Friday, February 18, 2011

The Phenix City Story (Phil Karlson, 1955)


There is something vital going on over at Ferdy On Films and The Self-Styled Siren

Marilyn Ferdinand (Ferdy) and Farran Nehme (The Siren) are in cahoots with the Film Noir Foundation in trying to raise money for the restoration of classic, essential film noir that are rapidly becoming lost due to vanishing negative elements. The whole desperate, scary story is to be found here

To help bolster awareness to raise cash for the restoration process, Ferdy and The Siren have called out a "For The Love Of Film (Noir) - Film Preservation Blog-A-Thon" -- to which this analysis you are about to read is a contribution. 

The Flying Maciste Brothers wholly encourage all who enter our chambers to donate to this very worthy cause.  To do so on this page click the icon below and on our sidebar.

And now, without further commercial interruption, let us present The Flying Maciste Brother's deconstruction of Phil Karlson's THE PHENIX CITY STORY:

Lava, American Style

Phil Karlson's movies are uniformly concerned with exposing the “truth" -- cinematically following in the footsteps of the old-fashioned newspaper reporter who tirelessly digs for the "real story" hidden behind the "official story" -- tearing away propaganda and cover-ups to reveal an ugly, sometimes contradictory reality to an otherwise ignorant public.

Karlson’s protagonists are usually passionate, self-sacrificing characters who risk everything in a battle against corruption, hypocrisy, prejudice and sin.

The titles of his best work read like explosive newspaper headlines that promise a shocking expose' of the people and organizations that either fight against organized evil:

FRAMED (1974)

-- or of those that fight in the service of it:

RAMPAGE (1963)

The battlegrounds are the victimized municipalities that could be the town next door --

99 RIVER STREET (1952)

-- as it is with this, his early masterpiece, THE PHENIX CITY STORY (1955).

Karlson wants to strip away the squeaky-clean "Leave it to Beaver" image of an America free of social conflict and political malfeasance and examine, up close, the process of absolute power corrupting absolutely.

NOTE: the above title-cards are NOT the title cards that introduce the narrative portion of THE PHENIX CITY STORY that presents itself on Warner Home Video's R1 DVD release of the film in the FILM NOIR CLASSIC COLLECTION, VOLUME 5 set. 

The version with the above cards circulated on cable and satellite TV screenings of the film throughout the 90's and 2000's. (Were these prepared for a European release?) 

These cards seem to reflect more the overall meaning of the narrative section (emphasizing the allegorical message) while the cards in place on the Warner DVD (below) reinforce the hazardously "real" aspects of the production.

For Phil Karlson, noir indicated not only the shadows across a man’s face, but the shadows in his soul; shadows that lay across every film genre Karlson has ever worked within.  

Phil Karlson

THE PHENIX CITY STORY opens with over 10 minutes of on-the-street interviews with the actual people involved in the factual events upon which the film’s story is based.  These aren’t actors, but individuals whose lives were threatened for bravely standing up against the institutionalized evil that ran amok in their hometown of Phenix City, Alabama.

While this is a most unique way of validating the volatile screen drama that has yet to unfold, it also introduces to the audience the boundaries of what is “real” and “reel”.  By letting the audience meet the real people behind the characters of his fiction, Karlson gains the audience's trust in the gravitas of the "true" events his actors will re-enact. 

He also prepares us for another switch -- not only from genuine person to fictional character, but from living actor to lifeless dummy (and back again) as well! That’s right -- seems that Phil Karlson, the trumpeter of truth, is also a master of screen deception!  

And it is with THE PHENIX CITY STORY that Phil Karlson provides us with one of the most brutal and provocative dummy-deaths ever put on film!

Of course, Karlson is no stranger to the utilization of the dummy-death -- witness his transformative artistry in his essential contribution to the 1950's western, GUNMAN'S WALK. (For the Maciste's full analysis: click the title-link.)

Phenix City, Alabama. A corrupt cesspool of gambling, prostitution and crime.

