Noir Obscurities

film 4 of 5

The Phenix City Story

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 8, 2015

Boomerang and Panic in the Streets (1947 and 1950) are important attempts to incorporate some of the methods of Italian neo-realism in within the American commercial film, to try to access some of its spirit. If they don’t quite go all the way—director Elia Kazan blinked just a bit, or the budgets and dizzying professional standards of the Hollywood professional were too high—they’re still good pictures. The Phenix City Story doesn’t have near the budget, the cast, the credits, the distribution, or anything. But it finally beats out those bigger pictures, at least in the neo-realist department. It’s the real McCoy! Taken from the headlines, instinctively integrating and balancing the social actors and the real settings and the professionals, made with an admirable combination of intelligence and thriftiness. It’s tremendously admirable. More than that—movies are often good for us, but that doesn’t mean that we exactly like them—it’s really good.

The regional particularity of The Phenix City Story is very impressive, in a couple of senses. Not only is the fact of it communicated, but also the importance of it. Karlson’s film makes you realize how even the best Hollywood pictures flatten things. They’re great at fantasy, or mythology. They can propagandize like crazy. But when it came, when it comes to holding a mirror up to nature, they so often lose their way. The bumpy newsreel at the beginning of this one helps get us off on the right, authentic footing, but its authority and conviction carries all the way through. Tremendous scripting, performances, location work. Take special note of those baddies. The conflicts and confrontations are practically Sam Fuller-good. The climax is not only moving, but energizing. Rise up! On the other hand, I might observe that domestic scenes are on the wan side …