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With: John McIntire, Richard Kiley, Kathryn Grant, Edward Andrews, Lenka Peterson, Biff McGuire, Truman Smith, Jean Carson, Kathy Marlowe, John Larch, Allen Nourse, James Edwards, Helen Martin, Otto Hulett, George Mitchell
Written by: Daniel Mainwaring, Crane Wilbur
Directed by: Phil Karlson
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 100
Date: 07/09/1955

The Phenix City Story (1955)

4 Stars (out of 4)

One- and Two-Armed Bandits

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Phil Karlson's masterpiece The Phenix City Story (1955), which has been too hard to find for too long. It's great to have it available at last. It's included here with its 13-minute "newsreel" opening, which talks a little bit about the background and (real) history of the film. After nearly a century, Phenix City, Alabama is still ruled by crooks and gambling establishments. John Patterson (Richard Kiley) returns home from Korea to find his city in turmoil. A fight in a parking lot leads to several acts of revenge, which leads to his father Albert Patterson (John McIntire) running for State Attorney General.

As shown in Karlson's The Brothers Rico (1957), the director is highly skilled at balancing a great number of characters in a fast-moving story without losing track. He quickly and firmly establishes his characters with repeated use of their names and with one or two little visual riffs; we understand each character's personality and position almost immediately. The villain here is Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews), a pleasant, but slightly sweaty Southern gentleman who visits old friends and greets old ladies in the street. But when we first meet him, he's trying to figure out how to fix a turtle race to make money on it. Add to this supreme clarity of storytelling a fast, punchy, documentary-like realism, a genuine sense of place, and a powerful sense of urgency, and you've got Karlson's finest hour.

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