Cast & Crew
In the early 1950s, Phenix City, Alabama is known as "Sin City, U.S.A." for its nearly 100-year history of supplying gambling and other vices to tourists and the soldiers of nearby Fort Benning, Georgia. Rhett Tanner, the head of the city's organized crime syndicate, deals viciously with any honest citizens who try to stop his "industry's" $100,000,000 per year profit. Due to the gambling syndicate's hold on the city, most of its elected officials and police officers are corrupt, and only a few brave inhabitants dare to oppose Tanner and his cohorts. Among those trying to shut Tanner down are Ed Gage, whose son Fred, an aspiring lawyer, is dating Ellie Rhodes, a blackjack dealer in Tanner's Poppy Club. Worried about the new citizens' committee organized by Gage, Hugh Bentley and Hugh Britton, Tanner visits his old friend, influential lawyer Albert L. "Pat" Patterson. Pat refuses either to accept Tanner's offer to work for him or to join the citizens' committee, as he both hates vice and despairs that it will never be stopped. Reassured that Pat will not fight him, Tanner leaves, after which Pat welcomes home his son John, a fellow lawyer who has been prosecuting war criminals in Germany, and John's wife Mary Jo and their two young children. Mary Jo is unsettled when Pat offers John a partnership in his law firm, as she does not want to live in Phenix City. Pat and John assure her that she will be safe, as long as she avoids Fourteenth Street, the main "red light district." Gage and Britton then arrive at the Patterson home to ask Pat to attend that evening's committee meeting, but Pat turns them down, although John rides with them downtown to run an errand. There, Gage, Britton and John are attacked by Tanner's thugs, led by Clem Wilson, who have been told about the meeting by Jeb Bassett, Tanner's spy in the citizens' committee. Infuriated, John pursues Clem, once his schoolmate, to the Poppy Club, and there beats him. Fred and black janitor Zeke Ward help John to escape and take him home, where John tells his father that they must attend the meeting and help to change the town. At the meeting, Pat insists that he will not participate in the vigilantism that has been the town's usual response to the criminals, and John postulates that if the good citizens of the state were rallied, they would vote in an honest attorney general, who could institute reforms. Upon John's suggestion, everyone turns to Pat, but he refuses to run for the office and states that all of his reforming efforts have been defeated. Pat's mind is changed, however, when Clem, in an effort to intimidate John, kills Zeke's young daughter and tosses her body onto the Pattersons' lawn. While Clem is escaping, he runs over a newspaper boy, and Fred, who has seen him, jumps into his car and pursues him. At the Poppy Club garage, Fred is killed by a blow to the head from Clem, who then stages a car accident so that Fred's death will not look like murder. Finally deciding to fight, Pat appears at the coroner's inquest and tries to prove that Fred was killed, but the terrified jury, spotting Tanner in the crowd, returns a finding of accidental death. Al then informs Tanner that he will be running for attorney general, and despite his advanced age and frail constitution, Al campaigns tirelessly. Citizens attending Pat's rallies are beaten by hoodlums, and Bentley's home is bombed when he makes a televised speech for Pat, but on election day, Pat wins. Tanner points out to his cohorts that Pat has not yet been sworn in, and late one night, as he walks to the office, Pat is shot to death by two of Tanner's henchmen. Ellie witnesses the murder, and Tanner's men begin to search for her. Later, at the funeral home, John attempts to appease the growing mob, which wants to lynch everyone on Fourteenth Street. Receiving a call from Ellie that she is hiding at Zeke's house, John tells Bassett that he is going to protect her, and Bassett informs Tanner. At the Ward home, John arrives to find Clem and another man beating Zeke and his wife Helen. John helps Clem to fight off the men and then searches outside for Ellie, only to find Tanner near her dead body. While Helen stops Zeke from clubbing one of his attackers to death, John viciously beats Tanner, who admits to killing Ellie and orchestrating Pat's death. Zeke prevents John from drowning Tanner, telling him that he must follow the commandment "Thou Shalt Not Kill." John then returns to the funeral parlor, calls the state capital and demands that the militia be called out. With Phenix City under martial law, Fourteenth Street is closed down and its denizens arrested. Soon after, John is elected to replace Pat as attorney general and vows to uphold the justice his father sought.
James E. Seymour
Thomas W. Denby
Herman E. Webber
The Phenix City Story
Jack Shadoian, Dreams and Dead Ends
"I've always cited this movie as the best ever made in (Alabama), as well as the most authentic. Maybe that's in part because watching it is experiencing the apotheosis of Southern sleaze-a bit like festering for hours in the seediest possible Alabama Greyhound depot in August without air conditioning...Though the movie's politics are liberal, its moral outrage is so intense you may come out of it wanting to join a lynch mob." Film critic and Alabama expatriate Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing in his book Essential Cinema.
