The ABC's of Film Noir
The ABC's of Film Noir

The Phenix City Story (1955) Classic Movie Review 156

The Phenix City Story (1955)

The Phenix City Story (1955)

Are you lookin' for someone important or will I do?

Today’s movie is The Phenix City Story (1955). This crime drama is classified as a Film Noir. However, a good case could be made that it is not. I’ll go with a soft yes. This movie is based on a true story. rates this movie at 7.4[1] while has a 75 percent audience score[2].

Surprisingly, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther liked the film saying:

“In a style of dramatic documentation that is as sharp and sure as was that of On the Waterfront–or, for a more appropriate comparison, that of the memorable All the King’s Men–scriptwriters Crane Wilbur and Dan Mainwaring and director Phil Karlson expose the raw tissue of corruption and terrorism in an American city that is steeped in vice. They catch in slashing, searching glimpses the shrewd chicanery of evil men, the callousness and baseness of their puppets and the dread and silence of local citizens. And, through a series of excellent performances, topped by that of John McIntyre as the eventually martyred crusader, they show the sinew and the bone of those who strive for decent things.”[3]

Bruce Eder, of, said:

“One of the most violent and realistic crime films of the 1950s, The Phenix City Story pulses with the bracing energy of actual life captured on the screen in its establishing shots and key scenes, and punctuates that background with explosively filmed action scenes. [4]

I wouldn’t go as far as those two, but it is a good movie, shot in a gritty style, with a lot of action. I enjoy watching it. Especially having seen much of this type of activity first hand.

Phenix City, Alabama, sometimes called the Sin City of the South is located just across the river from Fort Benning, Georgia, so there was a large market for the drinking, gambling, and prostitution offer by the Dixie Mafia that ran Phenix City. Of course, the Dixie Mafia controlled with bribery, intimidation, and murder. Following the murder of the attorney general-elect of Alabama, in June 1954, the town was placed under martial law, and I believe the Fort Benning commander placed it off limits to soldiers. The town was in its heyday in the 1940 and 50s.

Being raised in Mississippi, we always say thank God for Alabama.



Edward Andrews played bag guy Rhett Tanner. Andrews was first covered in Episode 134 – The Harder They Fall (1956).

James Edwards played good guy Zeke Ward. Edwards was first covered in Episode 113 – The Set-Up (1949).


John McIntire played attorney Albert L. Patterson that felt the fight was no longer worth the trouble. McIntire was born in 1907 in Washington. Growing up in Montana, McIntire could ride wild horses. He spent a couple of years at USC before going to sea. He began working on stage and in radio and was quite successful.

In the 1940s, he began working in drama and westerns like Black Bart (1948), Down to the Sea in Ships (1949), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Saddle Tramp (1950) Winchester ’73 (1950), The World in His Arms (1952), The Far Country (1954), and The Tin Star (1957).

He was successful on the television with the “Naked City” 1958-1959. He also took over for two stars that died; replacing Ward Bond on “Wagon Train” 1959-1965 and Charles Bickford (as his brother) in “The Virginian” 1967-1970.

He had a prolific career with films as diverse as Psycho (1960) to his last film, Turner & Hooch (1989). McIntire died in 1991.

Richard Kiley played idealist Army veteran, John Patterson. He was born in 1922 in Chicago. Kiley was mostly a television and stage actor. He was a very good singer and won 2 Tony’s. He began in film in 1951 and had a wide variety of roles. He played a teacher in Blackboard Jungle (1955), Film Noirs Pickup on South Street (1953) and The Phenix City Story (1955), The Little Prince (1974), Patch Adams (1998), and a voice role in Jurassic Park (1993). Kiley died in 1999.

Kathryn Grant played Ellie Rhodes, the girl with a heart of gold, working for the bad guys. This beauty was born in 1933 in Texas. Of course, she ended up on stage at the age of 3, graduated as a nurse for the University of Texas, and got into movies through beauty pageants.

