Ugh, that was a tough one.
“The Phenix City Story” was a shocking experience, even for a 21st century jaded viewer like me. This is not only the most violent movie of the fifties (so far) but also one that gives us ugliness right in the face. It takes a strong stomach to get through this one.
I cannot begin to imagine how this movie would have felt like for an audience in its time.
You may argue that such an explicit exposition of crime and violence is a B-movie gimmick and undoubtedly this is a B-Movie, but I feel there is a real purpose to the explicitness here because the story told is both gruesome and real (at least so we are let to believe). The producers seem aware that maybe they have gone a bit too far and so have inserted a lengthy “news report” in the opening, telling us that the story is real, that the good guys won and preparing us for the murder of one of the lead characters. I am not sure though that I am easier about it knowing that this is supposed to be a real story. To think this really happened is just horrible.
So, the story is that Phenix City, Alabama has had a long history of gambling, prostitution and the associated mob activities. This apparently to the extent that the business employed a large part of the population and that it was, if not liked, then certainly accepted. When I say that the business employed a large part of the population that includes law enforcement and the courts.
Despite the overpowering strength of the mob there are segments fighting the mob, mainly due to their associated activities such a murders, intimidation and general corruption. However since law enforcement is bought and paid for this fight is a vigilant fight and thus ineffective and ultimately as bad as the mob itself.
The story told here is about the fight that finally overthrew the mob rule and it centers on the Patterson family. Albert Patterson (John McIntire) is an elderly lawyer who has kept strictly neutral, but is forced to take sides when his son, John (Richard Kiley) returns from Germany with wife and children and decides to take up the fight. The mob, led by jovial looking Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews) decides early on to scare the new resistance away, but only manages to infuriate them. There is a truly horrible scene where a little black girl of maybe five years is picked up by mob bullies, killed and thrown out of the car on the lawn of John Patterson in front of his screaming children.
That was the moment where I wondered if I really wanted to watch this movie. Hurting children is seriously overstepping my tolerance.
All this was just to send a message and, almost as an afterthought, to punish the girl’s father Zeke Ward (James Edwards) for siding with the protesters. I do not know if there was a hint of racism in that the mob so callously kills a black child or that the producers chose to show it so explicitly. Would they have done so with a white girl?
John’s wife Mary Jo (Lenka Peterson) understandably freaks out and insists they leave this very minute. I tend to agree with her. This is no place to raise children and not for any cause would I risk my children. John only seem to get message from his wife halfway, sending the children away, but insisting to fight the battle.
It does have the effect of turning Albert Patterson to the cause and so the strategy is to get him elected as attorney general, empowering him to fight the mob. This sets off a vicious reaction from the mob as they are doing their utmost to sabotage and intimidate the election process. Again very explicitly depicted. When this fails they go for the man himself.
Murders, violence, blood running down faces, callous and cold blooded mobsters, I lost count of the incidents in this movie, there are so many victims. Vigilantism is always inches away as law is nonexistent here. Yet the message also seems to be that only law can succeed against inhuman crime of this caliber. It just seem almost naïve when corruption has soaked everything. What do you do when the very tools to fight corruption are corrupted?
There was one quote from the movie that was very telling of how close to the surface violence always lurks: Mary Jo has just seen Mr. Gage, a lawyer, casually pick up his gun “Does Mr. Gage always carry a gun?”. To which Albert answers: “Sure, I guess so, why not? He’s got a license”, and chuckles. Little did it help him though when he got mugged shortly after.
Yet, for all this, or because of all this, I found the movie had a lot of nerve and managed to keep me interested and even mesmerized all the way to the end. It is exciting and revolting and if this is truly what happened and happened for a long time in this town then somebody must sit back with a very bad taste.
I hate to admit it, but I did enjoy the movie. I just do not think I could bear watching the murder of that little girl again. Ugh.