Or -- as it is so delicately phrased in Harold Spina's song Phenix City Blues --

-- and performed in the film by pinup/starlet/singer Meg Myles:

"Fancy women, slot machines and booze!"

Phenix City, Alabama. A town that prides itself on the more biblical temptations it offers. The more profitable temptations.

Behind closed doors, however, a small group of heroic citizens are fed up with the blight that has fallen over their beloved hometown.

A small group of heroic citizens.

They enlist the assistance of lawyer John Patterson (who, portrayed by Richard Kiley, is fresh from military service -- prosecuting war criminals in post-WW2 Germany) into persuading his father, Albert (played by John McIntire), the town's trusted elder statesman, to run for Attorney General and begin a crusade to clean up Phenix City --

-- once and for all --

-- and at any cost.

One Phenix City family who will pay the greatest price.

The "real" Albert Patterson.

The cost is indeed great as those who stand up to the morally bankrupt criminal machine are ruthlessly dehumanized for turning the tide against the debauched status quo.  

Phenix City's morally bankrupt criminal machine.

Victims of Phenix City's debauched status quo.

Karlson uses montage after montage of brutality to ratchet up the tension on an already apprehensive audience and to instill in them a dread of where this continuously escalating violence could be leading.

NOTE: according to a "trivia" citation on the IMDB for the film, the "reality" of the actual situation was even more critical than the "restaged" events:

"In the film, John Patterson (Richard Kiley) is depicted as supportive of African-American Zeke Ward (James Edwards) and his family."

"In real life, following his term as Alabama attorney general (1954-1958), he ran for governor in 1958, ran an openly racist campaign and won. "

The "real" John Patterson.

"One of his opponents, George Wallace, had run as a racial moderate and told his friends after the election, "John Patterson out-niggered me, and I'm never gonna be out-niggered again." Four years later, in 1962, Wallace won the governorship of Alabama as an open racist."

George C. Wallace, Jr. -- "out-niggered" by John Patterson.

"The Phenix City Story" is Karlson's portrait of a divided American city. Divisions, whose multiple fault lines organize themselves as two competing visions of the future.

On one side of the Chattahoochee River is Columbus, Georgia -- a pillar of virtue...

 One, a vision of progressive social and economic transformation --

 On the other side of the river is Phenix City, Alabama -- a pillar of VICE!

-- the other, a vision of social stagnation as illustrated by Karlson with the aforementioned metaphoric comparison to Pompeii -- a city of ossified citizens, frozen in time.

Mt. Vesuvius
The citizens of Pompeii.
A very real transformation from living being into sculpture.
History's warning of biblical proportions.

This second, darker, vision is represented by Rhett Tanner (actor Edward Andrews) --

-- the brains behind the massive crime syndicate that is sucking all that is green and growing from the citizens of Phenix City. Tanner has even bigger plans for Phenix City and a means to achieve those plans.

If Phenix is Pompeii, then Tanner is its Vesuvius, ejecting a pyroclastic flow of vice whose molten current is sustained with equal parts violence and currency --

-- and which blankets the town with fear, figuratively (rather than literally) petrifying them.

NOTE: Director Karlson stages his scenes of violence to underscore the metaphoric "petrification" of Phenix City citizens.

The victimized are usually positioned center-frame.

The "ossified" or "petrified" citizens are de-centralized and are clustered around the periphery of the frame --

-- rendered immobile by the fear cast by the vast criminal government of Phenix City.

But the lava flow in Phenix City isn't literal --

 -- which allows Karlson the means to visually transform this composition of societal imprisonment into one that illustrates that underneath the frozen exterior of every oppressed citizen -- 

-- lay a sleeping tiger that will awaken one day to fight for his freedom.

The feminine half of the vice equation is represented by prostitutes; women who are abstracted in this context as factories and whose bodies are the assembly line for Tanner's lurid "industry". 

Cassie (Jean Carson) is the female pit-boss --

-- and (deceptively) the softer, feminine "mask" for Tanner's strong-arming face to hide behind.

