Registering the Registry 2019: The Phenix City Story (1955)

Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Cognress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! This week, a scant year after the murder of presumptive Democratic nominee for Alabama attorney general Albert Patterson was gunned down outside his Phenix City law office, director Phil Karlson dramaticized the account and its aftermath as The Phenix City Story. Let’s have a look, why don’t we.

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The facts of the case as they were: Phenix, a moderately-sized Alabama city, positioned across the Chattahoochee River, sister city to Columbus, Georgia, and neighbor to Fort Benning, took a particularly hard hit during the Great Depression, and sat in a perfect combination of economic desperation and physical distance from its state’s own major political centers as to provide corrupt actors and organized crime an ideal base of operations. Gambling, prostitution, ballot stuffing, voter intimidation, bootlegging, drug trade, all manner of vice flourished, fueled by police and political officials either turning a blind eye to pocket their cut or engaging in the criminal activities themselves, a regular stream of customers from the nearby sister city and military base, and eventually their own nationwide reputation as Sin City, USA attracting the curious and unscrupulous. Attempts to fight back against the corruption persisted throughout the early fifties, with groups like the Russell Betterment Association making no headwind against powerful forces who could readily rig an election and dynamite leader Hugh Bentley’s home. No real progress came about, however, until 1954, when lawyer, former state senator, and recent RBA recruit Albert Patterson won a runoff election for the state’s attorney general nomination – not because his victory resulted in a sweeping set of reforms, unfortunately, but because three city and state officials conspired to gun him down outside his law office on the eve of his victory. Outrage over the assassination – coupled with further outcry when Patterson’s son, John Patterson, tried and failed to petition J. Edgar Hoover for federal assistance – soon led Governor Gordon Persons to declare martial law in Phenix City, sparking a seven month-long period of National Guard raids, over 700 indictments from a grand jury, and a lengthy prosecution of the three accused led by John, having assumed his father’s nomination. Organized crime and political corruption were in this way effectively wiped from Phenix City, at least insofar as any record can adequately show.

Photograph of Patterson’s murder scene, courtesy of Encyclopedia of Alabama, alongside reference material for the above.

In the midst of all this, eyes at Allied Artists Studio were firmly locked on Phenix City. Formerly Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures, and reconstituted with more artistic goals in mind under Walter Mirisch a few years earlier, the studio’s senses had been perked by news coverage of these events, which won Ray Jenkins of the Columbus Ledger a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. A lone man stood against an entire den of vice and sin for the sake of decent principles, a backdrop of excess sex and violence, national renown and shine from mere association with the story, a chance to show the American public what they could to now only read about in newspapers, sold to them with the promise of salacious authenticity. Who could resist making it into a motion picture? Bring in hired gun noir director Phil Karlson to helm it, bring in soon-to-be Invasion of the Body Snatchers scribe David Mainwaring to pen it, and hell, while we’re pushing our luck, why not shoot on location IN Phenix City itself, right in the midst of the crackdowns and reforms, while some of the architects of its vices still have free reign? It’ll sell tickets like nobody’s business!

If it weren’t obvious, I’ve a hard time shaking the notion of The Phenix City Story as a tabloid film. The proximity to the elder Patterson’s death is bad enough on this front, turning a man’s shocking murder into public entertainment before his blood’s even scrubbed from the sidewalk. One might find cause to look on the film as informative or even inspiring, an extension of his drive to clean Phenix City by spreading his story far and wide, in looking at the film’s introductory minutes, which are given over to a new bulletin hosted by Clete Roberts as he interviews numerous actual participants. I cannot make this leap, however, for The Phenix City Story isn’t really Albert Patterson’s story – it’s John’s, and boy does it have a Way of making it John’s story. The younger Patterson (portrayed here by Broadway’s Richard Kiley) is construed as the real firebrand in the city, his military background and shock at finding his home so given to sin used to make him a two-fisted, hard-arguing, real Man’s Man of the people, willing to rush into fights when the public and police stand idly by, more gung-ho about the RBA and the chance they offer to knock down Edward Andrews’ crime boss Rhett Tanner, putting his neck on the line far more frequently and visibly than the man whose actual neck lay on the chopping block. Worth noting, I think, how John Patterson would later admit he had little interest in politics until he was galvanized into it by his father’s death, while Albert was an active figure within the community who never really stopped working towards bettering his home town.

Breaks from reality are understandable when adapting real events to the screen, for real events are rarely kind to conventional three-act structure and real personalities aren’t so readily condensed into a ninety minute performance. I can nod along with and accept the change in the nature of Phenix City’s corruption – malicious, self-interested actors within the city’s elected body replaced by a gang of sneering mobsters whose singular defeat means salvation. Even by 1955, trying to portray a city official as meaningfully amoral or interested in their own wants over the people’s needs would prove monumentally tricky, and it’s no doubt organized crime existed within the city’s borders too. The addition of major shocking events is workable enough within the confines of a cinematic story – in addition to the real life bombings and voter harassment campaigns, the film adds a sequence of the mobsters murdering several children and dumping them on the Patterson lawn as a threat. This involves wholly fictional characters, communicates the actual intimidation practices effectively, and makes one of the better acted moments when Lenka Peterson plays Mary Jo Patterson’s reaction so viscerally as Kiley’s resolve firms in real time. I might go along with the fudging of how the National Guard arrived in Phenix City – it’s a damned strange thing to watch a movie advocate the power of the people and their will exercised through democratic elections as the ultimate weapon against corruption and vice, only to see John persuade the governor to declare martial law and strip them all of their Constitutional freedoms until the job is done, but an aborted visit to Hoover’s office followed by sustained public pressure isn’t the audience pleasing, crowd-rearing move.

