Film Review: The Phenix City Story (1955)

Release Date: July 19th, 1955 (premieres in Phenix City, AL; Columbus, GA; Chicago, IL)
Directed by: Phil Karlson
Written by: Daniel Mainwaring, Crane Wilbur
Music by: Harry Sukman
Cast: John McIntire, Richard Kiley, Kathryn Grant

Allied Artists Pictures, 100 Minutes

Review:

“Rhett, I’m not stickin’ my neck out. Why should I? Phenix City has been what it is for 80, 90 years. Who am I to try to reform it?” – Albert L. Patterson

I have really come to like Phil Karlson’s work. When I was celebrating Noirvember here at Cinespiria, I checked out a few of his films, which were luckily streaming on FilmStruck. So, since there are more available to check out, I thought I’d give The Phenix City Story a shot, as I have read some good things about it.

Unfortunately, this is a film with multiple personality disorder. The first fifteen minutes or so is comprised of news interviews and I actually thought that this was going to be how the entire movie was presented. Talking heads, giving their accounts of the atrocities the mob in their small Alabama town committed. Luckily, this only took up fifteen minutes. But it was at least interesting, as it featured the real people who were a part of the true story this film is based on.

Once the real cinematic story started, it was pretty refreshing. However, even though I was interested in the subject matter the first half of the movie was really slow. But once the mob severely crossed the line with the murder of a young black girl, things picked up and got so intense that it was impossible to turn away. They even went on to murder another child and at that point, anything was possible because I never thought I’d see anything this graphic done to a child in a movie from this era.

The story is a retelling of the real events surrounding the 1954 assassination of Albert Patterson, a man who had just been elected Alabama Attorney General. He ran on the platform that he was going to cleanup Phenix City, which was controlled by the mob, who were running gambling establishments throughout the area. But with their presence came corruption, control and violence. The events in the film, including the assassination, led to the city having to go under martial law, where the state militia came in and ran the crooks out of town.

Seeing 1950s Alabama culture was pretty intriguing. I never knew this story’s details and it was captivating seeing it unfold onscreen. Ultimately, it is about a community having enough of the unlawful tyrants that ruled over them and finally pushing back.

The high points in this film are really good but it feels very disjointed and the early parts made it hard for the narrative energy to get going. Once it does get going though, you’re locked in.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: Other Karlson film-noirs: Kansas City Confidential99 River Street, etc.

Film Review: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Release Date: July 1st, 1959
Directed by: Otto Preminger
Written by: Wendell Mayes
Based on: Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver
Music by: Duke Ellington
Cast: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden, Kathryn Grant, George C. Scott, Duke Ellington (cameo)

Carlyle Productions, Columbia Pictures, 160 Minutes

Review:

“Twelve people go off into a room: twelve different minds, twelve different hearts, from twelve different walks of life; twelve sets of eyes, ears, shapes, and sizes. And these twelve people are asked to judge another human being as different from them as they are from each other. And in their judgment, they must become of one mind – unanimous. It’s one of the miracles of Man’s disorganized soul that they can do it, and in most instances, do it right well. God bless juries.” – Parnell Emmett McCarthy

If you ever told me that I’d watch a courtroom drama that’s nearly three hours long and that I’d love it, I’d call you a liar. Nothing is more boring to me than court movies. They’re overly talkie, use an abundance of legal jargon I don’t care to know and they just sit there, in one room, seemingly forever. Hell, I hate when television shows I love go into some multi episode courtroom story. I hate courtrooms, I hate jury duty and I thought Court TV was something that old people watched, hoping it would kill them sooner.

Yet, Anatomy of a Murder is to courtrooms what 12 Angry Men is to jury duty. It took something that I have less interest in than dusting sand and made it compelling, engaging, entertaining and hooked me emotionally. In short, it’s a spectacular film that I was glued to from start to finish.

I have become a fan of Otto Preminger’s work, especially his film-noir stuff. While this isn’t noir, it has that distinct Preminger touch and visual allure. It’s clean, crisp, warm and has a strange magnetism that pulls you in. Preminger really was a master of the silver screen, as his films always looked immaculate yet lived in with a sort of grandiose aura about them.