Part semi-documentary, part social problem film, part film noir, Phil Karlson's The Phenix City Story (1955) is a one-of-a-kind window into a sordid and fascinating period in American crime history. The namesake suggests a glorious bird arisen from the ashes of defeat, but Phenix City, Alabama, at this point in its long history, was anything but glorious. A small town just across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, Georgia, Phenix City had long been controlled by mob and criminal interests in gambling, prostitution, drugs and racketeering. The crime town was a boon to the criminal underworld. Curious tourists with trouble in mind kept gambling coffers full and a steady flow of soldiers from nearby Fort Benning in Georgia kept prostitutes on their backs. During World War II, when the brazen crime kingpins ran 'mattress vans'-- canvas-covered pickup trucks containing prostitutes--to the gates of Fort Benning, Phenix City had the highest venereal disease rate in the nation. General George Patton, in command of the base at the time, threatened to clean up his soldiers' "R and R" hot spot with the kind of law upheld at the end of a tank turret.
Yes, for a good time, all anybody had to do was take a short walk across the bridge from Columbus and there you were in what was dubbed "Sin City, U.S.A." by the national press. Aside from such blatant crime running rampant, the most troubling aspect of the criminal enterprises, often conducted in the glaring light of day, was the permissive blind eye from the otherwise law-abiding citizens of the town. Mostly the average citizen regarded much of the notoriety as being perfectly normal. One resident who had grown up in Phenix City remembered that as a boy, he would spend leisure time "playing the slot machines with no sense of wrongdoing. They would be found not only in the honky-tonks but also in the drug and grocery stores and clothing shops, even within two blocks of the high school. They came equipped with wooden stools for those to short to reach the handle." Either out of laziness, lethargy or fear, Phenix City taxpayers just weren't interested in cleaning up their own town, even though they knew their failure to address the problem might become hell to pay later on. The impetus for significant action took place on June 18, 1954, when local lawyer and Alabama State Attorney General nominate Albert L. Patterson was gunned down outside his law office by the crime syndicate opposed to his plans to take charge and clean up the town. With a hometown hero dead and the heated flush of embarrassment coming from the rest of the state, Phenix City residents were finally compelled to turn the tide against the syndicate's invaluable status quo.
Director Phil Karlson had grown up in Chicago, Illinois during the heyday of Al Capone's criminal rule, so Karlson knew a little something about a city bending to an illegal will. He said in an interview, "I went through the days of killings and whatnot in Chicago. I remember getting twenty-five cents to stand on a corner, and if the cop was on this side of the street, to whistle real loud, and if he was on that side of the street, just to whistle softly. I was keeping a brewery going by a little whistle." After serving in World War II, Karlson began his directing career with Monogram Pictures, a poverty row studio known for four to five day movie shoots with zero budgets. In the late 1940s, the tattered suits at Monogram strived to make their films a bit more sophisticated and attractive to audiences under their new name Allied Artists. These Allied pictures were not big-budget productions, but they were a long way from the quickies with which Karlson began his career. Ironically, he may have wished he was still on a week-long shoot while making The Phenix City Story: it was shot on location in Phenix City during the same time the actual trial for Patterson's killer was taking place. Karlson and his crew received Phenix City-style threats and interruptions from the shadowy syndicate and the citizens that bristled at outside interlopers. But Karlson was not intimidated. Not only did he credit himself at the time with digging up information during filming that helped convict Patterson's killer, but he also insisted on shooting the film on the city's notorious 14th Street, the central location for the syndicate's illegal operations. Karlson further thumbed his nose at the syndicate by having actor John McIntire, playing Patterson, wear the actual suit that Patterson was killed in.
The violence depicted in The Phenix City Story is not for the faint of heart; barroom brawls and beatings of courageous citizens are bloody, bruising and real, and we see the shocking depiction of two children being murdered by the syndicate thugs. The Production Code Administration approved the film's basic story in January 1955, but still objected to the "unusual amount of violence and brutality." One of the cuts the PCA recommended was the murder of Zeke Ward's daughter. Ward is an African-American character in the film who lends help to the town reformers; because he is black, the syndicate singles him out first for a horrendous reprisal--his daughter's lifeless body being tossed out of a moving car. Although the film was finally approved by the PCA, this and other objectionable material remained in the film.
The Phenix City Story also has a subtext that was surely recognizable by audiences at the time; that of the Civil Rights struggle. The crime syndicate is in many ways a symbol of the entrenched racism and prejudice that was ingrained in Southern culture at the time. Aside from the wincing violence against Zeke Ward's daughter, it's the callous nature of the corrupt, white police force that says more about race than it does about the complicity of the police; when her killing is reported, the police dispatcher says to the patrol cars without any measure of urgency, "Somebody just threw a dead n***** kid out on Patterson's lawn. Go out and have a look." There's one telling line in the script when Tanner, the main character representing the mob, justifies his syndicated business to his former friend Patterson, "Half the trouble with the people in the world today is they just don't want to let things stay the way they are." The Civil Rights struggle was all about changing the way things had always been in the Deep South. The way it was written implicitly compares Tanner's, and by extension, the syndicate's, viciousness cloaked in sweet Southern hospitality with the good ole' boy network that systematically oppressed African-Americans with coercion or violence at every turn. An interesting footnote regarding the Civil Rights era in the South: The Phenix City Story aided Albert Patterson's son, John Patterson (played in the film by Richard Kiley), in his campaign for governor of Alabama. He was able to defeat opponent George Wallace due to the good publicity he received in the state because of the film. Unfortunately, Patterson was too inexperienced to lead effectively, and in the next election, lost to Wallace, who would leave a lasting legacy on the story of race in the South.
