Noirvember Review: ‘The Phenix City Story’

Every November fans of cinema celebrate one of the mediums most influential periods, the era of the film noir. This movement from the 1940’s through the 1950’s, presented audiences with edgy pulp crime flicks with a dark and moody stylization. Film noir gives moviegoers no shortage; troubled antiheroes, seductive femme fatales, grizzled detectives, ruthless villains, urban wastelands, and violent crimes. This month I will be looking at some of the best noirs for what has been dubbed Noirvember. 

In the 1950’s the small Southern town of Phenix City, Alabama was a den of sin and vice. It was nestled across the river from Columbus, Georgia and prominent army base of Ft. Benning. This ensured a steady supply of GI’s would regularly venture into the “Most Wicked City in America” where they could find; gambling, prostitution, drinking, and any of the other sordid activities available. After the assassination of local lawyer and soon-to-be Alabama Attorney General, Albert Patterson the already fragile peace of the city completely collapsed. The federal government was eventually forced to intervene and dispatch the National Guard to declare martial law for the first and only time during peace. Having grown up in Columbus this was a story discussed almost like an open secret among the older citizens in the community. My own grandfather told me the story of he and a friend having to quickly run across the bridge without looking back as the tanks rolled in. In 1955, only a year after the fateful events, Allied Artists and director Phil Karlson would dramatize it in the low budget noir appropriately titled the Phenix City Story.

Under the cheap neon lights of Phenix City’s 14th Street “red light district” crime boss Rhett Tanner is the undisputed man in charge. He has ensured that anyone who could stand in the way of his criminal operations are either too well-paid or too scared to do anything. The only person who could potentially stop him is prominent attorney Al “Pat” Patterson. But he is more concerned with his son John, who is being brought in to partner at the family law firm after an army stint. Unlike his father, John is unwilling to ignore the sin and vice in Phenix City and begins to speak out against it. Naturally this is met with retaliation from Tanner’s hired thugs. As the violence escalates Patterson sees no other choice than to run for Attorney General of Alabama so to be empowered to take down this network of crime. However, when he is gunned down in the middle of the street what little order there was falls apart and John Patterson is forced into desperate measures.  

This story is one moviegoers have seen before of a David vs Goliath. In this case it is the concerned citizens of Phenix City, Alabama standing up to the gangsters and corrupt officials who have their home under their thumbs. However, in true noir fashion they do not settle their cause through glorious battles. Their conflict is one that is harsh, bloody, and leaves a trail of bodies in it’s wake. When the good citizens of Phenix City try to stop the organized crime machine of Rhett Tanner through proper and legal channels, he makes it clear he is not afraid to get violent and cheat the system to put them back down. In the end it seems the only thing that can resolve the chaos is the militia coming in full force to this small Southern community.

The Phenix City Story does not hold back in showing audiences a raw and real picture of what was happening during this troubled period. Once you see gangsters send a message to the Patterson family in broad daylight by dumping the body of a friend’s young daughter on the lawn, you know nothing is off the table. This film has a layer grit and grime which seems to coat every scene in this southern-fried film noir. None of the sets are extravagant and none of the actors have the standard Hollywood good looks, and that adds immensely to the realism the movie strives for. Not only were the violent events still fresh in everybody’s mind but the movie hammers that home with a prelude featuring a reporter talking to those involved in the actual turmoil. Being a noted director of tough pulp flicks, director Phil Karlson, very shrewdly approached the film in a very documentarian style, reinforcing the tone and placing the audience into very uncomfortable situations.

As mentioned previously I grew up just across the river from the town formerly known as the “Most Wicked City in America” and those hoping to see the infamous “red light district” now, will be disappointed to find a dark street full of broken down abandoned buildings. In a way this shows the lengths that have been made to cover up this time dark moment in history. This is one of those film noirs which takes the audience out of the harsh unforgiving urban environment and into a small town showing that any place is capable of being a home to broken people and tough spots. Those hoping to find the “good guy” of the movie will be sorely out of luck. Al “Pat” Patterson (played by John McIntire of Wagon Train fame) is only reluctantly pushed into the battle to clean up Phenix City, and only does so when the evils of the town hit him on a personal level. While famed stage actor Richard Kiley, portrays John Patterson as the rabble-rousing folk hero of the film, it is undermined by the fact that the real-life Patterson went on to a political career mired in scandal and based on a foundation of white supremacist ideals. While there are no good guys, there are plenty of bad guys. One of these villains who is particularly memorable is Rhett Tanner’s enforcer, Clem Wilson, played by veteran actor John Larch. Every scene he is in; Larch emanates a remorselessness which instantly makes the audience hate him. This quality proves necessary while acting as Tanner’s fist in the town. For those used to the bloated and booming crime bosses usually associated with film noir like; Gutman in the Maltese Falcon or Nosseross in Night and the City, Rhett Tanner will prove to be a different type of bad guy. Actor Edward Andrews portrays the character as a charming smooth-talker. With nothing to fear from the law, he struts around Phenix City like a politician, flattering and chatting up everyone he crosses. This makes it even more disturbing when we see his ruthless side come out while he still has this almost cheerful demeanor.

This film is the perfect example of film noir acting as a time capsule. We have seen even nowdays how Hollywood can not wait to turn a current event into a movie. Thanks to a streamlined production the Phenix City Story went into production so shortly after the events of the story took place. In 2019 the Library of Congress realized it’s historical importance and added it to the National Film Registry to be preserved for all time. It also showed the world the skill director Phil Karlson had in setting his gritty crime flicks in the American South which would come up again decades later when he made one of his most memorable films Walking Tall. While the Phenix City Story may be hard to come by it is a truly memorable film noir.