Friday, 18 February 2011

Sweat and Blood

THE PHENIX CITY STORY (Phil Karlson; USA; 1955)

This brief blog post is my second contribution to the For the Love of Film (Noir) Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren. There's a whole slew of bloggers, all scribbling furiously to raise funds to restore Cy Endfield's film noir classic The Sound of Fury (1950), for the Film Noir Foundation. The blogathon runs from Feb 14 to 21. Browse all the other posts, being collated by Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren, and flick some moolah to the Foundation!! It's terrifying simple - just smack that button below, it'll take you to where you wanna go.
Sometimes not knowing the framework behind the story of a film can add real salt and pepper to the viewing. This was definitely the case when I first saw The Phenix City Story. The film depicts a struggle between the 'good honest townsfolk' of Phenix City, Alabama, rising against the corrupt 'peddlers of vice' who have marked the city as one of sin, degradation, and turning blind eyes. It culminates in the murder of a recently elected Attorney General, Albert Patterson, at the hands of the crime syndicate who feel suddenly threatened by this man's ability to coalesce public opinion against these syndicates. The first twelve minutes of the film are devoted to a news report on the murder of Mr Patterson, and the history of crime in Phenix City. Several folks are interviewed by a reporter, and these interview segments, plus the declamatory reportage directed straight-to-camera by the dapper reporter, all felt to me, at the time of first viewing, so wonderfully realistic. Filled with halting speech, interviewees who are too shy to look at the camera, the occasional slip or stammer, this fake documentary segment bristled with an unpolished energy that fascinated me. But it was not long after seeing the film that I learnt that the whole story around Phenix City as “Sin City, USA” and the murder of Albert Patterson was entirely true. And, thus, the report at the beginning of the film, helmed by true-to-life journalist Clete Roberts, was also a true blue documentary. And returning to the film a second time, it became a little more obvious, a little clearer that this was 'real'. Clete Roberts states that there was “no careful rehearsing of speech” for his candid interviews, and heck, right after the report is over and the credits for the film roll, there's a whole spiel flashed up on the screen thanking the inhabitants of Phenix City for allowing this film to exist. I didn't see these signs as signs of the 'real' – I happily fooled myself into concocting the film as an elaborate fictionalised tale with pseudo-documentary flourishes. The opening segment, seen with new eyes, is still unusual and fascinating, a wonderfully odd choice to initiate a film. But, I like that I still have the trace of my original mis-viewed understanding of this opening section still pulsing within my vision.

The fictionalised story of Phenix City that takes up the remainder of the running time is surprisingly brutal, frank, and bloody. This is an extremely raw film, where absolutely no-one is exempt from savage attacks. Women get beaten up and bloodied, children get slapped, and in one horrifying scene the corpse of a young black girl is flung from a car. There's countless close-ups of sweaty faces, scores of scenes where people are pounded and pummelled, and yells, shrieks, and wailing are drizzled through the soundtrack. Yet, for all its coarse and brutish textures, the film derives a huge amount of vigour from being so brazenly forthright. This is not a lazy or hastily spliced film – the early sequences that introduce each character are deftly painted and woven together. The story is built from passing one character to the other – we meet a young man doting on a girl at a cheap and plain casino, and then pass to the club owner, who then visits his old lawyer pal, who then picks up his son from the airport....and from this concatenation of scenes, a certain momentum is picked up as each of these characters' lives intertwine and knot around each other. This film is predicated on crescendoing pace and rhythm, peaking and peaking and peaking, waiting for that right moment to explode.

But the film is perhaps most appealing as a docu-style traipse through small-city USA in the 1950's. We are driven through the main streets at night, allowed to soak up the seedy atmosphere, the tacky neon lights, the authenticity of night-time street bustle. Characters walk us through the streets, letting us mingle with the small but active crowds. And we drift through plain offices, functional and dull-looking clubs, ordinary homes. There's a strange pleasure to be had in seeing the mundane and quotidian parts of a city.

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