The Phenix City Story (1955, dir. Phil Karlson) narrates in faux documentary fashion the events leading up to the murder of Albert Patterson (John McIntire), an elderly lawyer running for the position of attorney general in Alabama, with the avowed promise of wiping out corruption in the town. A crime syndicate runs the town by threat of violence and intimidation. Patterson at first declares his neutrality and is willing to let things be in Phenix City. He sees corruption as a regrettable presence that has always existed in the town. He even has an uneasy relationship with the crime boss. But when gangsters beat up his son and others opposed to the syndicate, and when the body of a young black girl is dumped in his front yard, he changes his mind and takes a stand.
The soldiers who patronize the bars, prostitutes, and gambling in Phenix City are stationed at Fort Benning, which lies directly across the Chattahoochee River in Columbus, Georgia. The film was mostly shot on location, and some town citizens served as extras and minor characters. This provides a sense of realism strengthened by the thirteen-minute news clip about Phenix City that introduces the film. It is also relatively direct in its portrayal of violence, the murder of Ed Patterson, the killing of a black child, the bombing of a house with mother and children inside, and various other fights and beatings. It portrays a brutal, violent, dangerous world. Although the final scene tells us that crime has been driven out of Phenix City, the newsreel introduction, which gives practically all the events of the story away, implies that corruption is on the rise again. Moreover, the film also implies that when voters have the chance to cast ballots to elect honest leaders, they fail to show up at the polls, either out of complacency or fear of violence or both. After Patterson’s assassination, citizens form a lynch mob to kill those responsible, enraged that law enforcement has failed to maintain order. John Patterson calms the mob with the argument that they should rely on the law to deliver justice, although he promises to kill the culprits himself if the law fails.
Although black people hover mostly in the background, they are vulnerable to syndicate crime as well. Zeke, a black man who works at one of the bars, warns Patterson of threats to his safety and helps Patterson’s son John (Richard Kiley) and his friend Fred Gage escape a bar fight. Zeke’s young daughter is killed both as punishment for him and as a warning to John Patterson, whose two children and wife live in Albert Patterson’s house. When John Patterson is about to kill his father’s murderer, Zeke talks him out of violent revenge, reminding him of the commandment “Thou shall not kill.” Patterson later replaces his dead father as attorney father. As flawed as it may be, the film therefore suggests that governance by legal institutions, flawed though they may be, is preferable to disorder and anarchy.
The Phenix City Story is straightforward and unrelenting. Tension does rise as it approaches the moment of Patterson’s murder, but for the most it moves forward in a steady reportorial fashion. It ends shortly after Patterson’s death. This dark portrayal of the world does not call for a return to the early halcyon days of the pre-Civil War South. It is a more general, more generic vision of post-World War II modern America. The director Phil Karlson reportedly tended to rewrite the screenplays written for his films. His vision of human nature and the world as expressed in his films was a grim one. Crime and murder in Phenix City gave him a platform for dramatizing his view of the way things are in modern America.