It must be understood, though: a man stood here. The man played by John McIntire, Albert Patterson, he actually lived and breathed and fought and died for his beliefs. On the very street where McIntire staggered and fell, Patterson was shot to death, in the very same clothes McIntire wears for his dying scene. There is, by my estimation, nothing more sacred or important when fictionalizing any story than doing right by its subjects, and on this respect I cannot claim I believe The Phenix City Story succeeds. Albert Patterson is simultaneously lifted by a pedestal and marginalized in his own story, his character presented as a moral paragon representing all that is good and right and holy in Phenix City, and yet his imperative to see it saved transferred to his son, the cinematic double content to sit by the sidelines and bemoan how nothing can be done because he’d tried for years and gotten nowhere, while the historically uninvolved John does all the fighting. He is presented as unimpeachable martyr, the kind of man whose death would immediately send a city to near riot if not for an immediate replacement by his son’s calming, commanding presence, but he is also made figurehead, more plainspoken face to rouse the cause than someone seeking legitimate power. He’s important and impotent in one, necessarily a towering figure as dictated by his young legacy, overshadowed by the better action-capable, hotheaded son at his side, rendered false to his flesh-and-blood origin on two fronts. And it must be said again, this happens in a film produced and released in such close proximity to his death, I can’t recall another picture so immediately tied to it’s subject’s passing and obviously desperate to make a buck off them. All this without mentioning how John is presented as friend and ally to the few named black characters in the film, a discrepancy which, while likely not notable at the time and indicative of political policies the man has since disavowed, is a touch incongruous for the man whose gung-ho opposition to racial integration and the burgeoning Civil Rights movement gave George Wallace the template for his successive terms.

You’ll perhaps note I’m not discussing the movie so much this week. As a piece of filmmaking, it is perfectly fine, a crime noir with plenty heavy shadowing and sweaty southern nights and hard men making the hard choices in hard times in a manner that would prove compelling and energizing and entertaining and all the other good words in a wholly fictional or more divorced context. Good if not remarkable performances, fair action when it takes place, some snide narration from Kiley, the sort’ve thing I’d probably rate 3.5/5 if I were in the practice of assigning ratings on this series’ initial run. Certainly better than I expected from the director of The Shanghai Cobra and Ben, though if Sense of Cinema’s write-up on director Karlson is any indication, neither the extremely early nor late-career picture there represents him at his best. This here might, and I could very well be allowing my biases to cloud my judgement, but I must say, respect for the dead and accurate depictions of the martyred tends to overwhelm my care for cinematic merits. If anything, a film’s success at rendering its distorted vision of reality more compelling than the actual thing makes it more troubling, as facts historically struggle against the excitement and veracity a movie can weave. The Phenix City Story maybe be a good work of moviemaking; all I see, however, is the motive, the twists, the attempt to reconstitute the failure of a democratic system by way of a negligent populace until a man’s death necessitates drastic, overwhelming action from on high into a film championing how the very forces that failed Phenix City are somehow made more powerful by the introduction of a gangster-boxing hero. The Phenix City story is one of the American ideal in collapse, as the Albert Patterson story is one of a man cut short. To make them an inspiring narrative about the people saying no more and a son making his way with two-fisted justice and scripture on his lips is to cast disrespect on those it attempts to champion, and to do it well fills me with disquiet.

My own misgivings are not the only factor at play, though, and in considering The Phenix City Story as an entrant into the National Film Registry, I will say it deserves the slot. For all the reasons one might otherwise cite for its inclusion, yes – its unique on-location shooting in a part of the country not often acknowledged by the camera’s eye, its position as a commercial and critical high in the filmography of an underappreciated director, its conversational immortalization of a notable news story, its exemplification of a stripe of true crime film noir so common in its day – all true. It is also an example of just unprincipled the movie business can be, how the camera can render reality so mutable as to make a fighter a pacifist, a bystander a burly champion, a period of martial law a democratic triumph, a tragedy fodder for a low-profile studio to win some acclaim and easy cash on the cheap. One need not regard all films within the Registry’s halls as great or inspiring or moral to be worthy of inclusion – only important and informative. The Phenix City Story speaks to its moment, and, sadly, to our own today, by way of whatever narrative feels best winning out over what is solid and true. Entertaining as the movies can be, our values must stand amongst the latter, must remain firmly planted in an understanding of what’s right and real, else there is no reason to contemplate and discuss and spread film or stories or lives. A reality dictated by flickering shadows is hardly any reality at all.

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My apologies for screeding this week. On the next, we’ll turn our attention towards the dog movie that reportedly makes everyone cry, with Robert Stevenson’s Old Yeller from 1957. If Disney+ is your bag they’ve it there, otherwise most of the high-profile rental services have it for sale. See you then!

Gargus also writes plenty more reviews over on Letterboxd, and rambles about this and that from time to time over on twitter.