The Phenix City Story (1955)

Genres - Crime, Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Docudrama, Crime Drama, Social Problem Film  |   Release Date - Aug 14, 1955 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 100 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Bruce Eder

One of the most violent and realistic crime films of the 1950s, The Phenix City Story pulses with the bracing energy of actual life captured on the screen in its establishing shots and key scenes, and punctuates that background with explosively filmed action scenes. Director Phil Karlson showed just how good he was at merging well-told screen drama with vivid verisimilitude, and leaving no seams to show where they joined. Filmed on location in Alabama with a documentary-like look, the movie captured the ambiance and tenor of its Deep South setting better than almost any other fact-based movie of its era. Richard Kiley and John McIntire are excellent in their respective roles, as John and Albert Patterson, and get superb assistance from an array of fine actors, the best among them Edward Andrews as the slimy crime boss, James Edwards as a victim of the brutality around him, and John Larch as a brutal strongarm man.

(Note: As fine a film as The Phenix City Story is, it doesn't tell you all that happened with the real-life figure at its center -- the real John Patterson [who did, indeed, somewhat resemble Richard Kiley physically], the hero of this story, who was in many ways a reform-minded attorney general. However, he was also a dedicated segregationist, a fact never even hinted at in the movie; indeed, as attorney general, he was best known not so much for battling organized crime as for blocking black citizen boycotts in Tuskegee and Montgomery, and successfully banning the NAACP from organizing in the state of Alabama. In 1958, he became the youngest man ever to win the governorship, succeeding the progressive Big Jim Folsom by running a virulently racist campaign against Folsom protégé George Wallace, who, in those days, was a much more liberal figure on racial issues, very much in the mold of his mentor; Wallace vowed after that race that he would "never be 'outniggered' [sic] again," and turned sharply to the right, coining the defiant phrase "Segregation Forever" in a later campaign. Patterson did pass some reforms as governor, in connection with controlling such criminal enterprises as loan-sharking, and boosted the state's woefully low spending on schools and highways; but he was best known during his four years for opposing all efforts at integration, tolerating and even encouraging violence against the Freedom Riders coming into the state to help register black citizens to vote, and for his clashes with U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy on those and related issues. Patterson was succeeded, ironically enough, by George Wallace in 1962, running on a racially inflammatory platform of his own, and lost his 1966 bid to regain the governorship to Wallace's wife, running as her husband's stand-in so that he could get around the state's term-limit law. Patterson later served as an appeals court judge.)

Also, ironically enough, the events in Phenix City are mentioned in an even more well-known movie about organized crime in the South, Arthur Ripley's Thunder Road (1958), Trevor Bardette's Vernon Doolin citing the trouble they had in Phenix City to Robert Mitchum's Lucas Doolin as a good reason for staying away from an offer from a Memphis crime boss to come into his cartel.