I’ll have more to say about Phil Karlson’s The Phenix City Story soon—it’s a raw, infuriating, brutally effective picture drawn from a real-life case centering on the murder of a local lawyer and politician who attempts to restore order to an Alabama town suffering under a century-long submission to an increasingly violent underworld gambling and prostitution syndicate. Karlson’s work as a director is as potent as ever, maybe more so, and there are intriguing connections between this film, made in 1955, and his last great popular success, Walking Tall (1973), another story adapted from a documented case history centering around vigilantism and a polarizing local sheriff who took cleaning up his town as a personal mission.
While watching this film the other day, I was immediately caught up in the emotion and the immediacy of the filmmaking, and also in noticing how packed to the rafters each frame is with indelible, memorable character actors. There’s long-time favorite John McIntyre as the ill-fated Albert Patterson (his unctuous syndicate enemies disparagingly refer to him as “Pat”); a youthful Richard Kiley as his war veteran son, enraged by what he sees upon returning home from Germany and compelled to take up the fight; Edward Andrews, never greasier or more seductively repellent as crime boss Rhett Tanner; Biff McGuire, in name and in visage seemingly a Disney stray as hometown crusader Fred Gage, whose father Ed is the recipient of one of the movie’s most chillingly innocent queries; Don Siegel favorite John Larch as the murderous Clem Wilson, an unmitigated bastard with a sneer that could knock over fire hydrants; and the Audrey Totter-esque Jean Carson, tough and nasty as Cassie, overseer of the town’s main sin parlor who smokes her butts underhand and doesn’t hesitate to come after innocent creatures hiding in the shadows, claws extended.
But who was the dark-haired, friendly beauty who played Fred’s girlfriend Ellie Rhodes, a card dealer in the syndicate club who begins feeding information to the Pattersons when the shit really starts to hit the fan? I was mesmerized by her and caught up in her fate, but this veteran of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad failed to recognize a young Kathryn Grant (who would become Mrs. Bing Crosby) in one of her very first roles. As Ellie, she has eyes that look as though they couldn’t possibly reflect some of the things she ends up seeing in this movie, and she marks herself here as a real up-and-comer, even though she never really blossomed into a major presence in the movies. She’s just one of many good reasons to see The Phenix City Story, a major achievement that really should be more widely recognized. More to come soon, once I stop reeling.