Film Review: The Phenix City Story (1955)

Release Date: July 19th, 1955 (premieres in Phenix City, AL; Columbus, GA; Chicago, IL)
Directed by: Phil Karlson
Written by: Daniel Mainwaring, Crane Wilbur
Music by: Harry Sukman
Cast: John McIntire, Richard Kiley, Kathryn Grant

Allied Artists Pictures, 100 Minutes


“Rhett, I’m not stickin’ my neck out. Why should I? Phenix City has been what it is for 80, 90 years. Who am I to try to reform it?” – Albert L. Patterson

I have really come to like Phil Karlson’s work. When I was celebrating Noirvember here at Cinespiria, I checked out a few of his films, which were luckily streaming on FilmStruck. So, since there are more available to check out, I thought I’d give The Phenix City Story a shot, as I have read some good things about it.

Unfortunately, this is a film with multiple personality disorder. The first fifteen minutes or so is comprised of news interviews and I actually thought that this was going to be how the entire movie was presented. Talking heads, giving their accounts of the atrocities the mob in their small Alabama town committed. Luckily, this only took up fifteen minutes. But it was at least interesting, as it featured the real people who were a part of the true story this film is based on.

Once the real cinematic story started, it was pretty refreshing. However, even though I was interested in the subject matter the first half of the movie was really slow. But once the mob severely crossed the line with the murder of a young black girl, things picked up and got so intense that it was impossible to turn away. They even went on to murder another child and at that point, anything was possible because I never thought I’d see anything this graphic done to a child in a movie from this era.

The story is a retelling of the real events surrounding the 1954 assassination of Albert Patterson, a man who had just been elected Alabama Attorney General. He ran on the platform that he was going to cleanup Phenix City, which was controlled by the mob, who were running gambling establishments throughout the area. But with their presence came corruption, control and violence. The events in the film, including the assassination, led to the city having to go under martial law, where the state militia came in and ran the crooks out of town.

Seeing 1950s Alabama culture was pretty intriguing. I never knew this story’s details and it was captivating seeing it unfold onscreen. Ultimately, it is about a community having enough of the unlawful tyrants that ruled over them and finally pushing back.

The high points in this film are really good but it feels very disjointed and the early parts made it hard for the narrative energy to get going. Once it does get going though, you’re locked in.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: Other Karlson film-noirs: Kansas City Confidential99 River Street, etc.

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