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Film / The Phenix City Story

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The Phenix City Story is a 1955 Ripped from the Headlines Film Noir about the 1954 assassination of Albert Patterson in Phenix City, Alabama. The film was directed by Phil Karlson and stars John McIntire as Al Patterson and Richard Kiley as his son John.


Provides examples of:

  • And Your Little Dog, Too!: The mobsters dump the dead body of Zeke Ward's daughter on the Pattersons' lawn with a note attached.
    "This will happen to your kids too."
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  • As the Good Book Says...: Zeke talks John out of killing Tanner by pointing out that The Bible says "thou shalt not kill."
  • Big Bad: Mob boss Rhett Tanner, who runs the Poppy Club and all the organised crime in Phenix City, is the main antagonist and directly or indirectly responsible for all the bad things that happen in the movie.
  • Chairman of the Brawl: When John Patterson gets in a fight with Clem Wilson at the Poppy Club, one of the other patrons comes at John with a chair.
  • Character Narrator: John Patterson, Albert Patterson's son, narrates parts of the film.
  • The Coroner Doth Protest Too Much: Al points out that the claim that Fred Gage died by falling out of a moving vehicle and fracturing his skull in the process is patently absurd considering the ditch he was found in was filled with sawdust and thus "as soft as any bed in town".
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  • Dead Guy on Display: The mobsters dump the dead body of the daughter of a Patterson family friend on the Pattersons' lawn as a threat.
  • Destroy the Evidence: The narrator outlines how the mob handles evidence against it. We get to see them put it into practice multiple times throughout the film.
    "The rule of the mob regarding evidence is simple: If it's human, kill it. If it's on paper, burn it up."
  • Dies Wide Open: The dead girl whose body is dumped on the Pattersons' lawn as a threat has her eyes open.
  • Dramatic Irony: Al Patterson states repeatedly that he may be killed for trying to fight the organized crime in Phenix City. The viewer knows either from history or from the prologue that he will be.
  • Fiery Coverup: The mobsters set fire to the evidence that has been collected against them by Al Patterson and his associates. The narrator (Al's son John) thus snarks:
    "That night in Phenix City, they tried to destroy the evidence by 'a fire of unknown origin', to quote the police report."
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  • First-Person Smartass: Downplayed. The narrator only makes two snarky comments, both about the police being corrupt. See Fiery Coverup and Unreliable Voiceover.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The film starts with a Real Life newsreel outlining the events of the film. At the time of the film's release, everybody knew of the case of Albert Patterson since it had happened only the previous year, but viewers nowadays may very well go into the film unawares and be spoiled.
  • He Knows Too Much: The gangsters set out to kill Ellie, the sole witness to the assassination of Patterson. They succeed.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: John Patterson is portrayed as supportive of Zeke and his family, the only non-white people in the entire film. In Real Life, he ran for Governor of Alabama in 1958 on a segregationist platform that earned him the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan. Patterson was so racist that even George Wallace (of "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" infamy) complained that Patterson had "out-niggered" him after being defeated by Patterson in the nomination for Governor of Alabama.
  • Jury and Witness Tampering: Implied. After the jury acquits mobster Clem Wilson of the murder of Fred Gage by ruling the death accidental, John snarls that they're scared to death, to which Al replies that one can hardly blame them.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: After killing Fred Gage with a blow to the head, the killer does the bare minimum to make it look like an accident by moving the body to a ditch to make it look like a traffic accident.
  • Metaphorically True: It is argued In-Universe that a grand jury finding that there is no gambling in Phenix City could be construed this way—after all, it's only gambling if the player has a chance of winning, and the games in Phenix City are so heavily rigged that there isn't.
  • The Mole: Jeb Bassett, one of the Pattersons' associates, secretly reports to mob boss Rhett Tanner.
  • Newsreel: The film opens with a 13-minute prologue of real-life reporter Clete Roberts interviewing some of the real-life people portrayed in the film.
  • Police are Useless: A major obstacle in Patterson's pursuit of justice is that the Phenix City police, if not actively complicit in the mob's activities, at least consistently look the other way.
  • Prolonged Prologue: The completely superfluous newsreel, which outlines the events of the film (or spoils them, if the viewer was not already familiar with the case of Albert Patterson), takes up 13 minutes of a 100-minute runtime.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The assassination of Patterson happened on June 18, 1954. The film premiered on July 19, 1955.
  • Tap on the Head: Averted. Fred Gage gets knocked out by being pistol-whipped, and dies of a fractured skull as a result.
  • Token Minority: The Wards are the only non-white characters in the film, which is highly conspicuous considering that the proportion of Phenix City's population categorized as "Negro" in the 1950 and 1960 censuses was 34.7% and 36.8%, respectively.
  • Unreliable Voiceover: A snarky variation. The narrator describes the mob carrying out extensive voter intimidation, and follows it up with:
    "And where were the police? (Cut to police officers playing cards) On duty. Keeping a sharp eye on things."
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: While the assassination of Albert Patterson really did happen, the events surrounding it are heavily fictionalized. Mob boss Rhett Tanner is fictional, for instance, and the scene where a dead child is dumped on the Pattersons' lawn as a threat never happened. The details of the assassination and its aftermath are also changed: in the film Patterson is shot at arm's length whereas in real life he was shot through the mouth, in the film there is a single witness whom the mob successfully silences whereas in real life there were several witnesses who later testified in the trial, in the film the mob is responsible whereas in real life the Chief Deputy Sheriff was convicted of the murder, and so on.
  • Vice City: Phenix City is run by the mob, who is able to commit all kinds of crimes up to and including murder with impunity. The police look the other way, meaning the mobsters don't get charged, and if one of them does stand trial, the jury daren't convict them.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The mobsters kill the young daughter of one of John's friends and dump the body on his lawn in order to intimidate him.

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