The Phenix City Story is a crime film based on the assassination of Alabama politician and attorney Albert Patterson in June 1954 in Phenix City, Russell County. The film, which takes a number of liberties with the actual events and characters, opened on July 19, 1955, with simultaneous premieres in Phenix City, Columbus, Georgia, and Chicago, Illinois. Critics praised the film, but due to its violence and cynicism, include it in the genre of “film noir” (dark cinema).
Located on the western bank of the Chattahoochee River marking the Georgia state line, Phenix City had long been known as the “red light district” for both the much larger Columbus and the nearby Army base at Fort Benning (now Fort Moore). From the era of Prohibition in the 1920s through the early 1950s, organized crime bosses bribed local and state law enforcement to ignore Phenix City’s public intoxication, gambling, and prostitution. A 1954 report by the US Army’s Criminal Investigation Division stated that the small town had more per capita incidences of venereal disease and violence than any other city in America. Indeed, when Gen. George S. Patton was stationed at Fort Benning during World War II, he publicly threatened to cross the river and flatten Phenix City with his tanks. Hollywood censors prohibited script writers Daniel Mainwaring and Crane Wilbur from mentioning prostitution and venereal disease, so they instead emphasized the public menace of gambling and the brutal methods used by mob bosses to enforce their interests.
In March 1955, director Phil Karlson and his cast and crew began filming in Phenix City, popularly known in the national press as “Sin City, USA,” for rampant abuses by organized crime. Patterson had been gunned down June 18, 1954, in the street outside his law office just days after winning the Democratic nomination for attorney general, for which he had campaigned on a platform of “cleaning up” the South’s most notorious town. The film stars John McIntire as Albert Patterson and Richard Kiley as John Patterson, Albert’s son who has returned from the Korean War to join his father’s Phenix City law practice.
As the movie starts, Albert Patterson is being urged to run for public office and battle the corrupt influence of Rhett Tanner (played by Edward Andrews), the gangster who controls Phenix City’s virtually lawless 14th Street. Patterson does not see himself as a moral crusader and is reluctant to take up this cause. But John Patterson is attacked on his first night back in Phenix City and must fight to defend himself while the police watch and do nothing. Arriving at his father’s house bruised and bloodied, the younger Patterson urges his father to clean up the town. Realizing how bad the situation has become, Albert Patterson agrees to run for office, a decision almost immediately met by threats and violence from Rhett Tanner and his mob.
As in real life, the cinematic version of Albert Patterson is murdered by men threatened by his victory in the Democratic primary for state attorney general. At the time of filming, the killers had not yet been identified. Albert Fuller, the local chief deputy who had given Albert Patterson a ride the night he was shot, would later be indicted for the crime, along with outgoing attorney general Si Garrett and circuit solicitor Arch Ferrell. Only Fuller would be convicted, however. The family oriented practices of the film industry at the time prompted Mainwaring and Wilbur to create an ending in which Patterson’s killers are identified and brought to justice. Thus, the script depicts the murder as the work of the fictional crime boss Tanner and his henchmen, rather than corrupt politicians and law enforcement officials.
In the film, John Patterson personally battles, tracks down, and captures the fictional Tanner mob. In reality, John Patterson travelled to Washington, D.C., to ask FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to use his agency to investigate the murder, but Hoover refused to see him. Roused to action by public outrage, Alabama governor Gordon Persons placed Phenix City under martial law, putting the Alabama National Guard in charge of law enforcement in Russell County. A special grand jury in Birmingham handed down 734 indictments against law enforcement officers, elected officials and business owners connected to organized crime in the city. John Patterson would go on to serve as Alabama Attorney General, but his relationship to the victim prohibited him from involvement in the investigation of his father’s murder.
The film invents instances of the fictional Tanner and his cronies engaging in a campaign of terror against the Pattersons and their supporters even before Albert Patterson is assassinated. One particularly brutal scene, which Hollywood censors unsuccessfully attempted to have removed from the film, depicts the tragic fate of the young daughter of Zeke Ward (played by James Edwards), an African American friend of the Patterson family. Although the film doesn’t allude to the then-brewing struggle for civil rights, the Pattersons’s relationship with the Wards seems to imply that the Pattersons were allies of the local African American community. In reality, John Patterson later ran for governor as an opponent of integration.
The Phenix City Story was a success for Allied Artists Pictures, thanks to the extensive national media attention about Patterson’s murder, notably the coverage by the Columbus Ledger that would later win a Pulitzer Prize. Despite the unflattering depiction of its setting, it proved popular with Alabama audiences appalled but fascinated by the scandal’s saturation coverage in the local press, and unaccustomed to films being shot in their home state.
The film also was well-reviewed by film critics. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther favorably compared it to Academy Award winners All the Kings Men and On the Water Front. It is a favorite of the celebrated American director Martin Scorsese, who featured it in his 1995 documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies.
In his book Essential Cinema, Alabama-born film critic and historian Jonathan Rosenbaum called The Phenix City Story the best film ever made in his former home state. Indeed, it was filmed almost entirely in its title municipality, thus departing from the Hollywood practice of telling stories about the American South without actually ever filming there. Even All the King’s Men, inspired by the assassination of Louisiana governor Huey Long, had been shot in California.
- Barnes, Margaret Ann. The Tragedy and Triumph of Phenix City, Alabama. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2012.
- Karlson, Phil, dir. The Phenix City Story. DVD. Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 5. Burbank, Calif.: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., 2010.
- McCarty, John. Bullets over Hollywood: The American Gangster Picture from the Silents to the Sopranos. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2004.
- Rosenbaum, Jonathan. Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2004.
- Shadoian, Jack. Dreams and Dead Ends: The American Gangster Film. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.