of a crime syndicate whose tentacles have spread far and wide into the lives of just about every one of the town’s residents. Even law enforcement dare not oppose them, preferring to get paid for turning a blind eye to the blatant corruption and violence inflicted upon those who dare oppose Tanner. Safely stationed in the administrative offices of his gambling joint, the crime boss makes the big decisions around town, whether others like it or not. Some people have formed small associations and movements which tried to clean up the city, but more often than not the concerned are either murdered or intimidated to the point where they drop the issue altogether. Tanner’s reign begins to falter when John Patterson returns to town with his family after some time spent in Germany prosecuting war criminals. Himself a lawyer and former war veteran, John is spending some time at his father’s house, Albert L. Patterson (John McIntire). The latter is a lawyer too, but up until then had refused to engage in any activities which stood against Tanner. With John providing a new, rejuvenated voice against Tanner’s organization and Albert running for state attorney, Tanner ups the ante in is crackdowns…
The Phenix City Story begins in quite the unorthodox fashion. Rather than have the viewers plunge straight into the story made by the crew and cast members, director Phil Karlson prefaces the film with a newscast type report lasting approximately 10 minutes. A television investigator announces that he travelled to Phenix city in order to gather testimonies of the people who actually did live under the oppression of a ruthless crime syndicate. A few interviews are shared in which the subjects describe, among other things, the atmosphere which reigned over the town for decades, how unfair elections were, and how they decided to change things themselves. This move on the part of Karlson comes unexpectedly. After all, Phenix is not the only film to be based on real life events, only that in the case of this film, the creators have decided to bridge the gap between fact and fiction in a way that hits the viewer up front, with no room for misinterpretation. Watching the opening report segment of the picture and then the first few minutes of Karlson’s production reminds one of movies which set their stories in the past and use archival footage for the purpose of stage setting, slowly shifting from the documented images to those representing the world of the film. Phenix opts for a far more blunt strategy, literally spelling out to the audience that what follows is based, as much as possible, on fact and distinctly separates the two worlds. It may seem clumsy at first (it definitely lacks some subtlety), but it makes an impact, that much is certain, an impact which resonates all the more once the genuinely shocking events unfold later in the story.
The subsequent events revealed in Phenix eerily mirror some of the great uprisings occurring in the world today. Given them half a chance and people will eventually prove that they can only be duped for so long. Depending on what the conditions are, what the cultural and historical values of a given society are, the public reaction will differ. Stuffed ballots, intimidation at the ballot box, rigged elections, police corruption are unfortunately nothing new to too many people around the world. It is when the actual candidates running against the powers that be are harmed that things really take a turn for the worse and may very well operate as the tipping point at which the masses not only shout back at the established enemy, but take action as well. If there is one thing that director Phil Karlson accomplishes with flying colours in this film, it is in the depiction of the escalating audacity on the part of both sides. Because the protagonists make up the oppressed faction, their actions appear as smaller, less great than whatever Tanner’s gang can do. As the victims, their journey begins by merely stating that they are done taking crap from above, which itself consists the most shocking move they can perform at the start. The response emitted from Tanner’s gang is always disproportionately violent, not to mention perfectly demonstrates their callousness. A unforgiving game of tit for tat ensues until one of the two sides emerges victorious. Tanner is dead set on stamping out any threat to his reign. Has his character says in the film, he does ‘not like trouble’, although his preferred strategy to squash disturbances only creates more opposition once the Patterson father and son duo have decided to lead the charge against him.
Much like how the fictional depiction of real life events takes over the reigns from the news report shortly into the feature running time, so is the torch passed on from father to son during in Karlson’s film once the latter decides one night to hit back at Tanner in the criminal’s own casino establishment, exchanging fists with one of the large security thugs protecting the joint. Up until that point, Tanner’s exchanges have been mostly with Albert, the father, who after all is the most accomplished lawyer in town. Despite his credentials, Albert has refused to fight Tanner, whom he considers to be a friend of sorts (Tanner, in turn, frequently refers to Albert as an ‘old friend’). With John’s unexpected dedication to wiping the town clean of corruption, a renewed and reinvigorated energy is established among those who fight the good fight, much like how in real life causes are passed on from one generation to the next. In some cases the goals are not obtained until many years down the road, but the important factor is that the struggle is pursued by the youth. It is also interesting to note that the character of John Patterson has experience fighting two sorts of battles, the first being WWII, the other being the legal battles which followed that led to the conviction of some of that infamous war’s most notorious criminals. Back in Phenix Alabama, those two varieties have seemingly meshed into one given how Tanner plays rough like the Germans, but in order to remain honest and decent when returning blows, John tries as he might to use lawful means, the most critical being the attempt to have his father elected as state attorney. The film intelligently has John’s two past experiences mirrored within one.
Despite some unique qualities, such as the opening news report, the unhinged violence depicted (a young girl’s dead body is tossed onto one character’s front lawn with an extra shot of her lifeless, bloody face!) and some fine performances, especially from leads Richard Kiley and John McIntire, Phenix is a bit on the predictable side. This sort of story has been seen before, which in of itself should not be taken as a huge misstep, but Phil Karlson does not do anything especially creative to change the flavour. The one instance when the film does try for something different is a powerful scene when, after an important hero is murdered, John actually calms down a huge mob of civilians who are ready and willing to employ vigilante justice against Tanner’s syndicate. Even though what has transpired is of the most horrific and despicable nature, John nevertheless wants to adhere to a sense of lawful and disciplined justice, and is thus compelled to cool down a ravaging legion. It is a great moment precisely because John’s desires are contrary to what everybody else wants, including the viewer.
Those aforementioned moments of imagination are insufficient in making Phenix a truly memorable film overall. It sets out to tell a specific story that explores some important ideas and proceeds to do so perfectly well. As it stands, Karlson’s picture is a clever little noir that completists may want to check out, but it would not rank at the top of a ‘essential viewing’ list.