“From the ashes of Phenix City has risen the symbol of democracy at work. The power of the ballot will always be the voice of the American People.”
The cut of the film I watched had a rather unique opening prologue complete with interviews by esteemed reporter Clete Roberts (You might remember him from MASH’s Interview episode), and he supplies an instant ethos and credibility to the proceedings.
Faux-newsreel segments have actually been dropped in lieu of actual documentary as he stands on the steps of one of the city’s civic buildings. He takes a moment to talk with a couple notable players including the journalist who broke the story — Ed Strickland — as well as a lifelong resident, Hugh Bentley, who had his home dynamited.
Of course, if we didn’t know any better and we didn’t know these men or see their faces, we might guess this was all for the cause of civil rights. That’s not actually the case. The Phenix City Story is a tale of the criminal syndicate that controlled the city, providing much of its commerce, but also employing rampant coercion tactics.
It’s evident from the first images of Phil Karlson’s actual film, there is an instant dichotomy being created and the two layers of the society. There is the world belonging to the simple, hard-working, God-fearing folks and then the swindlers, gamblers, and generally corrupt subset of society.
Karlson introduces the latter with a knowing visual panache backed by a bluesy dance number. The saucy come-hither floorshow is the epitome of 14th street, and it beckons all men like a greedy seductress looking to bury them. It’s Sin City U.S.A.
What becomes plainly apparent is how evil can come in all shapes and sizes. Rhett Tanner has a gift for southern hospitality. He knows how to schmooze with the locals, chat about the preacher’s Sunday sermons, and keep up appearances. He’s also a shrewd customer behind closed doors as he is the go-to man maintaining the city’s thriving undercurrent of vice. In fact, he’s set himself to be an impregnable despot. No one can topple him because he’s so integrated into society.
Albert Patterson (John McIntire), as portrayed in this storyline, is one of the men who is reluctant to get involved. He’s a lawyer and a good one — he’s one of the town’s best — but he’s also old and feels the fight is not his. He can live on his side of town in relative peace.
It’s his boy, John (Richard Kiley) who really shakes up the status quo. He is a war vet returning to Phenix with his young family after time away, and he’s disillusioned by what he found. He’s faced with the bitter irony of fighting fascism overseas only to see it have such a deathly grip on his childhood home. He’s prepared to fight to give the town back to the good folks around him.
Kiley’s part is actually conveniently whitewashed to make him a more sympathetic hero. In real life, John Patterson ran on a segregationist ticket — although it might have been more pragmatic than anything — he also didn’t have the best track record as a family man.
But in an effort to probe this topic more, James Edwards is one of the characters we must gravitate towards. Edwards certainly never reached star status, and he’s rarely remembered outside of the classic film circles, but through a series of war films, it’s as if he was given an opportunity to exert himself and represent black characters with dignity.
Phenix City Story is one of the few films where he’s not in uniform, and Zeke is not a revolutionary part; he’s only a humble janitorial type, but he has a strong moral conscience. The fact that he, his wife, and his daughter (who becomes a tragic victim) are the only black characters, is also a salient reality of the film’s world.
The movie feels like a microcosm of the whole society, both what is shown and what is not. My historical geography leaves something to be desired, but I think of 1957 and Orville Faubus, or the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham in 1963, and the brutality of Selma after that. My mind starts going places. If this is how they treat other whites in a movie, imagine how it is with blacks. To its credit, the movie resolves to show some of this.
Pound for pound, it doesn’t feel like the Sunday school truth it’s trying to project itself to be, but in the world and qualities of life — especially the exteriors — we do get a real eye into society circa 1955. This is the aspect of many classic films that’s the most enlightening even if the actually perceived mimesis of the film itself is still beholden to the tenets of Hollywood drama. Thankfully, for all its forays into docudrama, it still holds onto Karlson’s always reliable sense of bruised and bloodied physicality. It wouldn’t be one of his pictures without it. But of course, even this has real import.
The ensuing climax feels like a foregone conclusion. People feel a tug or a pull to do something and take a stand. Bystanders can no longer watch. They must act to turn the pervasive tides of oppression. One of them is the young woman Ellie Rhodes (Kathryn Grant before she met Bing Crosby), who saw her boyfriend ruthlessly disposed of. Finally, Albert Patterson resolves to fight as well, and he takes it to the top, running as attorney general. Both of them stick their necks out and pay the consequence. However, these weren’t rash decisions. They knew full well what they were getting into. They counted the costs and pushed forward anyway.
If we are to scan the contemporary movie landscape, something like The Captive City is a comparable movie. Whereas the actual visual plane is more pronounced in individual shots of the earlier movie, Phenix City has the advantage of its world, and if it’s not entirely more expansive, then it certainly feels more evocative. In the dark shrouds of night, we feel the sinister threat hanging over the city’s population.
The Captive City also calls on gangsters who feel like callbacks to the 1930s. The tone verges on social horror. Karlson’s picture is probably even more perturbing because it alights on something that feels fresh and honest in how it pertains to current events in 1955. There’s no escaping reality in this case. We’re still struggling against them over 65 years later. Suddenly, that corny rhetoric at the movie’s opening remains prescient. “The power of the ballot will always be the voice of the American people.”