Friday, 24 September 2010
The Phenix City Story
The Phenix City Story (1955) dir. Phil Karlson
Starring: John McIntire, Richard Kiley, Kathryn Grant, Edward Andrews, Jean Carson and John Larch
By Greg Klymkiw
“Somebody just threw a dead nigger kid on Patterson’s lawn. Go out and have a look.” Uttered with a chilling matter-of-fact timbre and an unmistakably Alabamian accent, a fat, sweaty, cigar-puffing dispatcher barks out this line in a dank, dirty and humid police station thick with smoke and the overwhelming karma of human rights violations. It occurs on the heels of the sickening, unforgettable image of a child's battered, bloodied body as it's flung like a rag doll from a passing vehicle and virtually into our laps via a creepy low-angle pull-back.
Without a doubt, this is one of the most brutal and hard-hitting film noir pictures you’re likely to see in your lifetime..
The movie is The Phenix City Story.
And it’s a great movie!
Not only is The Phenix City Story one of the best crime pictures ever made, but feels like it hasn't dated one bit (save for the period in which it's set). The filmmaking seems as fresh and vital as when it first puked up the grotesque reality of the deep American south upon its release in 1955. That said, a number of its techniques may seem familiar to many, but keep in mind - they began here, folks.
Ace crime director Phil (Kansas City Confidential, Framed, Walking Tall) Karlson, working from a sizzling screenplay by Daniel (Out of the Past) Mainwaring and Crane (Andre De Toth's Crime Wave) Wilbur, delivers a picture that gets so under your skin it demands multiple viewings - each more aesthetically exciting and thought-provoking than the last. Karlson's command of cinematic grammar is so sharp and astute that he's able to frame his work within a structure that breaks quite a few rules by always knowing what the rules are and using them when he needs to and flouting them when he wants to shove our faces ever-deeper into the mire.
Phenix City, Alabama is a real place. Bordering the state of Georgia where the mighty Chattahoochee River (one of the locations used for the movie Deliverance) slices through it, Phenix City in recent years has become known as one of the best places in America to raise a family.
It wasn't always this way.
And frankly, I find it hard to believe it's changed all that much. My few visits and albeit limited exposure to that “Great State” suggest that Alabama is one of the nastiest, weirdest, most dangerous and distressingly prejudice-ridden places I’ve ever had the displeasure of experiencing.
Historically, Phenix City was the site of one of the last big battles of the Civil War and during the 1940s and 50s, it became known as Sin City, USA. On a per capita basis, there was more crime (much of it violent) in this mini-metropolis, than any other region in America. Corruption ran rampant as did gambling houses, prostitution and murder.
Situated near the military training facility in Fort Benning, Georgia, Phenix City was the go-to location for America's fine military to indulge in all manner of debauchery. The American military has always and continues to be one of the largest consumers of prostitutes world wide. Throughout the 20th century and beyond, Uncle Sam’s protectors, due to their gluttonous appetite for no-strings-attached stress-relief have, in a sense, been primarily responsible for the sexual slavery and exploitation of women the world over. (A prime example is the Eastern European sex-slave-trade that exploded during America's involvement in the post-Milosevic struggles in Croatia and detailed in the new feature film The Whistleblower directed by Larysa Kondracki and starring Keira Knightley.)
During the 1950s, Phenix City, thanks mostly to the avid consumption of sexual favours, had the highest rate of venereal disease during WWII and in the post-war period. When off-site furloughs were unavailable, the army allowed truckloads of prostitutes to be brought right into Fort Benning to service the randy recruits. It has oft been rumoured that famed General Patton's death was actually rigged by organized crime since he threatened to clean things up when Fort Benning was under his command.
God Bless America! And the United Nations, of course - as both continue to disgustingly support sex slavery to keep the boys happy in the Middle East.
And, God Bless Phil Karlson - for real! One of America's great movie directors, Karlson chose a blend of docudrama, neo-realism and film noir to tell the story of the late Albert Patterson (brilliantly played in the picture by John McIntire), a lawyer who ran for the State Attorney General position on a major anti-crime-and-corruption ticket and was brutally and brazenly gunned down by the criminal mob running Phenix City.
