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 crime docu-drama; it was based upon real-life events leading to the National Guard's martial law takeover of an organized crime-ridden Southern town in 1954:

  • the almost 15-minute opening preface was composed of interviews by real-life reporter Clete Roberts (as Himself) of the actual principal characters, including reporter Ed Strickland of the Birmingham News, other locals, and widow 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, rigged gambling and slot machines, prostitution, murder, and other vices catering to soldiers from the nearby Fort Benning Army Base
  • in the opening, singer/entertainer Judy (Meg Myles) belted out "Phenix City Blues"; she was provocatively dressed, with a low-cut black evening dress and elbow-length black gloves
  • boss Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews) and his brutish henchmen (e.g., Clem Wilson (John Larch)) were 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 reforming State Attorney General nominee Albert L. Patterson (John McIntire) and his returning veteran-son John Patterson (Richard Kiley); 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: "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


Warning Note: "This Will Happen To Your Kids Too."
  • the violence climaxed with many beatings of innocent citizens (those who supported the town's crime opponent - crusader Albert Patterson); there were many examples of the silencing of the free press, intimidation and bullying, the dynamiting of Hugh Bentley's home, etc.
  • crusading lawyer John Patterson, Albert's son and a returning veteran (on an Army tour in Germany), delivered a stirring motivational speech outside, across the street from the Poppy Club: "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
  • and then, Albert Patterson, who had just been narrowly nominated (by only a thousand votes) as the Democratic Party's candidate for Attorney General but had not yet been sworn in, was considered a looming threat - one of the gangsters feared he would be sworn in, in January: "There will be so many indictments flying around, we'll think it's snowing"
  • as a result, Albert Patterson was gunned down (assassinated) 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
  • in the film's ending, John Patterson took up the courageous torch of justice for his father; he pursued mobsters who were holding young card dealer Ellie Rhodes (Kathryn Grant) hostage at Zeke's house; she was an upright good girl who hated gambling and crime, but worked at the Poppy Club for the money; after she had been identified as an informant against the syndicate, she was murdered, and Patterson found her dead on the floor of the basement
  • the film concluded with John (with a bloodied, sweaty face) calling the Governor 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 militia was to 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
  • off-screen, John summarized (in voice-over) somewhat later - after he had been elected Attorney General: "So law came to Phenix City at last. It took my father's death to bring it"
  • he 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: "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."


Judy (Meg Myles) - Singer

The Poppy Club

Boss Rhett Tanner and His Phenix City Henchmen in Steam Bath

John Patterson's Opposition to the Mob in Phenix City

Boss Rhett Tanner Listening to John Patterson's Speech

The Mob's Assassination of Political Opponent Albert Patterson

John's Discovery of Ellie's Dead Body

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


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