Her movies include The Phenix City Story (1955), Mister Cory (1957), The Brothers Rico (1957), Operation Mad Ball (1957), The Night the World Exploded (1957), The Guns of Fort Petticoat (1957), which is an Audie Murphy movie you should see if you haven’t, Anatomy of a Murder (1959), The Big Circus (1959), and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). She married Bing Crosby in 1957 and virtually left film. She is still alive.

The Phenix City Story (1955)

The Phenix City Story (1955)

Jean Carson played mob maul, Cassie. In this role, she was definitely playing against type. Carson was born in 1923 in West Virginia. As a child, she was trained in dance and music and began performing by the age of 12. Carson attended Carnegie-Mellon University before heading to Broadway where she was active from the late 1940s – the early 1950s. During much of the 1950s and 1960s, she played spots on television shows, and she was most often playing a funny role. She had a very raspy voice that made her sound like a two pack a dayer.

I remember a couple of time she was on the “Andy Griffith Show.” One she and another lady were Barney and Andy’s floozy dates. In another episode, she was part of a trio of man-hungry escaped convicts that capture Barney.

She had a problem with booze, and it hurt her career. She eventually cleaned up. He last film was Fun with Dick and Jane (1977). She stayed active in theater. Carson died in 2005.

John Larch played criminal henchman Clem Wilson. Larch was born in Massachusetts in 1914. He was a World War II veteran that suffered long-term effects of PTSD. Larch spent some time as a professional baseball player, and he looks it. He did not begin acting until he was 38-years-old. He began working in television and radio in 1953. He did a lot of work on television. He has as a lot of crime and western on his list but his best-known films are The Phenix City Story (1955), Dirty Harry (1971), Play Misty for Me (1971), The Amityville Horror (1979), and Airplane II: The Sequel (1982). Larch died in 2005.


This movie begins with reporter Clete Roberts as himself reporting on the crime syndicate in Phenix City, Alabama. When the movie was released in 1955, the murder trials were ongoing in the state capital if Birmingham.

Clete Roberts begins interviewing actual town residents. Ed Strickland, one of the newspaper reports that reported on the town, was interviewed. He said the story cannot be overstated and there is still danger. Hugh Bentley, whose home was dynamited for standing up to the syndicate was interviewed. Hugh Britton said that there has only been one honest election in the last 43 years. He talks about rat hunting. You can’t find that outside of the south. Quinny Kelly was a courthouse janitor and witness of the murder that faced death threats. He then goes to talk to Ma Beachie, the widow of the murdered Albert Peterson. Her son John is the elected attorney general and is trying the case.

After the true expose, the real movie begins with newspaper and magazine articles from the time. The peaceful town of Columbus, Georgia is shown and compared to Phenix City, Alabama. Phenix City is shown as having a vice district, located around 14th Street, complete with skilled craftspeople that can shave dice, rig slot machine, bootleg whiskey, and mark cards. It has been going on for generations.

The Phenix City Story (1955)

The Phenix City Story (1955)

When first released, the 13-minute intro was not included. The movie begins with Judy (Meg Myles), who was uncredited, belting out Phenix City Blue, in a club filled with soldiers. The lyrics state: Fancy women, slot machines, and booze – With no more money in the sock – And thirty days in the Dixie Dock – You wind up with those Phenix City blues.[5] If you want to conjure an idea of what Myles looked like in this scene, she was wearing a neckless black evening dress with elbow-length black gloves, and her person quote was “How many actresses with a 40-inch bust have ever won an Oscar?”

In the backroom is for gambling. Everything in the back is under the watchful eye of lady gangster Cassie (Jean Carson). The beautiful young card dealer Ellie Rhodes (Kathryn Grant) is not working because she is being visited by her sweetie Fred Gage (Biff McGuire), the son of Ed Gage (Truman Smith). Cassie points Gage out to Clem Wilson (John Larch).  is in law school, and Ellie only works with the gangsters for the money. Other than that, she is goodness and light. Fred plans on working for lawyer Albert L. Patterson (John McIntire).

