(Open Thread) Noir Side Street — “The Phenix City Story”

Nouvelle Vague (the residues of alphaville). Photo by Emiliano Grusovin.

Today’s film is 1955’s “The Phenix City Story,” starring John McIntire (Albert Patterson), Richard Kiley (John Patterson), Kathryn Grant (Ellie Rhodes), Edward Andrews (Rhett Tanner), Lenka Peterson (Mary Jo Patterson), Biff McGuire (Fred Gage), Truman Smith (Ed Gage), John Larch (Clem Wilson), Jean Carson (Cassie), Allen Nourse (Jeb Bassett), George Mitchell (Hugh Britton), and James Edwards (Zeke Ward). Directed by Phil Karlson; cinematography by Harry Neumann. Produced by Samuel Bischoff for Allied Artists Pictures (Allied was also the distributor). Screenplay by Crane Wilbur and Daniel Mainwaring.

Shot on location (despite threats from local elected officials, criminals, and the Ku Klux Klan), this film is a departure, a blending of documentary with film noir. Much of the stylistic tropes of noir are stripped away and replaced with a disquieting realism. This movie uses both known actors as well as locals in some of the minor roles, including Ma Beachie, the grandmotherly queen of the local madams. (You can spot the locals, as they all have that telltale twangy drawl of southern Alabama.) It was filmed on location, mere months after the shocking murder of Albert L. Patterson, Democratic nominee for Alabama Attorney General.

Today’s film was prefaced with a 13-minute documentary featuring Clete Roberts, who interviews some of the real people (including Albert Patterson‘s widow) talking about the murder which prompted the good people of the town of Phenix City, Alabama to finally clean up their streets. One man described his hometown as, “it’s like a dirty, filthy coat, handed down from my father, which I don’t want to leave to my children.” (This documentary was offered to theaters to show with the film when it was released.)

One thing that upsets even modern audiences is the frankness of particular situations in the film. The rampant racism, the callousness of the criminals–particularly the ease they demonstrated by killing innocent people, at times, just to send a message–and the corruption of local law enforcement who willingly turned a blind eye to the illegal activities all are on display here. At one point a black girl’s dead body is flung onto the Patterson’s lawn as a warning to stay out of the latest attempt by locals to clean up the town. When they call the police to report this, a deputy speaking to others in the station says, “Somebody just threw a dead n****r kid on Patterson’s lawn.” While the dead child, along with the murder of Fred Gage, prompted the Pattersons to action, nothing was done to address her murder in the film. (And probably not in real life, either.)

The film was made before authorities had solved the murder. It turns out it wasn’t local criminal leaders involved, but political rivals and a deputy who were behind it. (Of course, the reason crime flourished in the town was because local elected officials protected the criminals from prosecution; so the line is a little fuzzy here.) Which just goes to show that even if you weren’t directly involved in the vice of the town, many were still corrupted by it.

The one heartening thing in the film is that people of good will believed they could change the town through the ballot box. (A belief Trump and his MAGA media cult have stripped from many Americans.)

Another reality check: in spite of what he did to clean up Phenix City, Attorney General John Patterson was an imperfect man who not only fought desegregation efforts in Alabama, but was also an adulterer.

I would call this more a crime drama rather than a film noir; but it was still good anyway, albeit difficult to watch at times. (Due to the subject matter, not the quality of the movie.) All in all, excellent film; 4.75 out of 5 unfiltered cigarette puffs.

Next week is the TCM premier of the Film Noir Foundation’s most recently restored movie, “The Argyle Secrets.”

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