Speaking pleasantly but pointedly with a local mob boss, attorney general candidate Albert Patterson (John McIntire) wearily agrees to the reminder that a grand jury found no evidence of gambling in the city. He cites the dictionary, saying "a gambler is one who plays a game of chance. They're right; there's no gamblin' here. Nobody in Phenix City has a chance." So ripped from the headlines that it opens with a 13-minute newsreel interviewing the real-life subjects, The Phenix City Story is one of the grittiest, darkest late-period noirs of the '50s.
Aptly compared by Bosley Crowther in a moment of critical faculty to On the Waterfront and All the King's Men, The Phenix City Story is a horrifying look into mass corruption, coerced silence and the near-impossibility of doing the right thing in a rigged system. Made on-location with a minuscule budget, the film's pseudo-documentary feel paints a portrait of vice so utterly soul-corroding that even those who seek to get rid of the gambling and the mob use the same violent, mindless tactics to fight back.
Following the newscast introduction, the film's narrative begins with a bit more exposition over shots of makeshift factories, the economy of Phenix City supported wholly by vice. Workers make the tools of that industry: loaded dice, rigged slot machines and marked cards. The narrator notes that the town sports more churches per capita than any other city in Alabama, but that doesn't stop the town from sinking into vice. In fact, Phenix City's fall can ironically be traced to Fort Benning in nearby Columbus, Ga., an Army base supposedly disciplining men in military code, only for those soldiers to head over the state lines for prostitutes, liquor and gambling. "Where would Phenix City be without us?" club owner Rhett Tanner sardonically asks Al in the aforementioned conversation, and the cruel truth is that the townsfolk owe whatever prosperity they enjoy to the mob as much as they do the atmosphere of intimidation and fear.
Karlson makes the most of his small budget by maximizing the mood of his location sets: the gambling den is a crowded, miserable cesspool, overseen by a toad-throated fatale named Cassie. Always loud, smoky and on the verge of exploding, the den is frequently punctuated by altercations, usually between dealers and the customers who realize they've been cheated. But the house always wins, and every complaint is met with a swift punch to the stomach and a toss out the door, where crooked cops await to drag any nuisances to jail. There's no beating this system, something Al resigned himself to long ago.
But the return of his son, John (Richard Kiley) from stationing in Germany forces Al to reevaluate his position of non-intervention. McIntire has a strong, noble presence as Albert, but that charisma masks a certain cowardice that his son brings to light. The old man's insistence on avoiding conflict holds no water for the son who just returned from a reforming Germany atoning for its own social sins and tacit cooperation. This complicates the usually bleak view of the war as seen through noir's prism, and it even provides a counterbalance for the suggestion of the military's culpability in ruining a town with lechery: John uses the memory of the war to hold the survivors to a higher moral standard, insisting on America earning its sense of superiority by cleaning up its refuse.
But that proves easier said than done, and the depravity shown on-screen is some of the darkest I can recall seeing from an American film from this period. Those who show up at the polls to vote for a galvanized Albert are viciously beaten until blood rolls down the faces of men and women. Wee newsies are slapped around for even holding newspapers with stories about Patterson. Even more disturbingly, a note gets delivered to the law-abiding family attached to a body far too small to belong to anyone connected to this grisly battle. It's easy to talk of doing the right thing, even simpler in the movies, where matters are so often made black and white, but The Phenix City Story starkly demonstrates the forces aligned against those who would seek to clean up a rotten town, and suddenly the "right thing" seems as difficult as it actually is.
But for all its terror and cynicism, The Phenix City Story is a remarkably optimistic noir, and its clear condemnation of what it depicts likely explains how Karlson got away with showing it. That newsreel opening is a bit precious today, but it speaks to the filmmakers' desire to genuinely honor those who would choose to stand up on principle in such a situation even beyond the glorifying effect of Hollywood. The film ends not on a victorious note but with the promise of keeping up the good fight, of acknowledging that the climactic show of social conscience is merely the first step in cleaning up the city, a fittingly realistic and mature end for this morally complex docudrama. The acting is a bit stiff and its aesthetic limitations are not always forgivable, but The Phenix City Story is a fantastic late-period noir and one of the best depictions of the Deep South I've ever seen on film.