Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The Phenix City Story (1955)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The Phenix City Story (1955)

In Phil Karlson's documentary-styled, taut and graphically-violent film noir - a muckracking, neo-realistic crime docu-drama from Allied Artists, and a tabloid-like, low-budget B-movie shot on location, although fictionalized, was based upon real-life events leading to the National Guard's martial law takeover of an organized crime-ridden Southern town in 1954.

Its screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring and Crane Wilbur was undoubtedly sensational. Director Karlson went on to helm a similar vigilante-themed cult classic set in the South - the box-office hit Walking Tall (1973):

  • the almost 15-minute opening preface of cinema verite was composed of interviews by real-life reporter Clete Roberts (as Himself) of actual individuals in Phenix City, including reporter Ed Strickland of the Birmingham News, other locals, and widowed Mrs. Albert Patterson (Ma Beachie as Herself); Roberts concluded his interviews by calling the fact-based story "an infamous and sordid chapter in American city politics"
  • the setting was Alabama's evil 'sin city' of Phenix City (located around 14th Street), centering on "The Poppy Club" known for corrupt card games (with marked cards), rigged gambling and slot machines, prostitution, murder, drinking, and other vices catering to soldiers from the nearby Fort Benning Army Base (in Columbus, GA) across the Chattahoochee River
  • in the opening, singer/entertainer Judy (Meg Myles) belted out "Phenix City Blues" in the Poppy Club; she was provocatively dressed, with a low-cut black evening dress and elbow-length black gloves
  • the affable local mobster boss of the syndicate named Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews) was often surrounded by goons and lackeys, including his brutish henchmen Clem Wilson (John Larch)); the group was seen in a revealing scene in the steam baths of the Phenix City Athletic Club
  • the first murder sequence victimized the young daughter of African-American Zeke Ward (James Edwards), who worked as a janitor at the club; Zeke's daughter was kidnapped on a bridge, and her body was thrown from a moving car headfirst (it was obviously a stiff, doll-like dummy) onto the front lawn of anti-crime, crusading reformist State Attorney General candidate Albert L. "Pat" Patterson (John McIntire); a threatening note was pinned to her dress: "THIS WILL HAPPEN TO YOUR KIDS TOO" - causing hysteria among the family; as the car sped away, a young newspaper boy on his bicycle was deliberately hit
  • the police dispatcher matter-of-factly reported with racist undertones: "Somebody just threw a dead nigger kid out on Patterson's lawn. Go out and have a look"

Zeke Ward's Daughter

Dummy Thrown From Car

Murdered Girl

Warning Note: "This Will Happen To Your Kids Too."
  • vigilante violence climaxed with many intimidations and beatings of innocent citizens (those who supported the town's new citizens' committee including Ed Gage (Truman Smith), his aspiring lawyer son Fred (Biff McGuire), and citizens Hugh Britton (George Mitchell) and Hugh Bentley (Otto Hulett)); there were many examples throughout the film of the silencing of the free press, intimidation and bullying, including the eventual dynamiting of Hugh Bentley's home and the murder of Fred by Clem, etc.; corruption ran deep in the city amongst its elected officials and police officers
  • Pat's returning veteran-son and crusading lawyer John Patterson (Richard Kiley) (from a post-war Army tour in Germany where he had prosecuted war criminals) had arrived in town with wife Mary Jo (Lenka Peterson) and their two young children; she was appalled and disgusted by the living conditions in Phenix City
  • after the murder of Zeke's young daughter, John was brought to the breaking point; he delivered a stirring motivational speech outside, across the street from the Poppy Club, to rally the good citizens in town: "I'm glad to see some of you had the guts to come out here tonight and listen to me...Now I chose this place because I wanted you to face the cesspool that has given your city the name of Sin Town, U.S.A. I wanted you to smell the stench of it. On more than one election day, you could have cleaned it up by voting against the candidates that were sponsored by the mob. But you wouldn't take the trouble to vote. So now you can blame yourselves for gambling, prostitution, dope peddling, rape. Men, women and children murdered. Offices burned and homes bombed. And where does this happen? In some dictatorship across the sea? No. It's right here, in your town. In our Alabama, our America. Did I say your town? Well, that's a laugh. Phenix City is owned, body and soul by Tanner, Jenkins, Drew, and the rest of the mob. They hold the power of life and death over you and your families. Many of 'em are here tonight. There's Rhett Tanner, the big boss, right there. There's Jenkins, Clem Wilson and Rupe. They're here to find out who's against them. So now's your chance to speak out. And let them know where you stand. Or are we gonna wait till all of us are blown sky high?...Tell them. Tell them now. Tell them where you stand" - the mobsters glared at Patterson and then turned away from a jeering, rabble-rousing crowd
  • Albert Patterson, who had finally been persuaded by his son to reform the corrupt conditions in town, ran for office and had just been narrowly nominated (by only a thousand votes) as the Democratic Party's candidate for Attorney General; although he had not yet been sworn in, he was considered a looming threat, and one of the gangsters feared that after he took office in January, "there will be so many indictments flying around, we'll think it's snowing"
  • as a result, Albert Patterson was point-blank gunned down (assassinated by two of Tanner's henchmen) as he entered his car outside his law office; lethally wounded, he stumbled from the car and fell down on the street sidewalk outside a store window with mannequins; the murder was witnessed by young blackjack card dealer Ellie Rhodes (Kathryn Grant), an upright good girl who hated gambling and crime and possessed a moral conscience, but worked at the Poppy Club for the money
  • in the film's ending, John Patterson took up the courageous torch of justice for his father; he pursued mobsters who had located Ellie hiding at Zeke's house after she had been identified as a threatening informant against the syndicate; he was dismayed to find her dead on the floor of the basement - murdered by Tanner
  • the film concluded with John (with a bloodied, sweaty face) calling the Governor in the state capital on the phone; he encouraged a frenzied mob outside to cheer loudly so that the Governor would be convinced to clean up Phenix City; he received a promise from the Governor - the National Guard would be sent in to establish martial law, occupy the town, and dismantle and destroy (by fire) the Poppy Club's gambling equipment and slot machines, and shut down the underground casinos
  • off-screen, John summarized (in voice-over) somewhat later - after he had been elected Attorney General in place of his dead father: "So law came to Phenix City at last. It took my father's death to bring it"; John worried however: "...but how long would it last. The evil men who ruled our lives for so long were still out there, waiting their moment to come back. We'd won a battle, but had we won the war? That is the question that I, John Patterson, and all of our good friends, had to consider"
  • after his victory, Patterson declared in the film's final lines that he would attempt to uphold justice: "The people of Alabama elected me Attorney General in my father's place with two sacred duties to perform: To seek out and bring to justice the murderers of my father, and to keep the gambling hells of Phenix City firmly closed forever. With God's help, I shall not fail."

One of the Interviews by Reporter Clete Roberts

Judy (Meg Myles) - Singing "Phenix City Blues"

The Poppy Club

Boss Rhett Tanner and His Phenix City Henchmen in a Steam Bath

John Patterson's Speech in Opposition to the Mob in Phenix City

Local Boss Rhett Tanner Listening to John Patterson's Fiery Speech

The Mob's Assassination of Political Opponent Albert Patterson

John's Discovery of Ellie Rhodes' Dead Body

John's Successful Call to the Alabama Governor to Establish Martial Law in Phenix City


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