The film is very much a historical document for its time, but the culture of fear and violence that is depicted in The Phenix City Story certainly has a film noir aspect to it, which was not accidental. The screenplay was written by Daniel Mainwaring who also wrote the noir classic Out of the Past (1947) and the noir-infused sci-fi thriller Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), both of which were concerned with the corruption of small-town ideals with urban iniquity. Phil Karlson and his film also influenced other depictions of criminals and criminality. After the release of The Phenix City Story, Karlson was hired by Desilu studios to direct The Scarface Mob, the pilot TV movie that would launch The Untouchables TV series. It was Karlson's gritty eye that created the dark look the TV series was known for.
A few familiar faces to look out for in the film include the actors James Edwards and Edward Andrews. Edwards, who plays Zeke Ward, figured prominently in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) as the parking lot attendant who runs across hired marksman Timothy Carey. Edwards also played one of Frank Sinatra's fellow soldiers plagued by nightmares in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Edward Andrews is the affable, slick crime boss Tanner. Andrews was a character actor who appeared in countless TV shows and Disney films throughout his long career. His penultimate film role may be the most recognizable though: he played Molly Ringwald's solicitous grandfather in Sixteen Candles (1984).
Producers: Samuel Bischoff, David Diamond
Director: Phil Karlson
Screenplay: Daniel Mainwaring, Crane Wilbur
Cinematography: Harry Neumann
Art Direction: Stanley Fleischer
Music: Harry Sukman
Film Editing: George White
Cast: John McIntire (Albert Patterson), Richard Kiley (John Patterson), Kathryn Grant (Ellie Rhodes), Edward Andrews (Rhett Tanner), Lenka Peterson (Mary Jo Patterson), Biff McGuire (Fred Gage), Truman Smith (Ed Gage), Jean Carson (Cassie), Katherine Marlowe (Mamie), John Larch (Clem Wilson), Allen Nourse (Jeb Bassett), Helen Martin (Helen Ward), Otto Hulett (Hugh Bentley), George Mitchell (Hugh Britton), Ma Beachie (herself), James E. Seymour (himself).
by Scott McGee
The Phenix City Story
All Eight Timeless Suspense Thrillers Are Featured in The Film Noir Classic Collection Volume 5
The changing DVD market takes the blame for the absence of the lavish extras that graced earlier Warners noir volumes, and I'll miss listening to the illuminating commentaries by committed experts like Alain Silver, James Ursini and Eddie Muller. But I have to say that some of the featurettes were beginning to get stale anyway -- how many times can we watch yet another earnest face tell us about dark corners and the influence of German Expressionism? Viewers intrigued by the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 5 won't have to search the bookstore racks very long to learn more about these exotic crime and mystery pictures.
1945's Cornered followed closely on the heels of Dick Powell's second career breakthrough Murder, My Sweet, his impressive transformation from rosy-cheeked Busby Berkeley crooner to one of noir's most conflicted tough guys. This time around Powell is Canadian Laurence Gerard, an RCAF flyer seeking vengeance against the murderer of his French wife of only twenty days. Gerard tracks the Vichy collaborator Marcel Jarnac all the way to Argentina, only to find himself surrounded by shady French expatriates and characters like Melchior Incza, a sleazy agent for hire who dodges questions about his national origin. Dispensing cynical asides, Gerard hounds Jarnac's widow (Micheline Cheirel) and encounters a group of agents also dedicated to catching the war criminal Jarnac. The villains almost trick Laurence into killing an innocent man. Gerard's inner rage shows itself in brief episodes of psychic stress, an instability that aligns him firmly to the noir sensibility, immediately post-war.
Cornered is the kind of film that would be used as evidence of disloyalty, when the HUAC witch hunters went after writers John Paxton and John Wexley and director Edward Dmytryk. Producer Adrian Scott would later be imprisoned as one of the Hollywood Ten, never again to work on a feature film. After producing plenty of anti-Fascist, pro-Soviet movies during the war, Hollywood's agenda abruptly reversed polarity. The filmic suggestion that Axis war criminals were slipping through the fingers of post-war justice was regarded as subversive propaganda. Various heroes would of course continue to confront escaped Nazis, etc., but rarely would the political emphasis be as pronounced as in this picture, which suggests that escaped, unregenerate Fascists are everywhere.
Director Dmytryk did his best work in this period. The show also benefits from top RKO production values and a house style that shows the influence of Val Lewton's mysterioso lighting, especially in the Buenos Aires night exteriors. Much of the cast is unfamiliar. Micheline Cheirel (of Jacques Feyder's Carnival in Flanders) is a black widow with a complicated story to tell. The obscure actress Nina Vale (disc cover, top left) makes a convincingly imperious femme fatale. She fails to seduce the wary Gerard, who regards her with a contemptuous exit line: "Tell your husband I dropped around but I couldn't wait. I got bored".
