#286. The Phenix City Story (1956)

There’ve been enough obscure gems on the List at this point to reassure me about discrete or ugly packaging: Angles with Dirty Faces and The Bitter Tea of General Yen came as battered VHS tapes, It’s a Gift was one of ten movies on a single disk, Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer was a crude VHS-to-DVD transfer.

            That Phenix City Story was one of two movies on a cheap DVD from a series that collects obscure crime/noir films that it says are great (but appear to simply be forgotten) wasn’t, at first, a cause for concern.

            After a half hour, it was.

And but not because of any great flaw so much as the fact that it’s just so fucking lame and, like Salt of the Earth, it feels like a cheap sanctimonious TV movie that aspires toward some ripped-from-the-headlines salaciousness, mainly through these two documentary-type scenes in the beginning and end where a dead-eyed reporter interviews people about some mafia activity in Phenix City AL. The movie’s not salacious, though, and it’s not engaging. It’s flavorless and boring.

            Giving it some credit: there’s a surprisingly brutal execution scene where an old man is shot at close range, and YouTube will show you another violent scene of an African American girl being thrown dead from a moving car (the impact of he scene is undermined by the phoniness of the effect and the fact that her only role in the movie is to die, to be “fridged,” so that the white protagonists will be galvanized into action), but violence doesn’t equal substance, and it feels particularly cheap when it’s being employed in the service of a story so heavyhanded, morally, as something out of the 1930s—which is a complaint I just made about Rebel Without a Cause, even though it’s slicker and edgier and way more cinematic, and I realize I might sound like a broken record at this point but…I think the pattern’s legitimate. Stuff from the 1940s seems to’ve been more thematically varied. Was that because of the war?

            Another thing I’m thinking about, now that we’re almost seventy years removed from these kindsa movies that’re defined by a kind of distinctly campy 1950s conservatism, is whether or not, with all of its camp and corn, this lame-ass sensibility is an aesthetic. Like if you were to make a movie just like Phenix City Story today, with maybe modernized outfits and cars and the inclusion of modern household tech, would it seem postmodern and hip?

            Maybe I’m only so scathing about the movie because I’ve seen this story a thousand times (mob comes into a small town and doesn’t expect the little guy to stand up), but I suppose that, back in ’56, it was pretty fresh. Surely it can be seen as one of the more earnest expressions of McCarthy-era homeleand persecution. The enemy within, now that the whole naton isn’t actively engaging an external one.

            I know the mafia was a big deal in the US during the 1950s, but I’m not sure about the extent to which a general moviegoing audience might’ve known of their activities or were even that interested in it. In the 1930s, you, knew what a mobster did: he was a bootlegger. What was a 1950s gangster known for? Stealing elections?

            Quentin Tarantino has said that the 1950s and the ‘80s were the worst couple decades for American cinema. There’ve definitely been some great entires in the ‘50s so far but, Jesus Christ, if this preening TV-slick moralizing goes on much longer, I think I know exactly what he’s talking about. The only interesting angle I can take on Phenix City Story is its disposability. Most of the things being served up by the List are somehow culturally significant. They reflect something of their times. But consider the number of movies that come out in theaters during any given year. The casual thrillers and rom-coms of no real significance. Consider how many of them you’ve left your house and paid a hot dollar to watch in a movie theater for two hours–and how many of those movies you’ve forgotten. Phenix City Story is, I figure, the kinda casually adequate story that an average moviegoer would passively watch on a Saturday matinee. A Friday night date. Noise in the background while you make out.

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