Phoenix City Story, The (1955): Phil Karlson’s Terrific Crime Noir, Starring John McIntire and Richard Kiley

One of the most violent, grim, and realistic movies of the 1950s, The Phoenix City Story has become a classic crime film noir crime, and one of the best of the still underestimated directors, Phil Karlson.

Grade” A- (**** out of *****)

The Phenix City Story
The Phenix City Story (1955 insert poster).jpg

Theatrical release poster

Made by Allied Artists, written by Daniel Mainwaring and Crane Wilbur and starring John McIntire, Richard Kiley and Kathryn Grant, the film benefited from a “triple premiere” held on July 19, 1955[5] in Phenix City, Alabama, Columbus, Georgia and Chicago, Illinois.

The film is inspired by the actual 1954 assassination of Albert Patterson, who had just been nominated as the Democratic candidate for Alabama Attorney General on a platform of cleaning up Phenix City, a city controlled by organized crime. Patterson was murdered in Phenix City, and the subsequent outcry resulted in the imposition of martial law by the state government.

In a corrupt Alabama town, the law can do little to stop the criminal activities of Rhett Tanner, particularly in the wide-open “red-light district” area. Most of the police do not even try, being on Tanner’s payroll.

Urged to run for office and clean up Phenix City, Albert “Pat” Patterson wants no part of the thankless and impossible job. Instead, he welcomes home his son John from military service.

However, soon hell breaks out, with John getting caught in the middle when Clem Wilson, a thug working for Tanner, and others assault innocent citizens.

Patterson finally agrees to get involved in reforming the town, but as soon as he is elected nominee, he is killed.

It is up to John to avenge the death of his father, risking himself and his family.

Director Karlson is skillful at blending a timely story with visual verisimilitude. Fast-paced, The Phenix City Story moves along with bracingly dynamic energy that befit the urgency of its situations.  The first half–up to the more conventional courtroom sequences in the second–is particularly impressive in all departments.

Shot on location in Alabama with a documentary-like look, the movie captured the ambiance and tenor of its Deep South setting better than most films of the era.

In a manner that recalls such excellent films about corruption and political greed as the Oscar winners “On the Waterfront” and “All the King’s Men,} the filmmakers capture the terror imposed on innocent if weak and passive citizens.

The central issue of course is when and under what condition to get involved actively, with some beginning with the claim, “I stick my neck out for nobody” to full and life-threatening participation for a good collective cause

John McIntyre, usually a secondary, character actor (the sheriff in Hitchcock’s “Psycho”) gives a compelling lead performances a the martyred crusader.

That said, Ray Jenkins, one of two reporters of the Phenix City story for the Columbus Ledger, whose coverage won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service, has claimed that the film departed from reality: “The film was a rush job intended to capture public interest while the story was still unfolding. As a result, the film leaves the impression that the local mafia that ran the vice industry in Phenix City killed Albert Patterson. Subsequent indictments and trials demonstrated beyond doubt that the assassination was politically motivated.

Also, the film depicts an inflammatory scene in which the mob kills a young black girl and tosses the body onto the lawn of the Patterson home as a warning. Nothing remotely like this episode actually happened.”

Some prints include a long newsreel-style preface including newsman Clete Roberts interviewing the actual participants.

Well-received, the movie was extremely popular at the box-office.  Made on a budget of  $350,000, it generated more the $2.2 million at the box office.


Critical Status
In 2019, the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Richard Kiley as John Patterson
John McIntire as Albert Patterson

Kahryn Grant as Ellie Rhodes
Edward Andrews as Rhett Tanner
James Edwards as Zeke Ward
Lenka Peterson as Mary Jo Patterson
Biff McGuire as Fred Gage
Truman Smith as Ed Gage
Jean Carson as Cassie
Kathy Marlowe as Mamie
John Larch as Clem Wilson
Allen Nourse as Jeb Bassett
Helen Martin as Helen Ward
Otto Hulett as Hugh A. Bentley
George Mitchell as Hugh Britton
Ma Beachie as Herself
Meg Myles as the Poppy Club singer


Directed by Phil Karlson
Produced by Samuel Bischoff, David Diamond
Screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring, Crane Wilbur
Music by Harry Sukman
Cinematography Harry Neumann
Edited by George White

Production company: Allied Artists Pictures

Distributed by Allied Artists Pictures

Release date: August 14, 1955

Running time: 100 minutes


TCM showed this great gem of a movie on June 30, 2020.