Day Fourteen of Noirvember: Stranger Than Fiction — The Phenix City Story

The Phenix City Story is a 1955 noir directed by Phil Karlson and starring John McIntire, Richard Kiley, and Kathryn Grant. The title location is a lawless town in Alabama where the crooks are running the show and the cops are ineffectual at best, and on the payroll of the head mobster, Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews), at worst. Embattled locals encourage attorney Pat Patterson (McIntire) to run for office and clean up the town, but he’d rather stay out of the fray and bask in the satisfaction of welcoming his son, John (Kiley), from the military. But when violence in Phenix City reaches a fever pitch, Pat can no longer turn a blind eye, and he agrees to step up. Sadly, he’s killed shortly after he is elected as Attorney General, leaving John behind to avenge his murder.

The film was based on the very real goings-on in the very real city of Phenix City, Alabama, which, for several decades, was rife with gambling, prostitution, bootleg liquor and drugs – even a factory that made loaded dice and marked cards. The soldiers from nearby Fort Benning were special targets of Phenix City’s denizens; they were conned by hookers, cheated by crooked dice, and given knockout drops and robbed – or worse. The media labeled the town “America’s wickedest city.” Corruption seeped through every part of the town – from the politicians to the judiciary – the crooks counted the votes in the elections and crimes went unpunished.

John McIntire starred as Patterson.

Over time, the town’s residents grew weary of the lawlessness and corruption and in 1951, a group of concerned citizens formed the Russell Betterment Association (RBA), named after the county in which Phenix City is located. The righteous efforts of the group were not taken lightly by the syndicate running the town, which became known as the Phenix City Machine. A few months after the RBA was incorporated, the home of RBA member Hugh Bentley was bombed, and the following year, while poll watching, several RBA members were beaten in broad daylight – while police looked on.

In 1954 local attorney John Patterson ran for Attorney General, with the backing of the RBA. Ironically, it was not Patterson’s first foray into Phenix City politics. Nearly a decade earlier, he’d been elected to the Alabama state senate – with the help of the Phenix City Machine. He was one of several lawyers hired to defend gambling kingpin Hoyt Shepherd for murder in 1946, but in 1949, after defending another gambler, Patterson had a change of heart and vowed never again to use his legal prowess in the defense of anyone not in legitimate business.

The Alabama National Guard took over the streets of Phenix City.

Although his opponent, “Red” Parker, ran with the power of the machine behind him, Patterson won the Democratic nomination for Attorney General by fewer than 900 votes. Shortly after Patterson was officially declared the winner by the state Democratic Party, he was gunned down at his Phenix City offices. In response, the governor of the state declared martial law and the Alabama National Guard was called in to replace the local law enforcement. Local gambling houses were raided, brothels were shut down, and truckloads of gambling, bootlegging and drug paraphernalia were confiscated. Locals began to come forward, resulting in 749 indictments against more than 150 people, including many Phenix City or Russell County officials.

The Phenix City Story was shot on location in the town, during the same time that the real trial for Albert Patterson’s murder was held. The film’s popularity helped Patterson’s son, John, to defeat his opponent, George Wallace, for governor of the state in 1959. (After just one term, however, Patterson was beaten by Wallace, who went on to head the state for four terms.)

Check out The Phenix City Story if you get the chance. It’s brutal, harrowing and totally gripping, made even more so by the knowledge that its tale was ripped from the headlines. Truth is definitely stranger than fiction.

Join me tomorrow for Day Fifteen (already?!?) of Noirvember!

~ by shadowsandsatin on November 14, 2018.

10 Responses to “Day Fourteen of Noirvember: Stranger Than Fiction — The Phenix City Story”

  1. Never heard of this or the real events before. All sounds very interesting. Another one to add to that ever growing to watch list!

  2. It was , indeed, a rough place.

  3. More noirish than noir but captures the tenor of post war America. Interesting – the governor did nothing until one of his own ( the newly elected d.a.) was killed.

  4. Richard Kiley is one of the most underappreciated actors of all time. He won TWO Tonys, and THREE Emmys, and did tons of voice/narration work, yet few people know of him. He barely even gets mentioned in the write-up, here.

    • Thank you for your comment, Margaret. I agree that Richard Kiley was a marvelous actor — extremely accomplished. He “barely even gets mentioned” in my post — like the other actors in the film — because my focus was on the real-life inspiration for the film, rather than the film itself.

  5. […] Day Fourteen: Stranger Than Fiction — The Phenix City Story […]

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