Friday, July 16, 2010

The Phenix City Story

If you watch enough TCM, you'll see their "advertising", or more politely "promotion", of a new box set of eight film noirs; I think it's Volume 5 in the series. One of the movies mentioned as being in the new box set is The Phenix City Story, which is also airing at 2:00 PM ET on July 17 on TCM.

This movie is based on a true story. In the early 1950s, the town of Phenix City, Alabama (note the spelling; there's no O in it) became one of the vice capitals of America as vice lords set up all sorts of establishments designed to cater, or more accurately drain the pockets of, the military recruits who were stationed just across the border in Fort Benning, Georgia. Some of the local townsfolk thought that all this vice, especially when combined with stealing money from servicemen, was detrimental to the good name of the community, and they were insistent that Somebody Do Something About It. The problem is, the other townsfolk, including the ones who were elected officials, were in the pay of the purveyors of vice, either officially employed by them, or getting bribes from them. It was clear that the only solution could come from the state level. Local attorney Albert Patterson was tapped by the state Democratic Party to run for Attorney General, and he won a bitterly contested primary against a candidate put up by the vice lords. No more Mr. Vice Guy? No; they responded by assassinating Patterson, even though this only made matters worse. It got Albert's son John to run in his father's stead, and brought national notoriety upon Phenix City.

Those are more or less the facts, and The Phenix City Story represents them, as far as I can tell, reasonably well. Vice is generally a seedy activity, especially when it's criminalized, and The Phenix City Story is shockingly lurid, at least by mid-1950s standards. It helps that it has a lot of location filming, and a cast of not-so-well-knowns; Richard Kiley as John Patterson might be the most famous. This is one of those movies that falls in the same stylistic category of something like The Narrow Margin or The Delinquents where the B-movie values actually help the movie. MGM would have made something much too glitzy, while even Warner Bros.' social commentary movies of the 1930s look too much as though they were done on the backlot. In some cases, there's something to be said for a rawer look.

But what really makes the movie so much fun is the opening. Apparently, the folks enforcing the Production Code had some problems with the original movie and how lurid it was. The way the filmmakers got around this was to film an expository sequence at the beginning, bringing in a real TV journalist from Los Angeles to interview the actual people who were involved with the events in Phenix City (or, at least, the ones who weren't defendants). These people are clearly not professions, and serve to give The Phenix City Story a much greater atmosphere of "this really happened". That, and their candor is refreshingly fun, such as one older man who will be testifying as a witness. He's asked whether he has a gun to protect himself and his family, and whether he's prepared to use it; his guileless affirmative answers are almost shockingly funny.

I think I mentioned once in regard to Violent Saturday that it's a movie that's not great, but it's a hell of a lot of fun. The Phenix City Story is even more fun -- and better, too.

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