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  Phenix City Story, The Sin CityBuy this film here.
Year: 1955
Director: Phil Karlson
Stars: John McIntire, Richard Kiley, Edward Andrews, Kathryn Grant, Lenka Peterson, Biff McGuire, Truman Smith, Jean Carson, James Edwards
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Documentary
Rating:  4 (from 2 votes)
Review: In the Alabama town of Phenix City, organised crime was rife, controlling the alcohol, gambling, prostitution and even stretching its insidious tentacles into the realm of the authorities and the police. Whenever honest citizens tried to rise up against this tide of corruption, they were beaten back down: quite literally. All this continued until lawyer Albert Patterson (John McIntyre) and his son John (Richard Kiley) accepted the pleas of a local group of concerned townsfolk, and Albert agreed to stand for office as Attorney General to stamp out the vice once and for all - but there would be great sacrifices to be made, including innocent lives.

An earnest exposé torn from the day's headlines, The Phenix City Story was scripted by Daniel Mainwaring and Crane Wilbur, and opens with a tacked-on ten minutes of a documentary series of interviews with some of the key players who took part in uncovering the crimes. Not only does this lend credence to the tale about to unfold, it also has the effect of telling you what's going to happen, which you would think would weaken the suspense, but the story is so packed with sensational elements that it serves to heighten the tension when you know that Albert Patterson will be murdered.

The interviewees look awkward on camera, and the reporter, obviously reading from cards, makes you anticipate a dry tone to the rest of the film, but nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the tone grows more wide eyed and overwrought as it continues, but its justified by the terrible injustice of the events. The kingpin of the gangsters, Tanner (Edward Andrews), is presented as an avuncular rogue at first, as he enjoys the profits of fixed gambling and the company of the customers at his bar, then he goes to meet Albert Patterson at his office to persuade him to represent the criminals, but Patterson doesn't want to get involved.

When his son John returns home from Germany, where he has been prosecuting war criminals, Albert is offered a chance to run for Attorney General but refuses. Attending a meeting of a group of citizens wishing to rid Phenix City of the gangsters, John points out that old saying of how the way evil triumphs is if good men do nothing, and decides to help. Up to that point, the story has been undramatically using the characters as a mouthpiece for law abiding views, but then a strain of surprisingly bloody violence erupts, as John is beaten up helping his new friends, and then, in a still shocking scene, the little girl of a black man who has assisted John is murdered and dumped on his lawn as a warning to what could happen to John's own kids.

This convinces Albert to run, and the couldn't-care-less, casually racist attitude of the cops convinces you that he's doing the right thing - see the lone policeman sauntering up to a beating without bothering to break it up. This makes the gangsters raise the stakes, inflicting violence on the Patterson supporters, and by election day voters are intimidated, abused, and some men are even turned away from the polls by the promise of sex from prostitutes! The seedy atmosphere of danger is so well conveyed that even by the end, when the town is on its way to being cleaned up, you're not entirely reassured.

The message is that now that the U.S.A. has sorted out the problems abroad, it has to look to its own soil to sort out the deeply rooted problems there, not with vigilante groups, but with the word of the law; the result of this is martial law declared in Phenix City (were these the same soldiers we saw in the gambling dens earlier on, I wonder?). Enjoyable as a straight thriller, the film works because of its social conscience, even if its belief in the power of journalism to change the world looks naive in these days where those issues it tackles seem more insurmountable than they did back then. Music by Harry Sukman (listen for the sleazy "Phenix City Blues" theme sung in Tanner's club).
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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