Favorite Walter Slezak has the most colorful role as an unwelcome partner who might sell out Gerard at any moment. Classic noir villain Luther Adler makes a brief but impressive appearance, and is awarded with a credit card of his own.
If Cornered has a fault, it's a plot that quickly gets murky if one doesn't pay close attention. The biggest reward comes from Gerard's unending string of cynical cracks. Señora Camargo: "Shall I be honest?" Gerard: "Don't strain yourself". As the traumatized Gerard is at any moment liable to explode into violence, his remarks aren't casual asides. A Belgian asks Gerard if he's visited his country, and Gerard answers, "No, but I flew over it. It looked pretty shot up."
Warner's print of Cornered is in good shape but some of the audio is a bit distorted, mostly at the beginning. It's very likely that prime transfer sources no longer exist for this nitrate-era RKO picture, as it was popular enough to enjoy more than one reissue.
Art rears its fuzzy head in 1946's Deadline at Dawn, a one-time film directing fling for the lofty New York stage director and critic Harold Clurman, who brings to RKO both the spirit and key personnel from The Group Theater. Another production effort by Adrian Scott, Deadline at Dawn reunites Clurman with playwright Clifford Odets, who had written and directed his own RKO picture, 1944's None But the Lonely Heart. Even after ejecting Orson Welles and declaring that they would emphasize "Showmanship in Place of Genius", RKO continued to distribute non-commercial 'art' pictures, like the Dudley Nichols/Eugene O'Neill Mourning Becomes Electra.
Deadline at Dawn is an exceedingly well-directed noir infused with the proletarian spirit of progressive 30's theater. Some may consider its stylized dialogue a literary conceit, and conclude that its author is patronizing the working class. Taking place entirely between 2 and 6 a.m. on a hot New York night, Odets adapts Cornell Woolrich's original story to take in a cross section of Manhattanites embroiled in a strange search for a mystery murderer.
The narrative gathers characters like a snowball. Naíve sailor Alex Winkley (Bill Williams) passes out in the apartment of Edna Bartelli (Lola Lane) and later discovers that she's been murdered. Alex is so vulnerable and guileless that he charms June Goth (Susan Hayward), a tough dance hall girl, into helping him clear his name so he can rejoin his ship at dawn. Joining their investigation is Gus Hoffman (Paul Lukas), a sympathetic, philosophical cabbie. The trio encounters a host of nocturnal wanderers. Edna's brother Val (Joseph Calleia) is a dangerous gangster. Mystery blonde Helen Robinson (Osa Massen of Rocketship X-M) seems unconnected to the murdered woman. Alex chases down a "nervous" man running with a large box (Roman Bohnen). Lester Brady (Jerome Cowan) is a stage producer connected to the murder victim by a bounced check. June is harassed by an odd little man who won't take his gloves off (Steven Geray). An alcoholic baseball star (Joe Sawyer) shouts at Edna's apartment window, begging her to give him a bottle.
This parade of interesting personalities becomes more interesting through Clifford Odet's odd, poetic approach to dialogue -- Odets would later write The Big Knife and have a hand in the even more stylized Sweet Smell of Success. Gus continually spills nuggets of philosophy. Alex speaks a mix of bad grammar and $10 syntax whoppers like, "... a girl of whom I cared a great deal." June says rather ornate lines: "It's all right to live in a cocoon if you hope to be a butterfly someday." "Time is on the wing, Gus. Don't waste it." A random cabbie comes up with the observation, "I work. I'm just a parasite on parasites." The tough Val shoves a woman to the floor with the words, "That's all the love I'm giving away this morning", and follows it up with "People with wax heads should stay out of the sun."
Some of these odd lines seem halfway to the Kerouac "beat" ethic. At two separate awkward moments, June suddenly recites the words "I hear the whistle blowing", as if she were performing to an espresso crowd. Alex's lack of experience shows in the way he hangs onto his portable radio, no matter how desperate things get. As instant character shorthand, the radio roughly corresponds to the floppy doggy purse dragged around by Shirley MacLaine in Some Came Running.
Filmed entirely on the RKO city lot, Deadline at Dawn is given a superb look by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. The evocative music score is by Hanns Eisler, who would soon flee back to East Germany when HUAC came after him. For all of its artifice and stage calculation, Deadline builds a touching romance between a tough girl and her sweet sailor, and comes off as very affecting. The pervasive feeling of lost souls drifting in an amoral night world keeps the show in noir territory.
Deadline at Dawn is in fantastic shape, audio and visual-wise. Many two-shots, particularly when the youthful Susan Hayward is pictured, are stunning works of art.