The absolute highlight of this film is seeing two legendary actors: James Stewart and George C. Scott, go head to head as rival lawyers during the trial that is the focus of the story. And really, I think that it is the incredible performances by these two that lured me in, even more so than this being a Preminger film. James Stewart just owns this role and his mere presence prevented this film from having a dull moment. George C. Scott was a great accent to Stewart, giving him a powerful foil to play off of. Stewart was like a 24 oz. bone-in tomahawk ribeye while Scott was the best Béarnaise sauce you could ever hope to taste.

The film also dealt with very controversial subject matter for the time. The trial involved a murder that was committed in defense of the killer’s wife being raped. This was taboo stuff for the 1950s and there’s even a scene in the film where the judge has to explain to the people in the court that he won’t permit any giggles or snickering at the mention of the word “panties”.

Anatomy of a Murder is a long film but it doesn’t feel like it. The set up and investigative stuff before the trial is probably the slowest part of the movie but that doesn’t take too long and once you are in the courtroom, this picture just takes off and doesn’t come back down until the credits roll.

This is a pretty perfect film for its time and its subject matter. It goes to show what kind of magic Hollywood can produce when you have a premier director and two paragons of pure acting talent.

Rating: 9.75/10
Pairs well with: 12 Angry Men, Orson Welles’ The Trail and two of the James Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock collaborations: Rope and Rear Window.

Film Review: Rear Window (1954)

Release Date: September 1st, 1954
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: John Michael Hayes
Based on: It Had to Be Murder by Cornell Woolrich
Music by: Franz Waxman
Cast: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr, Kathryn Grant (uncredited)

Patron Inc., Paramount Pictures, 112 Minutes

rear_windowReview:

Even though I have been a pretty big film buff for my entire life, I honestly didn’t see this Alfred Hitchcock classic until recently. In my high school film studies class, back in the 90s, we watched a bunch of Hitchcock stuff. This one was not on the docket however and I almost wish I could go back and ask my teacher “why?”

Rear Window is legitimately a masterpiece. That isn’t a word I can easily throw around. While I love The Birds and Psycho is pretty flawless, Rear Window is a motion picture on a level that very few have ever reached. I consider Hitchcock to be the “best of the best” alongside Kubrick, Leone and Kurosawa. And this is possibly his magnum opus. Granted, there are a few Hitchcock films I need to rewatch.

James Stewart may be the greatest actor that ever lived and very few women have ever been as classically beautiful as Grace Kelly, which is probably why she married into royalty. Not to mention, that she was a damn good actress, in her own right. But the thing that stands shoulders above these two legends’ talent, is their chemistry together. It is hard not to fall in love with both characters but especially, the two of them together. I really hope that they lived happily ever after but based off of how Jeff’s (Stewart) feelings and respect grows for Lisa (Kelly), I’m sure they did.

But this isn’t a love story, it is a mystery and a thriller.

Rear Window uses a single gigantic set. The movie is predominantly set in the apartment of Stewart’s Jeff, as he sits near his rear window looking out into a courtyard that ties several apartment buildings together. The fact that this almost two hour movie can be so intense and engaging, moment to moment, from the view of a man in his wheelchair staring out a window is quite remarkable. There have been many other films that have used a single set but none have ever been this effective.

To give a brief rundown of the story, we start with Jeff in a wheelchair, sitting in his apartment during a heatwave. He is a renowned photographer but he broke his leg in an accident while photographing an auto race. On his seventh week of being stuck in his apartment, he’s grown irritable and tiresome of his situation and finds himself watching his neighbors out of his rear window. Across the courtyard there are all sorts of interesting characters. Soon, Jeff is drawn to a married couple where the wife constantly nags the husband. The woman is also an invalid and needs constant care. As the days roll on, Jeff notices the wife missing, the man cleaning a large knife and saw, as well as other suspicious behavior. He alerts his friend, a New York detective. He enlists the help of his girlfriend and his caretaker. It all unfolds into some of the most intense moments in motion picture history.

I have to applaud Raymond Burr’s ability to play the object of Jeff’s voyeurism in a way that really left you questioning whether or not he was normal or evil, up until the very end. His presence, once it needed to be, was damn intimidating. And he did all of this without barely speaking a word throughout the film, until the big finale. The shots of him, sitting in pure darkness with the ember of his cigar pulsating with each puff was brilliance.

Alfred Hitchcock shot one of the greatest films ever made. Okay, he shot several of the greatest films ever made. Rear Window, however, to me, is the one film I can point to and ask any naysayers, “Show me something better than that?” While they may know something that is fairly equal, it is a movie that is damn near impossible to top.