NOTE:  As illustrated above and below, Karlson visually solidifies this theme of female objectification at specific, crucial points throughout the film.

For example, take this carefully framed interchange between Tanner and a shopkeeper. 

The shopkeeper inquires about Tanner's absence at church and informs him that he missed a "rattlin' good sermon" from the city's new "fire and brimstone" preacher.

The sermon's topic: Sodom and Gomorrah.

Tanner smiles inwardly and muses, almost privately, that he'd "sure like to have heard it". Tanner doesn't need to hear that story again -- he's probably already used it as a business model for his vision of Phenix City!!!

Notice the inclusion of the female mannequin in the display window behind the shopkeeper.

The mannequin, within the context of the scene's "punchline", subtly reminds the audience that Sodom and Gomorrah was a Biblical tale involving another piece of unfortunate feminine statuary: Lot's wife, who looked back on another town full of vice and corruption and suffered the fossilizing consequences.

Like Sodom and Gomorrah, Columbus, Georgia and Phenix City, Alabama are also poised geographically next to one another.

Ellie (Kathryn Grant) --

-- a character who starts out in service of Tanner's vision for the town, is transformed, ironically, into it's most effective opponent --

-- transformed by an unspeakable act of violence, committed by Tanner's thugs (at his direction) --

-- intended to have precisely the opposite effect -- to complete the ossification of the town's citizenry. 

And that unspeakable act of violence just happens to be a prime example of why Destructible Man exists!


This brings us to the alternate vision of the town's future --

-- the progressive, civilized society that Rhett Tanner so desperately fears. Karlson represents this with an innocent black girl --

-- whose death is the pivotal moment on which both the story and the fate of the town are hinged.

The execution of this child is staged by Tanner as a piece of theatrical propaganda intended for consumption by the people of Phenix City.

He intends her corpse to become a kind of totem-pole, shocking the town into submission and thus warding off positive change.


The audacious destruction of a dummy simulacrum of the girl (strongly resembling a print-dressed log with bow-tie braids), as staged by Karlson, is an all-out assault on the sensibilities of the audience.

The fact that this heinous act is committed upon a little girl instead of a boy is illustrative of the feminine nature of the threat to Tanner's dominance.

The victim is a girl -- a future woman -- within who is reposed the ultimate ability for human social change (the physical ability to make more people) --

-- which explains the unique savagery that Tanner visits upon her.

In order to magnify the impact of this atrocity for the audience, Karlson thoughtfully places two lone witnesses at the scene of the crime --

-- a 2-year-old girl in a playpen on the lawn -- 

-- attended to by her older brother who cries out in horror and confusion, traumatized by the spectacle.

Ironically, it is at this moment that Tanner's carefully constructed world, like Lot's wife, begins to crack and crumble.

The little victim, reconstituted back into human form.

The denizens of this city, unlike their tragic Pompeian counterparts, are allowed to hatch, alive, from their stony social encasement --

Tanner's intended response: petrification of the populace.
Mother and child: fossilized at Pompeii.

-- their rebirth seeded by two tragic deaths:

The murder of an innocent child -- 

-- and the assassination of a bold civic leader.

Bold civic leader and son.

Now, one can't discount the peripheral tragedies such as the young newspaper boy who is run over by Tanner's men immediately following the deposit of the little Ward girl's corpse on Patterson's lawn --

-- or the subsequent murder of Fred Gage (Biff McGuire), the son of another of the town's heroic group of "gangbusters".

However -- these are not sanctioned killings that are staged for effect --

-- these executions are performed out of practical necessity in order to get rid of any and all witnesses to the previous spectacle.

They add dramatic weight to Tanner's cause, but because they are unplanned and impromptu, the sloppy spontaneity of the murders become even larger fissures in Tanner's criminal infrastructure.

If the little girl's transformative death spectacle (the dummy-death) signaled a breaking point for the inert, petrified townspeople of Phenix City, then the spectacular non-substitutional slaying (no dummy-death) of Albert Patterson is the lightning bolt that resuscitates them all.

Karlson's staging of Albert Patterson's murder is a shocking display of violent light and darkness.

His killers are menacing figures of shadow and silhouette. 


Embodying the old adage "You can't keep a good man down" in the flesh, Patterson doesn't drop from the bullets fired point-blank into his face.

He emerges from the blackness -- his body stiffly jerking forward  -- very Frankenstein monster-esque in his movements -- as he strains every inch of his will to stay alive.

The visual allusion to Frankenstein may not be that far reaching -- it is, after all, the story of another kind of phoenix - a mythical bird that perishes in flame only to rise anew from its ashes. A bird that this particular city's name recalls.

NOTE: Karlson positions the mannequins dead-center in the composition (a placement usually reserved for the living victimized characters) as Patterson's life gives out on the street in front of the store window.

Whereas Zeke Ward's little girl (or at least the actress who plays her) transforms into a mannequin for her death, the mannequin placement in this frame foreshadows what will reveal itself to be a reversal of the ossification that Tanner so desperately relies on to control the town's citizens.

As Karlson pulls back to reveal the entire empty street and Patterson dying in front of the mannequins in a locked-down wide-shot --

-- the audience's eye is directed to the right side of the frame to naturally follow two men (the only moving elements in the composition) as they walk over to the expiring politician at center-frame. 

A moment more and Karlson allows surreality to take over as dozens of townspeople suddenly emerge from all sides of the frame. 

The citizens of Phenix City break free from their paralysis and converge on Patterson at center-frame until the whole frame is filled with "reawakened" townspeople. 

Karlson's  hopeful gesture is that the citizens now move toward the victim in center-frame to help someone and not to just watch the tragedy from the wings. In other words: the town becomes centralized again.

He then replaces the image of the street with a shot of a very nervous Tanner, whose empire has seen its last with the fresh revitalization of civic pride, identity and moral values. Phenix City has finally risen from its ashes with the promise of a better future.

A nervous Tanner; empire in ruins.
These statues "come-to-life" are given a "happy" end to their story this time, but as in all Phil Karlson movies, this privilege is only an invitation to fight another day.

post © Howard S. Berger & Kevin Marr


Anonymous said...

Great telling of a terrifying time in the South. Even more terrifying is what happened next. These monsters born of man didn't sink into the Earth or all get put behind bars. Instead they hit the road looking for fresh feeding grounds, one of the spots where some of them settled down was McIntosh county Ga. Clear the other side of the state of Georgia just south of Savannah on U.S. 95 the most used highway for folks to get to Florida. It was along this stretch of highway that this scum was allowed to set up business by a man so ruthless and cruel no one thought to defy him. His name was Sheriff Poppell and you can read his story and the story to follow Phenix City in 'Praying for Sheetrock' by Melissa Fay Greene.

yojimboen said...

FYI your guess that the two title cards were created for European consumption is correct.

I saw the movie the movie a dozen times growing up in the UK and remember them well.

For my money though, the star of the movie was John Larch as the toothpick-chewing vacant-eyed thug, Clem Wilson.

I don't think Larch ever got the praise he deserved for creating such an iconic character.

The Barker said...

Great flick, great post.

I recently saw "The Black Klansman" ('66) which had another little black girl victim mannequin. What happened to it had me saying "holy shit" to the screen for about half a minute! A good outright race-hatred exploitation film overall, might be worth your time if only for the destructible!

The Flying Maciste Brothers said...

Yojimboen - Thanks for confirming the title card issue -- for a few hours while we were putting this piece together on 2 coasts, we were a little confused since we were looking at 2 different versions of this film... Larch was one of those guys like John Vernon who, even late in his career, was being "introduced" in main title credits. Heads like that are irreplaceable to late 20th century mainstream American cinema.

Chip -- You bet your bottom bippy, The Black Klansman is on our deconstruction cue. Many and much thanks for stopping by and speaking up! And great job over at your own Cinemachine!!!