Phenix City Story, The (1955)

“There are enough decent men here to wipe Fourteenth Street off the map — if you’ll tell “em to!”

Synopsis:
A lawyer (John McIntire), his son (Richard Kiley), and other concerned citizens fight back against the insidious corruption in their Southern town.

Genres:

Review:
Based on a true story, this gritty docudrama depicts the events leading to the National Guard’s takeover of a mob-ridden Southern town in 1954. Director Phil Karlson spends ample time establishing the extent of the corruption in Phenix City, so that we understand why even our likable protagonist refuses to take sides at first: the mob’s influence is so systemic — and retribution so quick — that to speak up means, quite literally, to risk your life. And the violence isn’t pretty: the first murder depicted — in which an African-American girl is run over, then brutally tossed from a car onto the front lawn where Kiley’s children are playing — is like nothing else in 1950s American cinema.

Unfortunately, the inclusion of a 13-minute newsreel at the beginning of the movie — featuring interviews with real people from Phenix City — lessens the impact of the docudrama somewhat, simply because it’s impossible not to notice their strong accents, which the actors make no attempt to imitate. Indeed, when compared with Paul Greengrass’s recent docudramas — which are filmed so authentically you truly feel you’re there — Phenix City comes across as stagy and heavyhanded. Nonetheless, this remains a well-acted, heartfelt movie, one which tells an important American story with bravery and grit, and deserves a wider audience.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bespectacled John McIntire as the elderly lawyer who experiences a drastic change of heart
    McIntire
  • Richard Kiley as McIntire’s determined son
    Kiley
  • Edward Andrews as the ringleader of the town’s corrupt forces
    Tanner
  • Lenka Peterson, doing an excellent job in a thankless role as Kiley’s concerned wife
    Wife
  • A shocking use of realistic violence
    Violence

Must See?
Yes. While dated in some ways, this remains a powerful early docudrama. Peary lists it in the back of his book as a Cult Movie and a Personal Recommendation. It’s also notorious as one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite films.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “Phenix City Story, The (1955)”

  1. Yes, a must – and a powerful historical document.

    A few differences of opinion from the assessment:

    – I don’t feel the opening newsreel detracts from the film that follows; in fact, it helps boost the film’s authenticity. (I’ve seen this film with and without that doc footage and, if I remember correctly, it’s not usually shown in a tv version.)

    – ‘TPCS’ may come off a bit heavy-handed but, then, it probably should. If it appears at all stagy, however, I think that may be somewhat the result of the film’s obvious low budget. It has a rough-around-the-edges feel to it in some ways; but that still doesn’t hurt the film.

    – It’s dated only inasmuch as it captures a very specific period of time and place.

    Re: Peary – it escapes me why he’d call this a cult film. I can’t for the life of me imagine what kind of ‘cult audience’ would be watching it!

    ‘TPCS’ is some of director Karlson’s best work. (He doesn’t refrain from depicting the disturbing nature of the more violent sequences.) And though the acting is generally solid, Edward Andrews turns in a creepy, smarmy performance and walks away with the picture.

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