Monday, July 19, 2010

The Phenix City Story (Allied Artists, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before last Charles and I watched a movie I’d long been interested in seeing: The Phenix City Story — and no, that unusual spelling of “Phenix” is not a misprint: the location is Phenix City, Alabama, whose founders left out the “o” in the name of the more famous Phoenix in Arizona. It was a 1955 Allied Artists (née Monogram) production, directed by Phil Karlson from a script by Daniel Mainwaring and Crane Wilbur and so closely based on a genuine tale of urban corruption that the first 13 of its 100 minutes are an interminable prologue in which reporter Clete Roberts (one of the people who first exposed the systematic corruption in Phenix City) is shown as himself, interviewing some of the other real people involved in the story — including Hugh Bentley, whose house was blown up because he joined a committee that dared to confront the gang running Phenix City.

Some of the people in the prologue are also portrayed by actors in the main part of the movie — as is Alabama attorney John Patterson, who’s played by Richard Kiley through most of the film but appeared at the end, as himself, announcing that he hopes to win convictions against the gangsters whose apprehension (restaged for the film with actors in all the roles, both the gangsters themselves and the Alabama National Guardsmen who arrested them, since the corruption in Phenix City extended so far the state governor had to put the town under martial law because all the local cops were being paid off by the gangsters. It’s one of those movies whose documentary pretensions fit uneasily with its film noir style — and though Karlson reportedly went along with the documentary style and even got some of his actors the same clothes to wear as the characters they were playing had owned and worn, it’s clear he’s much more interested in the noir dramatic passages than in the documentary parts.

Phenix City itself was (and is) located on the Chattahoochee River that divides Alabama from Georgia; there’s another, larger city on the other side of the river from it — Columbus, Georgia — and also on the Georgia side is Fort Benning, the U.S. Army base that appears to have provided the vice kings of Phenix City much of their income, since most of the customers for their various illegal enterprises were soldiers stationed at the base and crossing over the river for some R&R. The “bad” side of Phenix City is centered around 14th Street, particularly the Poppy Club, a gambling joint (in which all the games are fixed — a montage sequence shows how they load the dice, mark the cards and otherwise skew the odds to make the house not only favored but virtually unbeatable) which is owned by Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews), which depending on which hints in the dialogue you believe is either the man in charge of Phenix City’s criminal element or just the on-site lieutenant for a big syndicate headquartered somewhere else.

The film’s narrator (Ed Strickland) tells us that the Phenix City gang is involved in gambling, prostitution, drugs, rape (since when is rape an organized crime?) and a lot of other things the Production Code wouldn’t let Mainwaring, Wilbur and Karlson actually show — we get to see the gambling and at least get hints of the prostitution (we see bar girls at the Poppy Club and occasionally actors dressed in Army uniforms leave with them) but the rest is just talked about instead of actually shown. The most interesting aspect of the film is the sheer off-handed ruthlessness of the gang — they’re more like a modern-day Mexican drug cartel than anything you expect to see in a 1950’s movie, killing anybody who gets in their way with an attitude of almost nirvana-like unconcern either with consequences to themselves (since they own local law enforcement they don’t have to worry about getting caught) or collateral damage: in one of the film’s most chilling scenes, they sent a message to crusading attorney John Patterson by murdering an eight-year-old Black girl — daughter of Patterson’s friend Zeke Ward (James Edwards) — and throwing her body on the Pattersons’ doorstep with a penciled note attached saying, “The next time we do this to your kid.”

What made Phenix City a national scandal and ultimately inspired this movie was the recruitment, by the handful of civic leaders who wanted to do something about the vice, of Patterson’s father Albert (John McIntire) to run for Alabama attorney general, on the ground that the only elected officials who would be willing to do anything about Phenix City would have to be in a statewide office to which they could get elected without having to depend on the fixed ballot boxes of Phenix City and its surrounding county — and the gang’s response, which was to kill him just after he’d won the Democratic primary (tantamount to election in the one-party Democratic “Solid South” state Alabama still was then) in hopes that that would shut down the investigation. Before that the gangsters have killed Fred Gage (Biff McGuire), whose father Ed Gage (Truman Smith) was part of the secret reform committee, and his girlfriend Ellie Rhodes (a surprisingly powerful good-bad girl performance by Kathryn Grant; the movie world lost a quite talented actress when she quit to become the second Mrs. Bing Crosby!), a dealer at the Poppy Club who risked — and ultimately lost — her own life to get the good guys information about what the bad guys were doing and how they’d thought they’d get away with it.

The Phenix City Story has its pretentious moments — the crowd scenes are dorky and none of the actors are identified until the very end of the movie (I think because Karlson sensed that if we didn’t recognize the actors and identify them with their previous roles, we’d more readily believe in them as their characters — but for the most part it’s a powerful melodrama that would have been even more powerful if Karlson had been permitted to lose all the pretentious documentary stuff and shoot it as straight drama. Even as such, it’s one of the most violent crime films of the 1950’s — which is probably what Martin Scorsese, who’s named this one of his all-time favorite films, likes it so much — though the violence isn’t gratuitous but necessary to depict the reign of terror the decent Phenix Citians lived under with the criminal enterprises in their midst — though I did find myself wondering why the good people of Phenix City didn’t appeal to the U.S. military at least to try to place 14th Street off limits to servicemembers and thereby strike at the gang by cutting off the biggest source of their income.