The story begins with a benign Patterson, trying to live his life quietly. When Albert's son John (Richard Kiley, displaying his almost trademark, and here effective, moral outrage) returns home for a visit and discovers how corrupt things are, he decides to stay and fight the good fight. Albert joins the fight and agrees to run for Senator. Albert's old friend Rhett Tanner (a delectable performance from Edward Andrews - alternately next-door-neighbour friendly and malevolently smarmy), attempts to convince Albert to back down. When he doesn't the violence escalates to such extremes that men who believe in the law are faced with taking the law into their own hands.
Writing in his book Essential Cinema, one of the few great living film critics Jonathan Rosenbaum addresses not only the potential for vigilantism in the story itself, but the sort of audience reaction garnered by The Phenix City Story:
"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."
One of the more interesting thoughts that Rosenbaum's quote elicits is the different ways in which similar true-life situations were treated in the 50s and 70s - especially by director Phil Karlson himself. With The Phenix City Story Karlson creates the desire to "join a lynch mob", yet does so within a story wherein the central figures never quite get to that point and use "the law" to primarily battle the corruption.
In the 70s, Karlson revisited a similar tale - that of Sheriff Buford Pusser in the huge vigilante boxoffice hit Walking Tall. Not only did audiences all over the world want to join lynch mobs (I remember the trailers and TV ads featuring footage of audiences leaping out of their seats and delivering standing ovations at the end of the film), the story Karlson chose to tell was an out and out pro-vigilante tome where its central figure walked softly, literally carried a big stick and used it with abandon. Walking Tall bears all the hallmarks of Karlson's terse, effective direction and manipulation of audience emotion, but does so by going all out in celebrating the notion of taking the law into one's own hands.
Another interesting observation is just how similar the story elements are in The Phenix City Story and Walking Tall. Both films feature the following:
- A young man returns to his hometown to discover it is a den of iniquity and decides to fight back.
- An inveterate gambler wins fair and square, but upon exposing cheating in the gambling club, is beaten to death. This is almost a replay of Walking Tall's opening with the character of Lutie McVey played by Ed Call.
- The primary location of vice in both films is presided over by a butch bull dyke (played by Jean Carson as "Cassie" and Rosemary Murphy as "Callie" respectively).
- The good guys are secretly aided by a hooker with a heart of gold (played by Kathryn Grant and Brenda Benet respectively).
- The good guys are aided by a Black man (played by James Edwards and Felton Perry respectively).
- The Albert Patterson character is similar to that of Pa Pusser played by Noah Beery Jr. in the latter picture.
Looking at both films it's obvious Karlson ordered Walking Tall's primary scenarist Mort Briskin to use Phenix City Story as a model.
One also cannot help but notice that Roger Corman must have taken a cue from Karlson's 1955 true-life depiction of crime and racism in the deep South when he adapted Charles Beaumont's book The Intruder in 1962. Corman shot his thriller dealing with racial integration in education on location in the towns hardest hit with the controversy. Karlson, of course, entered the territory first with his film.
Though in fairness, thanks to producer Mark Hellinger with the much earlier Naked City, noir and the crime genres during the post-war period were both highly influenced by the neorealist movement in Italy and led the charge for a whole new era of location shooting in American cinema.
Stylistically bold and downright daring in the myriad of chances it takes, The Phenix City Story begins with a series of interviews with actual citizens of Sin City, USA - major players in the real-life fight against the criminal element, some of whom admit to the camera that they have been the targets of harassment and death threats. These interviews are shot in the very locations in which the events took place - so real that we see people wandering in and out of the background - REAL PEOPLE - briefly looking at the cameras and/or quickly averting their gaze so as not to be caught on film.
In fact, if we didn't know going in that we were soon going to be seeing a dramatic recreation of the events, we might, during this lengthy pre-title interview sequence think the film was going to be a documentary. It's not, of course, but once Karlson begins the story proper, and shoots his tale on the very street where the Sin City crimes took place and goes so far as to have lead actor John McIntire costumed in the very suit that real-life Albert Patterson was murdered in, we're utterly mesmerized by this strange hybrid of docudrama and neo-realism - thus confirming that what we're watching is a movie that's going to be like no other we've seen.
The Phenix City Story is part of Volume 5 of the continuing series of Warner Home Entertainment box sets The Film Noir Classic Collection - perhaps one of the worthiest DVD boxes one is likely to own.