Director Anthony Mann worked his way to the big time from near the bottom of the heap. His career finally caught fire at the tiny Eagle-Lion studio with the innovative T-Men and Raw Deal, but immediately previous to that he turned out a pair of creative noirs at RKO. The better of the two is Desperate, a movie so skillfully directed that its comparatively low budget never becomes an issue. The no-star cast is headed by Steve Brodie, an actor mainly known for westerns and immortalized as Robert Mitchum's detective partner in Out of the Past. Mann's evocative direction, aided by George Diskant's raw cinematography, produces a steady string of iconic images: hulking criminals lit by swinging light sources; a fist and a broken bottle thrust at the camera.
HUAC friendly witness Harry Essex's screenplay is no winner either. Newlywed veteran Steve Randall (Brodie) is tricked into driving a truck for a warehouse robbery that goes bad. Crook Walt Radak (Raymond Burr) threatens to kill Randall's pregnant wife Anne (Audrey Long) if Steve won't take the rap for Radak's brother Al, who was captured in the heist. A cop was killed, and Radak is determined to see his brother go free.
In between startling bits of threatened violence, director Mann plays out a rather glamorized version of the "young lovers on the run" plot. Steve Randall and his sweet wife should run straight to the cops and take their chances, but he's determined to first get Anne safely to her aunt's farm. Events conspire to make it "necessary" for Steve to steal two cars and leave a rural sheriff unconscious by the side of the road. Pessimistic noir themes surface when the fugitives ditch a train because Steve becomes convinced he's been spotted; and when a venal used car salesman gets Steve to fix a broken-down jalopy and then refuses to sell it to him. Frankly, the crazy events that complicate Steve and Anne's situation seem a screenwriting substitute for the real reason "ordinary folks" might not run to the local cops: It's always possible that they're in cahoots with the local crooks.
Anthony Mann's sure hand maintains a high level of tension. Raymond Burr is excellent as the moody gangster, with Freddie Steele and Douglas Fowley making good impressions as a dumb thug and a slippery detective. Jason Robards Sr.'s police detective initially seems wholly cynical, but eventually becomes the Best Friend of the Unjustly Accused. The underlying message is that American Law can be trusted. Also, the ethnic names given to the slimiest villains (Radek, Lavitch) are offset by an immigrant-friendly Czech wedding ceremony, complete with folk dancing. Yet Steve Randall's hopeless plight makes Desperate a mainstream noir.
Desperate must have been the recipient of a recent re-master, as both picture and sound are nearly perfect. The clean, clear images pop off the screen. Paul Sawtell's dramatic music is felt strongly in director Mann's more expressive passages, such as a montage of extreme close-ups when Radek counts off the minutes to a murder.
1950's Backfire was advertised as a follow-up to White Heat, when it was actually filmed and completed two years earlier. Star Gordon MacRae would later make a big splash in Rodgers and Hammerstein film adaptations, but Backfire didn't set Hollywood on fire for the popular radio and big band singer.
The story is awkward at best. Three years after the war, tank corps soldiers Bob Corey and Steve Connolly (Gordon MacRae & Edmond O'Brien) are still waiting for Bob's back injuries to heal so he can be released from the Veteran's Hospital. Nurse Julie Benson (Virginia Mayo) has fallen in love with Bob; the plan is that they will all become ranchers. But Connolly disappears, and is suspected in the murder of a high-rolling gambler (Richard Rober). Barely out of his bed, Bob tries to solve the case on his own. Nobody in the hospital believes that Bob had a mystery visitor on Christmas Eve, a woman named Lysa (Viveca Lindfors) who told him that Steve was in terrible trouble.
Films noir are prone to odd contrivances and coincidences but Backfire doesn't make any more sense than its title. Flashback episodes only make the story seem more confusing. Edmond O'Brien's Steve may or may not regress to a pre-war "crooked" personality after a blow on the head. And a main character's disappearance is explained away by introducing a second severe back injury into the mix. It's fairly laughable when this crippled man, strapped into a neck brace, wins a wrestling match.
Likeable Gordon MacRae comes off well enough but does very little with his hazy character. Edmond O'Brien's time on-screen is limited and Virginia Mayo (more beautiful than ever) has little connection to the film's key action -- the script may have been rigged to require a minimum of their services. That leaves us with Warners contract players and star hopefuls that didn't pan out: Dane Clark, Viveca Lindfors, Richard Rober. The beautiful Lindfors is once again made to look downright ugly through odd makeup choices, and Dane Clark's transformation into a jealous madman doesn't come off well at all. A strong leading man might have held Backfire together, but it really looks as if director Vincent Sherman got stuck with a lemon.
Backfire takes place in Los Angeles but manages to avoid interesting locations. Gordon's wife Sheila MacRae has a nice scene as a murder victim in a Hollywood court apartment building. The murder of the shady gambler appears to be modeled on the then-recent slaying of mobster Bugsy Siegel, who was gunned down while reading the paper in his own living room.
Warners' transfer of Backfire is again flawless in picture and sound --- this one may not have been out of the vault since it was released.
TCM has given Armored Car Robbery a separate review here.
1950's Dial 1119 is a low-budget MGM picture that resembles a one-act play expanded to short feature length. With economic pressures coming down hard on the studios, the expense of something like An American in Paris had to be balanced by making other studio producers come up with something for nothing. Thus we have Dial 1119, a taut little suspense item that uses only a couple of sets and utilizes the services of contractees already on the payroll.
The show also resembles a typical live TV production from a few years later, the kind that garnered attention for the likes of James Dean. Clean-cut young mental patient Gunther Wyckoff (Marshall Thompson) comes to Terminal City to kill Dr. Faron (Sam Levene), the psychologist who saved him from the electric chair on a plea of insanity. Gunther kills a bus driver and holes up in a bar, committing a second murder and taking five patrons hostage. They include a man whose wife is having a baby (Keefe Brasselle), a bothersome barfly (Virginia Field), a slimy Lothario (MGM stalwart Leon Ames) and the young woman he's talked into a weekend fling (Andrea King of Red Planet Mars). Down in the street, police captain Keiver (Richard Rober) holds back the crowd and sends a police sniper into an air duct to pick off Gunther. The deranged young man insists that he's going to kill everyone in the bar.
Dial 1119 was probably quite novel when it was new. Marshall Thompson is no James Dean, and is just okay as the "unmotivated" killer. Gunther is eventually revealed to be driven by feelings of inadequacy -- he was 4F in the big war and has constructed a personal fantasy that he's a mistreated veteran. First-time feature director Gerald Mayer is (surprise!) Louis B.'s nephew. The competently shot film is also unusually violent for an MGM product -- Gunther Wyckoff guns down four people with a .45 pistol, three of them point-blank. His last target is equally a victim of the Production Code -- as soon as Gunther pulls the trigger, the camera cuts away from the presumably bloody corpse and never shows him again. We almost expect the character to pop up in the next scene, saying, "I'm glad I dodged that one!"
Dial 1119's script reserves some nasty criticism for TV. The has a large projection set, and the bartender (familiar face William Conrad) curses its bad reception and stupid programming. The live TV truck that covers the siege almost gives away the police strategy, as in Die Hard 38 years later. The TV reporter promotes panic among the bystanders to make the "show" more exciting.
Ten years earlier Marshall Thompson might have been given a big buildup like Van Johnson, but the collapse of the contract system sent him and most of the other players on to the less glamorous world of Television. Sam Levene, the star of Broadway's Guys and Dolls was probably the celebrity on the set. The interesting Richard Rober was building a solid foundation for a starring career when he was killed in an auto accident two years later.
The established classic in this collection is Phil Karlson's 1955 The Phenix City Story, a searing, sordid real-life exposé of a "Sin City" taken over by corruption and vice. The movie is alarmingly topical. The story of Phenix City, Alabama was indeed covered in pictorial spreads in major magazines, and the Columbus Ledger won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the assassination of political candidate Albert J. Patterson.
Crane Wilbur and Daniel Mainwaring's screenplay portrays a sleepy Southern town's domination by mobsters as an affront to everything Americans hold dear. Army lawyer John Patterson (Richard Kiley) returns from prosecuting at the Nuremburg trials to find his hometown in desperate straits. Phenix City is right across the river from Georgia's Fort Benning, and its notorious 14th street, overseen by the venal Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews) have locked up the illegal profits from crooked gambling and prostitution. The "fix" is in with the local police and courts, so that Tanner's crime lords can murder with impunity. Honest citizens are beaten in the streets for trying to vote against the Mob candidates. A Soviet propaganda movie couldn't paint a more ugly picture.
While his wife screams in protest, John sticks his neck out and goes to war against the Tanner mob, with the help of Ellie Rhodes (Kathryn Grant). She's a card dealer at Tanner's Poppy Club, a dive run by a tough lesbian. Ellie gives John inside information because Tanner's thug Clem Wilson (John Larch) murdered her fiancé. John's dad Albert (John McIntire) is an elder statesman determined to let things alone until the escalating violence motivates him to run for state attorney general. While the Pattersons hope to rally support outside of the county, Rhett Tanner's men prepare a deadly ambush.
Noone who has seen The Phenix City Story will forget moments stronger than any in horror movies of the time. One scene involving violence toward a child is almost obscene in its impact. Ellie rushes to an emergency room to find out what's happened to her boyfriend, only to be asked, "Where do you want the body sent?" A voter beaten by thugs spits blood against a wall, and assassins blast down a defenseless old man on a warm Alabama evening. After a night of vigilante violence, the U.S. Army moves in and enforces martial law.
Our reaction is outrage, which is exactly what the makers of The Phenix City Story want. But the outrage is very selective, especially considering that these were the years of the Civil Rights movement. Although almost no blacks appear, a bayou confrontation featuring the Poppy Club's janitor (James Edwards) plays up the racial element, along with a church theme perhaps added to mollify the Production Code censors. The movie preaches restraint "Don't resort to violence... that will make us just like them." Just the same, by the end of the movie we're ready to take up arms, annihilate small-town gangsters and their mouth-breathing goon killers, and start waving the flag.
The movie emphasizes its own topicality. The real "Ma Beachie" appears in a bit with Edward Andrews; she owned a strip club with gambling and liquor. Always cut for TV screenings, Warners' presentation restores an original twelve-minute prologue with Clete Roberts conducting man-in-the-street interviews during the subsequent trial. The "good" residents of Phenix City fear that the crooks will escape justice and take reprisals. An epilogue adds a direct address by Richard Kiley, still in character as John Patterson, announcing that he'll run for office in his father's place and clean up the corruption forever.
Anybody with a brain should be able to surmise that Phenix City stayed crooked because bigger powers wanted it crooked. Nobody asks the General in charge of Ft. Benning why places like the Poppy Club weren't put off limits, as was routine for clip joints and trouble spots around other Army bases. (General George Patton was quoted in 1940 that he wanted to "level the town.") The Phenix City Story also doesn't admit that low-key corruption was common in many, many American towns. Before his brave stand as a reformer, the real Albert Patterson had once been a candidate for the syndicate mobsters. What's more, John Patterson used the movie in his subsequent political campaigns, replacing actor Kiley's end speech with one by himself. John Patterson defeated a young George Wallace in a run for Governor, but was likewise a segregationist with backing from the Klan.
Yet The Phenix City Story at least condemns vigilantism, an evil that is celebrated in Phil Karlson's much later film Walking Tall, starring Joe Don Baker. Almost a replay of the same plot, Walking Tall uses the same combination of exploitation and moral outrage. The violent story of Buford Pusser and his ax-handle vigilantism solidly endorses Fascist values dressed up in rural "morality".
Warners' transfer of this Allied Artists film is an excellent enhanced widescreen presentation that adds much to the film's impact. The movie starts with a cooch dancer singing a song called "Fancy women, slot machines and booze", and ends with a newsreel montage of the Army destroying rigged slot machines and card tables. I imagine that theater owners in 1955 might have thought to keep small children out of Phil Karlson's violent shock-fest -- it's very disturbing.
Recommended factual reading: Jack Culpepper's Phenix City series from the Shelbyville, Tennessee Times-Gazette (2005).
The prevailing wisdom is that a number of factors broke up the "noir style". By the late 1950s the place to look for private eyes stalking dark streets were shows like TV's Peter Gunn. 1956's Crime in the Streets began life the year before as a TV drama directed by Sidney Lumet. Besides the remarkable young actor John Cassavetes, actor Mark Rydell was carried over from the TV play, along with Will Kuluva as a candy shop owner. Robert Preston and Glenda Farrell were replaced by James Whitmore and Virginia Gregg.
Crime in the Streets is hard-core 50s liberal theater, and not really film noir. Social worker Ben Wagner (Whitmore) can't get through to the almost psychotic leader of the Hornets gang, Frankie Dane (Cassavetes), who becomes obsessed with "getting back" at life by murdering a neighbor in his tenement. The socially progressive thesis is that loving understanding is the only hope for tough kids.
There's little or no doubt that Crime in the Streets had a strong influence on Arthur Laurents' play West Side Story. The situation is identical, with a gang of vaguely Italian-American punks misbehaving on the sidewalks and hanging out at a candy store. The owner's sweet daughter is even named Maria. Director Don Siegel's staging of the opening rumble is very much like the eventual movie battle between the Jets and the Sharks. The boys enter by climbing over fences, and the action cutting is similar. They even wield similar clubs and bats. What's more, Laurents & Co. hired actor David Winters straight from the Crime in the Streets TV show to act in their Broadway musical.
The compressed story sees Frankie Dane's gang deserting him after he decides to murder Mr. McAllister (Malcolm Atterbury, the man at the prairie bus stop in North by Northwest). But the perverse Lou Macklin (Mark Rydell) volunteers to help Frankie, and Frankie intimidates the impressionable young Angelo (Sal Mineo) into posing as bait for their victim. Frankie promises to stop calling Angelo "Baby" after he proves his manhood. Social worker Ben Wagner (James Whitmore) gets wind of the scheme from Frankie's frightened little brother Richie (Peter Votrian).
Crime in the Streets comes with the expected position speeches about bad and good kids (also familiar from West Side Story) but builds to some very powerful emotions. John Cassavetes is excellent as the disturbed malcontent, who can't stand to be touched and rejects every form of sympathy or communication. Writer Reginald Rose (Twelve Angry Men, Man of the West) made his reputation here as one of the top talents of the Golden Age of Television. There are plenty of dated "social comment" plays from this time, but this is one of the good ones.
Director Don Siegel was on a major roll with solid mid-range hits in Riot in Cell Block 11, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Lineup. Although he adjusts his style for this dramatic format, Siegel employs a violent montage for the titles and graces many scenes with long takes on a moving crane. His camera moves quite a lot, but never draws attention to itself. Siegel handles the melodramatic finish beautifully, eliciting strong emotions from Frankie Dane's final encounter with his little brother. Little Peter Votrian is every bit as good an actor as Cassavetes. He's 14 years old but easily passes for ten.
Crime in the Streets looks particularly good in Warners' enhanced widescreen transfer, which has only a bit of dirt and one rough frame in 91 minutes. The cropped 1:85 transfer really helps focus the drama, which played far too loose on old, flat TV prints. This may not be a real film noir, but it's the very best of the juvenile delinquency epics from the rock 'n' roll era: not as slick as Rebel Without a Cause, perhaps, but not as overcooked, either.
Warners Home Video's DVD of the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 5 is a knockout, with off-the-beaten path noir gems and a couple of oddball titles thrown in for variety. Cornered, Desperate, The Phenix City Story, Deadline at Dawn, Armored Car Robbery and Crime in the Streets are so good that we don't miss the extras of earlier Warners noir volumes. It's been two years since the last collection, and now that the rough times of the recession are receding the series can perhaps continue on a more regular basis.
For more information about Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 5, visit Warner Video. To order Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 5, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
All Eight Timeless Suspense Thrillers Are Featured in The Film Noir Classic Collection Volume 5
The working titles of this film were Phenix City and Wide Open Town. The film's credits are preceded by a thirteen-minute documentary sequence in which noted reporter Clete Roberts interviews several of the townspeople involved in the actual incidents that occurred in Phenix City, AL, including reporter Ed Strickland, who, along with fellow reporter Gene Wortsman wrote a book about Phenix City; townsmen Hugh Bentley and Hugh Britton, who fought against the organized crime that controlled the city; and the widow of Albert L. Patterson, the Alabama State Attorney General nominate who was murdered by the crime syndicate opposed to his reforms.
As noted by Roberts, Patterson was killed on June 18, 1954 and was succeeded by his son John Patterson, a fellow lawyer and World War II veteran. [John Patterson went on to serve as governer of Alabama from 1959 to 1963.] The town, which was dubbed "Sin City, U.S.A." by the national press, had long been controlled by gambling, prostitution, drugs and racketeering syndicates, which catered to tourists and soldiers from nearby Columbus, GA. According to the Motion Picture Herald Prod Digest review of The Phenix City Story, the newsreel footage of Roberts was offered to exhibitors at no extra charge, and did not have to be included when showing the picture. The film ran 87 minutes without the newsreel, and 100 minutes with it. The viewed print included the newsreel footage.
At the conclusion of the newsreel, the film's credits roll, followed by a written statement that reads: "There is no other place in the world as Phenix City, Alabama. For almost one hundred years it has been the modern Pompeii where vice and corruption were the order of the day. Unlike Pompeii it did not require a Vesuvius to destroy it, for Phenix City is now a model community-orderly-progressive-and a tribute to the freedom loving peoples everywhere." Intermittent voice-over narration by Richard Kiley, as "John Patterson," is heard throughout the film, and at the end of the picture, "John" speaks directly to the camera, telling the audience that he intends to seek out and bring to justice his father's killers and with God's help, will keep closed the gambling establishments that have plagued the city.
Although an August 1954 Daily Variety news item reported that producer Samuel Bischoff had hired Crane Wilbur to write a "modernization of the Ray Golden yarn 'Wide Open Town,'" Golden's contribution to the completed film, if any, has not been determined. August and September 1954 Los Angeles Examiner news items announced that Glenn Ford, Edward G. Robinson and George Raft were to be in the cast, and that screenwriter Crane Wilbur would direct the picture. As several reviews pointed out, many of the professional actors in the picture were recruited from television, and some, including Edward Andrews, Meg Myles and Ricky Klein made their feature-film debuts in The Phenix City Story. The picture's pressbook adds Eric von Stroheim, Jr. to the cast as a "heavy," and a March 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item includes Ann Hester in the cast, but their appearance in the released film has not been confirmed.
Contemporary sources report that Wilbur did extensive research in Phenix City, where the picture was shot on location, and that many local citizens appeared as extras. An October 1955 LA Mirror-News article added that Phenix City resident Ma Beachie, who portrays herself in the film, was "the town's No. 1 madam." According to reviews and news items, the filmmakers were harassed and threatened by criminals remaining in Phenix City, as well as citizens who opposed the exposé, but they were supported and protected by the Russell County Betterment Association.
According to information in the film's file in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, in early November 1954, the PCA decreed that the film's story was unacceptable due to "1. The presentation of white slavery. 2. The presentation of prostitutes and prostitution. 3. Excessive brutality." PCA officials also advise Bischoff that "in addition to the over-all problem of brutality, there was the specific item of the murder of the Negro child, which we thought was unacceptable." In January 1955, the film's basic story was approved, but the PCA continued to object to the "unusual amount of violence and brutality" in the story, as well as any portrayal of prostitution or the depiction of the murder of "Zeke Ward's" daughter. A June 1955 memo in the file indicates that after shooting on The Phenix City Story was completed, the PCA requested a number of cuts before it could be approved. Although the picture received an MPAA certificate on July 20, 1955, many of the details to which the PCA objected, such as the child's murder and men standing in line at a brothel, were in the released film.
Released in United States 1983
Released in United States Summer August 1955
Released in United States 1983 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (A "B-Movie" Marathon) April 13 - May 1, 1983.)
Released in United States Summer August 1955