Phil Karlson was never more than a B-movie director and he was proud of it. While working for Monogram Pictures the young director was paid $250 a week working on their film assembly line. In 1946, he churned out eight movies! Back then, movie companies like Monogram owned the movie theaters their films played in. This monopoly setup (later broken up) pretty much guaranteed that any B-movie -whether it was a western or crime film- Monogram churned out would turn a profit.
Monogram was known for releasing cheap predictable movies (like the later Charlie Chan and Shadow movie series) that cost the company next to nothing to produce. Karlson, who began his film career working part time while going to law school fell in love with movie making. He worked his way up the ranks doing every movie job going from prop man to, after serving in World War II, film director. Eventually Karlson was put under contract by Monogram Pictures.
In the late 1940s, the chiefs at Monogram, wanting to make their brand appear more artistic to film goers and newspaper critics, began putting out bigger budget films under their new name Allied Artists. Karlson (who made AA's first “important” picture, Black Gold) was asked to begin making better (more expensive) movies. The Karlson-directed AA crime films released in the 1950s where far from being big-budget A films, but they were a long way from the 4 or 5 day movie shoots with no budget cheapies Karlson cut his teeth with. One of Karlson's best was one released in 1955, The Phenix City Story. True, Karlson churned out five movies that year for Allied Artists and Columbia Pictures, but this one stood out for its gritty realism due to the film being shot in the Alabama town during the same time the actual trial for the real-life killing was taking place.
The highly fictionalized story was based on fact. In 1954, in a series of events that no doubt reminded Karlson of his youth in Al Capone-era Chicago, became famous when reporters dubbed the Alabama town “Sin City.” Drugs were sold openly, prostitutes solicited johns on the street corners, and sleazy clubs offered gambling. Not seen by the citizens and army men from Fort Benning that visited the town for pleasure were other even more sleazy rackets including a safe-cracking school and a black-market baby ring. It wasn't until the state's attorney general elect – who campaigned with the promise that he would clean up the city --was murdered in 1954 did the citizens demand action against the criminal element. After the killing, the national guard was sent in and the major crime bosses fled. This was exactly the type of story that B-thriller semidocumentaries were made from. And it was -- the very next year.
Karlson and his film crew arrived in Alabama set out to make The Phenix City Story during a media circus. The small city was swarmed by newspaper men and television reporters following the murder trial and writing feature stories about the men and women who grew up in “Sin City.” Apparently quite the story teller, Karlson at the time credited himself with digging up information that helped convict the killers during filming.
The film was released in 1955. Under the direction of a lesser director the film would have probably been totally forgotten today. Karlson's insistence on shooting the film on the city's notorious fourteenth street gave the film a dark city feel other Karlson films were known for. The director even had actor John McIntire wear the suit Albert Patterson (the real-life local attorney that was helping lead the effort to clean up the city) was killed in. Writers Crane Wilbur and Dan Mainwaring add a lot of fiction to the true story. Karlson, Wilber and Mainwaring set out to capture the sleaziness of the city by adding a number of violent characters doing unspeakable acts including the dumping of a dead child from a car that has to been seen to be believed.
There's no real star of the film. Top-billed Richard Kiley (Pickup on South Street) plays the son of the famous local lawyer who returns to his home town after a stint in the service and quickly makes enemies with the crime syndicate. His performance is fine but McIntire as his father, the evil mobster played by Edward Andrews (who slinks around town asking of everyone is OK when the citizenry knows that he's the mob boss) and John Larch as the cretinous Clem Wilson stand out with strong performances.
Some of the supporting players are good in it too. Kathryn Grant plays one of the locals who hates all the gambling and crime in the city but ends up working for them anyway because the pay is good. Later she plays a key role in the story. James Edwards plays Zeke. He plays the only prominent African American in the film – which is a bit ridiculous. Zeke and his family go through hell in the story and Edwards (a familiar face for noir fans: He was the parking attendant Timothy Carey deals with in The Killing -- a scene that's pretty hard to forget) does a great job playing a nice guy in the wrong place and time.
The newsreel-like ending and scroll that tells how the city is now squeaky clean (which is wasn't in 1955 even after all the drama) doesn't take away from the film maker's message. The film successfully shows that part of 1950s American society is sometimes totally corrupt and that corruption ultimately consumes powerless individuals. The message is unlike Warner Bros. gangster films of the 30s with their "good citizen reformist" message.
A few more tidbits about the film:
The film sometimes is seen with a very long newsreel-like introduction entitled “Report from Phenix City, Alabama” in which a reporter interviews locals about the city's clean up. Thankfully, the copy of the film I have has it edited out. I did find it on YouTube
The prologue doesn't fit in with the rest of the film and I wonder if it was added to the film by someone other than director Karlson as an after thought or even to pad the length of the film.
There's lot of Karlson films worth seeking out (however only Kansas City Confidential is easily available). Film noir fans today get a thrill out of the newspaper noir Scandal Sheet (1952), Tight Spot (1955), 5 Against the House (1955), and the three John Payne thrillers: 99 River Street, Kansas City Confidential and the color Maltese Falcon ripoff Hell's Island. Phenix City Story is also similar in theme to Karlson's greatest box-office success Walking Tall – a guilty pleasure of mine.
After the release of Phenix City Story Karlson was hired by Desilu studios to direct The Scarface Mob – the movie that would be the start of The Untouchables TV series. Desilu chief Desi Arnaz saw The Phenix City Story and wanted Karlson to make his new show The Untouchables look like that. Although Karlson felt that directing for television was a step down, he finally agreed and ended up creating the dark gritty look The Untouchables was known for.
Written by Steve-O