Nov 5, 2014

Noirvember: THE PHENIX CITY STORY (1955)

Yesterday was election day (in the U.S. at least) and if you spent any time on social media there was a constant stream of 'Go Vote' messages urging the population to engage in the right to have their say. The previous night, The Colbert Report ran a segment about how some counties and States are using shame tactics to ensure that everyone goes out to vote.

Richard Kiley pleads with Phenix City voters to help fight corruption with their ballots
The importance of voting is a key element in The Phenix City Story, a 1955 Film Noir based on the real-life events involving an Alabama Attorney General who ran on a platform to end rampant vice activities in his city that was overrun by organized crime. The picture starts with vintage newsreel footage of a reporter interviewing actual participants in the real life drama that effectively adds gravitas to the story that follows (I did enjoy a moment where the reporter tells one man to "look directly at the camera and talk to the United States of America." So cheesy, I love it!).

The film opens with authentic newsreel footage from the real Phenix City story
The Phenix City Story is a pull-no-punches drama that is shocking in so many ways. It begins with the arrival home of Major John Patterson (Richard Kiley), fresh from prosecuting Nazis at the Nuremberg trials. His wife wants them to move out of town knowing that it isn't the nicest place to live, especially an area of town known as '14th Street' which is rampant with crime and sleeze. His father Albert (John McIntire) is a former Senator content to live his life turning a blind eye to the town's problems, mainly because he's old and tired. He is approached by a group wanting to clean up the town to run for office and support their cause but isn't interested. He changes his mind soon enough when the organized criminals who control the town's vice force his hand with outrageous violent acts. He can stand by and turn a blind eye no longer with son John confidently at his side.

John McIntire and Richard Kiley have had it with crime in their city
This is a story we have seen so many times before on screen, but one that never gets old. A town run by corrupt individuals that uses violence to keep the citizens in line while their criminal enterprises make them filthy rich. They have no shame in carrying out the most heinous acts and will even do so with cameras trained on them. Police wander into brawls claiming nothing is going on (until the good guys get the upper hand), and innocent children are brutally murdered to teach their adult parents a lesson. It is one of these killings, the murder of a very young African American girl, that really takes this picture to a new level of shocking - even more so in hindsight knowing that the Civil Rights Movement was on the verge of gaining momentum. Two grown redneck men brazenly corner the young girl then we witness them tossing her out of a moving car in front of children playing. They drive off but not before trying to run a kid on a bicycle off the road. These guys mean business. A close up of the bloody body is even more scarring and tough to watch. It is followed up by a very openly racist comment made by a police officer taking the call (this is 1950s Alabama after all). If you weren't concerned about the 'good 'ole boy' corruption that has its grip on this city, you do after witnessing this.

Just one of the shocking violent acts from 'The Phenix City Story'
The violence increases and the good guys get more and more incensed as they gear up for a fight. Their plan is to utilize the entire Alabama voting population to help them end this reign of corruption with McIntire running for Alabama Attorney General. I am always shocked when watching footage from the Civil Rights Movement as to how brazen the thugs are in beating down innocent people even with cameras aimed right at them (carry that over to modern day with the Ferguson coverage as well as that one incident with that Police Officer who openly pepper-sprayed peaceful protesters as they sat in a line in front of him). The thugs in this picture are no exception. Everybody knows who the culprits are and what they are up to - they don't even try to hide how corrupt they are. This makes them even more dangerous than those criminals who plan and carry out their sinister deeds in dark alleys and dingy backrooms.

The 'good 'ole boys' run this town with violence
There is a big moment that fully utilizes the familiar shadowy Film Noir lighting style to great effect. I can't reveal what that moment is because it is a major plot point (although you totally see it coming) but it takes place in a alley with silhouetted criminals and it's the first act of brazen violence that the criminals try to hide in the dark, whereas everything else they do is practically in broad daylight.

Kathryn Grant as 'Ellie' keeps her eyes on the bad guys from within
The Phenix City Story will anger you, and the contrast of having John return home from prosecuting Nazi thugs to find his 'hometown USA' being ruled by a similar group really drives the theme home.

It is available on DVD as part of Warner Home Video's Film Noir Collection, Volume 5 box set.