Saturday, January 8, 2011


Phil Karlson takes a huge chance in the opening reel of his based-on-fact crime drama by forefronting the fact. The Phenix City Story opens with its own newsreel; Clete Roberts (whom TV fans will remember playing himself interviewing members of the 4077th on M*A*S*H*) goes to the title town, where the story itself has been filmed on location, to interview some of the real people to be portrayed by actors later, including the widow of Albert Patterson, the candidate for Alabama attorney general who was assassinated on orders from the Phenix City vice syndicate. Conspicuously absent from this round of awkwardly authentic interviews is John Patterson, son of the martyred politician who by the time of filming had become attorney general in his own right. The dignity of his office may have kept the younger man from appearing in the show, but he may also have objected to some sensationalizing of his role in routing the racketeers. In any event, these first minutes are very dry, and have been cut out of some copies of the film. They may have seemed necessary because the story was so well-known nationally, having been covered in the leading magazines and by Pulitzer-winning reporters. The newsreel is Karlson's bona fides, an implicit endorsement by many of the participants in the story that the narrative that follows is essentially true.

After the opening credits come more buildup, now from a narrator who sets the scene. Phenix City is a border town linked to Georgia and Fort Benning by a bridge that brings servicemen to town and, in most cases, to the notorious red-light district along 14th Street, where vice is one of Alabama's biggest industries. After all the hype, one almost expects Phenix City to stand revealed as a bacchanal worthy of DeMille, or at least more Vegas-like than it proves. The reality, according to the movie, was cheaper, grittier, more tawdry overall: a mediocre chanteuse singing the "Phenix City Blues" with a jazz-band backup for a bunch of servicemen while the dice and card tables at the Poppy Club keep busy. This is the crime capital of the nation, "Sin City USA?" This certainly is the place: the film is shot largely if not entirely on location. And despite any initial disappointment at the scale or intensity of vice in Phenix City, the corruption and viciousness gradually grows on you.

The racketeers of 14th Street control law enforcement locally and have pull throughout the state. That means they can and do get away with murder thanks to cooperative or merely cowardly jurors. Old Albert Patterson (John McIntyre) knows the score and is just as reluctant from a pragmatic standpoint to work with the town's would-be reformers as he is from a moral standpoint to collaborate with the big boss, Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews). His son John, just home from Europe and not necessarily eager to join his father's firm, proves less tolerant of conditions. Having dealt harshly with Nazis, John has little tolerance for Tanner's goons beating up respectable citizens or disgruntled gamblers. He wades in with his fists and finds allies in a Poppy Club patron whose girlfriend is a dealer there and a black janitor who saves John from an attack from behind by way of submitting his resignation. Whether John Patterson's crimefighting career started so dramatically or not, the film version gives Karlson a chance to film one of his patented brutal brawls with frame-shaking impacts and bodies practically falling into the first row of theater seats.

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.

14th Street strikes back ruthlessly, first by kidnapping and killing the janitor, Zeke Ward's, daughter as punishment for him and a warning to John Patterson and his small children. Another Patterson ally gets his skull bashed in, but a jury decides that the victim somehow dashed his own brains out falling into a sawdust-covered, rock-free ditch.

The sight of a dead child is a particularly gruesome moment from Phenix City.

The jurors' disregard for the elder Patterson's proofs is the final straw for the old man. He's now convinced that the only way to break 14th Street is to take the reins of law enforcement at the state capital as attorney general. Some viewers may be confused by what follows, since his nomination seems to be equated with his election. Patterson is in fact running in the Democratic primary, which in the days of the "solid" segregationist South and a powerless Republican party was virtually the general election. Though Tanner's goons control the voting in Phenix City itself, beating the tar out of any opposition voters, they can't rig the whole state. Albert Patterson wins the primary and is deemed the "attorney general nominate," a counterpart to "attorney general elect" in other states. His victory gives 14th Street two options. They could throw all their resources behind a Republican candidate who presumably exists, or they can simply kill Patterson.

The Phenix City Story is a successful thriller because Karlson pulls off the great trick of first telling you exactly what will happen and then making the actual happening on film a matter of great suspense. Instead of resignation toward Albert Patterson's doom, the audience has been goaded and galvanized by Karlson's storytelling to root for the good guys to win. You want the old man not to be killed. At the same time, Karlson has told you that the story will end happily, that Phenix City has been cleaned up and 14th Street routed, yet the omnipotent violence of the Tanner gang and the pure inevitability of Albert's destruction leave you wondering how they could possibly lose. As it is, the end came less dramatically than portrayed here. We know that the governor declared martial law after Patterson's assassination, but in the film the arrival of the National Guard to shut down 14th Street looks like mere mopping up after John Patterson and Zeke Ward take justice, if not the law, into their own hands.

Apart from the scandalous history it recounts, Phenix City has a point to make about the rule of law. We're only twenty years but really a world away from the vigilante films of the Seventies set in similar locations, including some films also based on more or less real events. While those later films glorify the act of a citizen becoming judge and executioner, Karlson and writers Crane Wilbur and Daniel Mainwaring take every opportunity to repudiate vigilantism. We're told that vigilante tactics have been tried against 14th Street before, in vain; one can imagine Tanner's goons beating the krap out of the Klan back in the Twenties, if they didn't just co-opt the local klavern. Even on the night of his father's murder, John Patterson has the clarity of mind to talk a lynch mob out of sacking 14th Street, though he'll get to take some non-lethal vengeance on Tanner himself later that night. Zeke Ward has every reason to kill the man who murdered his daughter, but when his wife restrains him and reminds him of the commandment against killing he comes to his senses in time to talk Patteron out of killing Tanner. If you're accustomed to the vigilante style of the Seventies and after it can't help seeming to disappoint, even if you admit to yourself that the film is constrained by history. But the presumably fictional violence Karlson throws in at the end to please the crowd confuses the ultimate message. Did 14th Street fall because someone in authority finally stood up for law and justice, or because someone finally beat the shit out of the head gangster?

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.

No comments: