The Phenix City Story (1955, directed by Phil Karlson) makes a strong first impression. I originally saw it on some fly by night cable channel in the 1980s and I've never forgotten it. It's one of the most hard boiled crime films of the 1950s, a period not short on hard boiled crime films. It's also a true exploitation film, one rushed to theaters on the strength of a topical story where the principle actors were still going through the legal system. It's also brutal as hell.
The movie follows the inhabitants of the titular city, which is across the river from Columbus, Georgia. On the evidence of the film, Phenix City seems like it was Columbus's secret sharer, the id where all of its darkest impulse are lived out. It's a cesspit of rigged gambling dens, quick loan joints, dope peddlers, and whores. The city's vice is run by a network of good ol' boy crime lords, and enforced by good ol' boy thugs. Into this mix is thrown lawyer Albert Patterson and his family. His son, John, has returned from Germany in search of a nice place to raise his children. John is a crusader and a war hero, and he slowly but surely draws his father into opposition to the "syndicate" that runs the town. Patterson embarks to run for Attorney General to clean up the town, but it all ends badly.
The structure of the movie is awkward at first, prefaced by interview material with the real people of Phenix City. Everyone is awkward in documentary footage, so this section of the film is not promising. Once the actual movie starts, things improve. It still has a documentary structure along the lines of the other pseudo-documentary crime films of the period, but as the film progresses, the shadows grow longer and the compositions get more stylized until we're smack in the middle of the film noir dark city. The cast is an excellent assortment of familiar faces. John McIntyre is probably the most recognizable actor, promoted from the character ranks into the forefront of the movie. Richard Kiley is ostensibly the lead. The smiling Edward Andrews, a familiar face from a generation of TV guest appearances and commercial roles and cast against type here, makes for a dandy villain. All well and good. There are other similar films littering the noir period. Director Phil Karlson even made a couple of them.
What really distinguishes this film is its willingness to take the next awful step. It's not squeamish about throwing the good and virtuous characters it has into the meat grinder. It has its villains abduct a black child in order to throw her corpse on the lawn of our heroes as a warning. It has young lovers who never get together and wind up dead. It has a jaundiced view of human nature. It gets away with it all under cover of its documentary pedigree, in the best tradition of exploitation filmmaking. Karlson would go to this well again twenty years later with the very similar Walking Tall. It works there, too.
One sour note, though: this has a certain veneer of Hollywood liberal guilt. It presents a relatively noble black character, shows our heroes being friendly and upright in their friendship with him, and lies through its teeth about it. It's a whitewash, of course. The "real" story is suggested on the IMDB's trivia page for the movie:
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. 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.
Hollywood can't tarnish its heroes with racism. Nope. John Patterson can't be Ethan Edwards. Pity.