The Phenix City Story (Karlson, 1955)

Phil Karlson’s striking expose on the corruption and gangsterdom plaguing Phenix City, Alabama in the early 1950’s burns with immediacy, juxtaposing real life accounts of the turmoil against a brutal, politically charged reenactment. The social conflict brimming at the heart of Phenix City stems from the apathy/fear of the townspeople who’ve gradually allowed a local criminal syndicate to grow in power. For Karlson, the devil is in the details of landscape and region.

For all its dramatic flare, The Phenix City Story brilliantly realizes the small human moments of compromise empowering and emboldening this collective evil – a passerby looking the other way, a wife pushing her husband to ignore the conflict, or an influential lawyer towing the political line. Karlson surrounds his lead characters with brooding menace, and initially these good people seem content to ignore the growing problem. But the escalation of violence, from intimidation, to beatings, to murder, roots these themes within a horrific physical context, where the consequences of inaction transcend race and class.

The Phenix City Story reminds of the best American films by Fritz Lang and Sam Fuller, where collective weaknesses and failures produce social blight and political malfeasance. For these directors, the common man holds all the power, but only if they wield it rightfully and justly. Mob violence and vigilantism equate to more of the same, an unacceptable solution when facing generations of inertia.

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