“There are enough decent men here to wipe Fourteenth Street off the map — if you’ll tell ’em to!”
A lawyer (John McIntire), his son (Richard Kiley), and other concerned citizens fight back against the insidious corruption in their Southern town.
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Collective Activism
- Deep South
- John McIntire Films
- Phil Karlson Films
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
- Richard Kiley as McIntire’s determined son
- Edward Andrews as the ringleader of the town’s corrupt forces
- Lenka Peterson, doing an excellent job in a thankless role as Kiley’s concerned wife
- A shocking use of realistic violence
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.
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)