Antagonists: Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews) makes an offer not to be refused; below, John Patterson (Richard Kiley) studies a fallen foe after a barroom brawl.
In retrospect, a reviewer might raise questions about the racial politics of the film. John Patterson looks like a racial progressive by association with Zeke Ward, but the real man as attorney general and later as governor proved a staunch supporter of segregation and an enemy of the civil rights movement, though the still-living Patterson caught up with the times enough to endorse Barack Obama for President in 2008. Karlson's film left me wondering how race factored into the real Phenix City story. In the film, Zeke Ward and his family are tokens, and we don't know whether other blacks partook in or benefited from vice, or whether any relation between blacks and organized vice influenced white citizens' view of 14th Street. These questions shouldn't color your final judgment of Phenix City as a film, but they're food for thought just the same.
On its own terms, The Phenix City Story works as a hard-hitting, convincingly brutal expose of the American underbelly. Its inclusion in the latest Warner Home Video Film Noir Classics collection (Vol. 5) is justified by the subject matter, if not by the entire checklist of noir archetypes, and by a successful exercise in night-shot noir by Harry Neumann on location in the actual town. On the acting side honors are shared by Richard Kiley's intense heroics and an unexpected, turn against type by perennial fuddy-duddy Edward Andrews as the casually vicious villain. Karlson's film is strong rabble-rousing stuff that'll get you mad, just as the writers and director intended. The compromises it makes at the end leave it a little short of classic stature, but it's certainly worth a look for any fan of American film from the Fifties.