Fred tries to talk Ellie into leaving the job, and they have a little spat. A customer screams that the cards are marked. The dealer signals Clem. Clem and another fellow beat up the man and throw him out in the gutter. A GI comes to Ellie’s table and starts gambling. Fred leaves, but Ellie says she wants him to keep coming back.

Outside of the club, African-American janitor Zeke Ward (James Edwards) is smoking. He tells Fred that he should stay away because he is Ed Gage’s son. He talks about Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews) not being happy that he is around. The police come and arrest the beaten man that was thrown in the gutter.

With everything settled down in the club, Cassie goes to see the big boss, Rhett Tanner, who’s giggling southern accent is something akin to Snaggle Puss. Cassie recommends that they get rid of Ellie. Tanner says she won’t be a problem.

The Phenix City Story (1955)

The Phenix City Story (1955)

Tanner sash shays through the club on the way to see attorney Albert L. Patterson. He sees Albert’s wife on the street. He picks up his car and asks a man if he had heard from Jeb yet. The ace criminal Tanner and the clean-living attorney Albert have pleasantries and discuss that Albert’s son John Patterson (Richard Kiley) is joining the firm after his Army tour in Germany. John will be bringing his wife Mary Jo Patterson (Lenka Peterson) and their two children to live in the town. Tanner offers Albert work, but Albert refuses. The two begin sparing with each other over ethics. Tanner finally brings up the others that he thinks are causing trouble for the syndicate: Ed Gage, Hugh Bentley (Otto Hulett), and Hugh Britton (George Mitchell). Albert says he is not taking sides. Tanner offers a salary of $25,000 a year. Tanner says he is not afraid anything. On the way out, Tanner warns Hugh Britton and threatens his son.

John and family arrive and are welcomed back by the family. John has been prosecuting war criminals in Germany. It is news to John and the family that he is going to join the firm and that they will be living in Phenix City. On the way through town, John and Mary Jo see that nothing has changed.

Albert tells John that all the other clean up groups had failed and a new one was meeting that night. Albert also mentions that Jeb Bassett (Allen Nourse) is in the reform group too.

Gage and Britton come by the house to see John and to ask him to help get Albert involved in the reform group. Mary Jo sends John to get baby oil, and he rides away with Gage and Britton. Gage and Britton go to their reform group meeting. Four men, including Clem, are blocking the driveway. A cop is across the street. When the two finally park, the four men proceed to beat the ever-living crap out of the two. A third reform group member arrives and calls for the police. They beat him as the cop slowly walks towards them. John sees what’s going on and jumps in to get a beating as well. The cop threatens to arrest John as the four attackers quietly leave.

The Phenix City Story (1955)

The Phenix City Story (1955)

John goes to see an old school friend at the Poppy Club. John tells Fred that his dad has been beaten. John’s old school friend is Clem. He goes in the back and socks Clem. Fred comes in and joins the fight. Clem and John are fighting it out, and Tanner lets it go on. When John wins the fight, Clem pulls a blackjack. Zeke uses his mop to trip Clem and save John and Fred. The three men escape just before the police get there. They drop Zeke off with the promise of a new job. John picks up his father Albert, over the objections of Mary Jo, and they go to the reform meeting.

At the meeting, John unveils his plan to have his father run for Alabama state attorney general. He uses the quote “The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing.”[6] This quote ties in nicely with his prosecution of Nazi war criminals as so many average citizens turned a blind eye. Damn Nazis.

Albert refuses, saying, it is too big a job for a man of his age. John goes against his father and says he will fight even if his dad won’t.

Tanner goes to the Phenix City Athletic Club. He meets with some naked fat men is a sauna room. Jeb Bassett comes in, and he is the informant for Tanner’s mob. Tanner and his cronies fear John Patterson working against them. Tanner orders the “full test” for John.

