If A Man Called Peter was the epitome of a stereotypical 1950s film, The Phenix City Story is the exact opposite. Like A Man Called Peter, The Phenix City Story was released in 1955. And like A Man Called Peter, The Phenix City Story is based on a true story. However, beyond that, A Man Called Peter and The Phenix City Story might as well have been taking place on different planets.
And, in many ways, they were. The Phenix City Story not only takes place in Phenix City, Alabama but it was filmed there as well and featured a few actual citizens in the cast. Not only was The Phenix City Story telling a true story but the story was being told by some of the same people who actually lived through it. That makes The Phenix City Story brutally realistic, with brutal being the key word.
And, just in case we have any doubt about the film’s authenticity, it actually opens with a 15 minute documentary in which Clete Roberts (who was an actual news reporter) interviews several citizens of the town. All of them, speaking in thick Alabama accents and nervously eyeing the camera, assure us that what we are about to see is true. Quite a few of them also tells us that they still live in fear of losing their lives as a result of everything that happened.
What’s amazing is that, once the actual film does get started, it manages to live up to all of that build up. The Phenix City Story is a shocking film that remains powerful even 60 years after it was initially released.
As the film opens, we’re informed that Phenix City, Alabama is home to some of the most dangerous and violent criminals in the state. From his club, crime boss Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews) runs a shadowy organization that not only controls Phenix City but the entire state of Alabama as well. The police ignore his crimes. The majority of the town’s citizens are too scared to stand up to him. When a returning veteran of the Korean War, John Patterson (Richard Kiley), tries to stand up to Tanner, the result is even more violence. A young black girl is kidnapped and murdered, her body tossed on John’s front lawn as a warning. John’s best friend is killed but Tanner uses his influence to have the death ruled accidental.
Finally, John and a group of other reformers convince John’s father — Albert Patterson (John McIntire) — to run for Attorney General. Albert runs on a reform platform and exposes both the corruption of Phenix City and how Tanner’s power extends through the rest of the state as well. When Albert wins the Democratic primary, he’s gunned down in the street and it’s up to John to avenge his death…
To say that The Phenix City Story is intense would be an understatement. As directed by Phil Karlson, there’s not a single frame of The Phenix City Story that’s not full of menace and danger. The stark black-and-white cinematography is full of shadows and the camera moves almost frantically from scene to scene, occasionally catching glimpses of dark figures committing acts of violence and cars speeding away from who knows what outage. It’s a dark film but, ultimately, it’s also a hopeful one. It suggests that evil will triumph when good men do nothing but that sometimes you can depend on good men — like Albert and John Patterson — to actually step up.
The Phenix City Story shows up on TCM occasionally and you should keep an eye out for it. It’s one of the best B-movies ever made.