05 October 2009

Social Justice Night at the Drive-In: The Phenix City Story (1955)

Movies have never been an especially responsible purveyor of news, generally arriving too late and distorting the facts they happen to trip over. Whether it’s Edison staging Cuban atrocities or anonymous Hollywood cameramen finding raspy layabouts to extol the gubernatorial bid of Upton Sinclair the record is generally inauspicious.

And so Phil Karlson’s The Phenix City Story, a feature-length piece of semi-dramatized cine-journalism, stands as a peculiar artifact. In recounting the slaying of Albert Patterson, the straight-arrow Democratic nominee for Alabama Attorney General, The Phenix City Story is unusually clear-eyed and uncowed. The bulk of the footage was actually shot in Phenix City scarcely a year after the assassination—or, as the poster would have it, ‘Filmed on the spot in the sin town IT TOOK THE MILITARY TO SUBDUE!’

The Phenix City Story never reaches any kind of détente between these warring impulses, and that’s one of the reasons I like it. It is simultaneously a socially concerned docudrama and a riled-up piece of pugilist drive-in junk. More charitably, it demonstrates the latter’s capacity to achieve the former, a genre filmmaking apologia if you will. Karlson is obviously more comfortable with the pulpy exploitation side of the picture, where swish pans follow the punches and the body of a murdered child is nonchalantly tossed from a sedan in an outrageous square-up. The mixing of Hollywood professionals and local amateurs on the acting rolls is both successful enough and awkward. The scenery-chewing potential of an actor like John McIntire (on ample display in the same year’s The Far Country) is muzzled like a misguided and condescending bid at responsibility, as if a stripped-down performance free of tics and business would match the presumed plainness of the nonprofessionals. McIntire’s Albert Patterson is a colorless conduit of righteousness, the ur-Atticus Finch forced into action.

As muckraking the film is restrained only by the need to turn the real-life thugs into composite heavies, the names changed to protect the guilty. Still, The Phenix City Story sits just this side of libel in its crusading zeal, which is remarkable considering it was shot during the trial. The curious thirteen-minute prologue that purports to bring to the screen some real-life witnesses (including Patterson’s widow) courts credibility by citing Newsweek and the Saturday Evening Post and explicitly evokes television journalism, as if the movies could seriously co-opt the aesthetic and import of the competition. (Indeed, what is The Phenix City Story but the next step in the evolution of the semi-documentary fiction film, taking the lessons of The Fight for Life and Call Northside 777 and working out the style’s relevance in a new media landscape?) Variety noted in its 1955 review that Allied Artists left it up to exhibitors to decide whether they wanted to screen the prologue reel—a fascinating detail that means theater owners could effectively make The Phenix City Story either a studious piece of edifying civic entertainment or a crackerjack thriller with topical echoes.

Prologue or no, Karlson’s film is still uncommonly direct about the complacency of the local authorities and the brand of racial violence and general animus so prevalent in Southern society. That The Phenix City Story foregrounds these issues but answers them only with calls for democracy and patriotic engagement suggests a calculated naïveté that would quickly be disproven by subsequent events.

That The Phenix City Story nevertheless seems notable today for its essential, if prurient, truthfulness is really more of an indictment of contemporaneous American films than any enduring argument for Karlson’s efforts. In no way did The Phenix City Story give its audience any information about the social realities of Alabama that was not already available from other news outlets. Yet it is genuinely bold and bracing in comparison with something like M-G-M’s roughly contemporaneous Bad Day at Black Rock, which so contorts its well-intentioned liberalism that it winds up sabotaging every fiber of its credibility and value. Recently John Sturges’s slack Cinemascope compositions have sparked something of a revival of that film’s critical reputation, but they hardly compensate for Black Rock’s perverse ‘lesson’ about wartime treatment of Japanese-Americans: the state may have acted rashly, but the real criminals were isolated hicks and assorted ‘bad apples’ who took the law into their own hands. On balance that kind of whitewash actually leaves us understanding less about Japanese internment and the politics of the era than we did before.

Southern justice, of course, has been a trusty cinema standby since at least The Birth of a Nation. The Production Code and the threat of hissy fits from Southern exhibitors always calmed front office enthusiasm for honest headline-ripping conscience-raising screeds. The history of evasions is instructive and fascinating. In a film like Fury (1936) the business of phony resurrections and conspiracies of revenge beg to be read as feats of wild compensatory displacement, absurd plot twists that all but acknowledge the tepid courage required to protest the mob murder of an innocent white man. Its central moral dilemma—shall Spencer Tracy continue to play dead so that a posse of lynch-minded vigilantes can be executed for a crime that they, by the barest contingency, did not commit, and, if so, would that not make him something of a murderer, too?—is so abstractly and fussily irrelevant, so far removed from all of the issues at play in the region at that moment that this chutzpah almost comes off as a canny wink in the direction of that ballsier, hypothetical movie we should be watching instead. In The Ox Bow Incident (1943) the lynching ‘problem’ is again explored through hopped-up mob violence directed at entirely innocent victims and condemned in a high-minded, artful manner—mass hysteria on screen that too easily instills mass wisdom in its spectators.

Against these examples, a Warners anti-lynching effort like Mervyn LeRoy’s They Won’t Forget (1937), made during the last gasp of that studio’s rambunctious social consciousness, looks sober and fair, despite the fact that its plea for moderation and historically-informed pacifism comes from a grizzly Confederate veteran. It posits an American judicial system where none of the players—lawyers, politicians, jurors, radio announcers, newspaper men, citizens—find any incentive to bother weighing evidence or forsaking prejudice before proclaiming the accused guilty.  It’s the most sincere and concerned sort of cynicism, pointing at specific structural reasons that abet, if not actively encourage, miscarriages of justice. Further, They Won’t Forget trades in brusque narrative ellipses that tend to militate against audience involvement in plot minutiae when there are more important arguments afoot.

And yet The Phenix City Story still feels like something new and honest—the hustling sadist jig that stumbled into history. It trades on the same sultry underworld dealings and leggy distractions that might easily be the background for any B picture; indeed, it works from the assumption that a steady flow of Bs is just about the only prerequisite for understanding political corruption. The message, such as it is, feels grafted on to avert accusations of exploitation, rather than, as in all the other examples, like the raison d’etre, like the temporary bouts of moral clarity that sometimes befell the moguls. The fact it was shot on location accounts for only a fraction of its authenticity.