In the African-American part of town, Zeke’s daughter is skipping down the road. Clem identifies her and throws her in a car. The car drives by the Patterson house in broad daylight and throws the dead black child into the yard where John and Mary Jo’s children are playing. As the car speeds away, they hit a white paperboy. You could get in real trouble in Phenix City for that. Gage Sr. goes to help the paperboy while Fred Gage follows the fleeing car.

Mary Jo has hit her Phenix City limits. John finds a note on the dead girl saying this will happen to his kids as well. Tanner made his mistake because John was in the Army. He wasn’t a Navy or Marine guy. John calls the police, and they are pretty racially insensitive. Mary Jo takes the kids and goes to her mother’s house in Georgianna.

Fred Gage tracks the getaway car back to the garage behind the Poppy Club. Clem catches him and smacks him with the butt of a gun. Ellie comes to the Gage house looking for the missing Fred. The police are of no help. Fred is found nearly beaten to death in a ditch outside of the town. When they get to the hospital, they find out that Ed was DOA.

John starts hammering his dad about getting involved. Finally, Albert agrees. They have a coroner’s inquest. Albert questions the witness and destroys their stories. Clem is called to the stand, and the blood in his car is pinned to him. The jury ruled that the death was an accident.

Tanner can’t resist poking Albert and John. He offers to pay off and even hints at hurting Ellie. Finally, Albert says he is running for attorney general. Mary Jo goes back with John to fight. The campaign has bricks through the windows, car fires, beatings, assaults, attacking churches, and newspaper boys. Bentley’s house is dynamited. You know, regular south Mississippi election stuff. Albert crosses the state, and his office is burned. Ellie stays at the Poppy Club to provide information to John and Albert.

The Phenix City Story (1955)

The Phenix City Story (1955)

John holds a rally across the street from the Poppy Club. Tanner, Clem, et al. show up. The crowd boos them away. On election day, beatings, booze, and prostitutes were used to repress voting. The naked sauna club meets again. Albert has won but is not sworn in. Ellie sends the warning to Albert that something is up.

Albert leaves the house alone to go to the office. Cassie spots Ellie spying. Ellie escapes after seeing the murderers gathering outside of the Poppy Club. Ellie heads towards Albert’s office just in time to see him shot down. Tanner puts out the word to find Ellie.

A huge mob gathers outside of the Colonial house. They want to attack the mob. But John insists that they use the law. Ellie contacts John and lets him know that she is at Zeke’s home. Jeb Bassett is there and tells Tanner where Ellie is hiding. John runs to the house, but Tanner people have already arrived. Clem and another man are holding Zeke and his wife Helen (Helen Martin) at gunpoint. When the two men attack John, Zeke and Helen jump in helping to defeat the Tanner men.

Tanner has Ellie in the basement. John rushes down, and Ellie has already been murdered. John finds Tanner outside and leaps on him. Zeke is stopped from murdering his child’s killers by his wife, Helen. Tanner and John fight into the creek. Tanner denies killing Albert. Zeke stops John from killing Tanner in the name of what is right. Zeke drags away the beaten Tanner and the two men embrace. John goes back to the Colonial house and punches Jeb. John calls the governor, and the crowd shouts out for a clean town.

In the morning, the town is placed under martial law. The clubs were locked and cleaned out. I guess they burned the evidence. Not a great plan.

John is elected Alabama attorney general. He brought about the prosecutions.

World-Famous Short Summary – Nobody ever when broke building a bar outside a military base

Notes – Like most Alabama politicians of the time, they were avowed segregationist. The Zeke part of the story was added in and is not based in reality.

Beware the moors

[3] Crowther, Bosley. The New York Times, film review, “Sin in the South; The Phenix City Story Has Debut at State,” September 3, 1955. Last accessed: February 23, 2008.
[4] Eder, Bruce. The Phenix City Story at AllMovie.
[5] Noir City, Number 1. 2011. Songbirds: A Musical Survey of Romance, Ruin, and Remorse.

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