The Phenix City Story (1955):

The titular burg, Alabama's notorious "Sin City," provides Phil Karlson with ideal embodiment for his belligerent, nearly Old Testament muckraking outrage -- inevitably, Pompeii, Sodom and Gomorrah are referenced in evoking the syndicate-fueled industry of gamblin', whorin', and killin'. Vice!, then a cut to "The Poppy Club," the nerve-center of the town's moral rot, a cut-rate Gilda torching the sweaty crowds, rigged card games conducted next room under the scrutiny of thuggish toothpick-gnawers; one raised voice and somebody ends up "in the river." Big boss Edward Andrews blithely prowls the streets, since town lawyer (and childhood bud) John McIntire has long learned the advantages of keeping his mouth shut. McIntire's character is Albert Patterson, who eventually ran for reform and got a bullet in his maw for the trouble -- though not before passing the moral torch on to son John (Richard Kiley), fresh from plying his legal trade at Nuremberg and ready now to mop up some inner decay. The reading-off-cue-cards opener of real-life reporters, harassed locals and plucky widows may promise newsreel grayness, but Karlson's dramatization is vivid, high-contrast black-&-white, the reportage format segueing into startling stylistic distortions -- a little black girl skips along a road, the camera (child's eyelevel) swirls left to the low-angle, looming henchman, dissolve to her body dumped on Kiley's lawn with a threat pinned to her dress. Lang's detached analysis is at the opposite pole from Karlson's heated swaying, yet the film's ultimate, bloody catharsis in the face of institutionalized evil is not dissimilar from The Big Heat, and no less ambivalent -- the vengeful ardor brings about military intervention and martial law, scrambling attempts to contain a heartland sordidness that is to surface in such later, more wanton incarnations as Mississippi Burning and A Time to Kill, to say nothing of the director's own uncredited remake, Walking Tall. With Kathryn Grant, Lenka Petersen, and John Larch. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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