Filmed a scant year after the allegations and scandals it portrays, The Phenix City Story is a fascinating historical document of the 1950s. Set in the deep south, the story concerns one city completely corrupted in every way imaginable.
That city is Phenix City, Alabama, located on the other side of a border from a military base, it spent decades building itself up as its own Sin City. Gambling, prostitution, murder, all of the goodies you usually get from such a setup. What's nice about the film, though, is that it doesn't gussy up or shy away from these vices; unlike most other film noirs, the blood and the violence is left dripping on the screen in all of its ugly revolting glory.
The film opens up with a ten minute semi-documentary approach talking about exactly what had occurred in the town, and many of the characters that appear in the following fictional version are represented here. It's admittedly clumsy, and ruins a few of the narrative surprises, but sells the legitimacy of the outrage that follows.
The film proper is about a young military man who comes home to the corrupt town and soon finds his family embroiled in conflict. A local man is killed, another assaulted. A little girl is murdered and thrown on his lawn as a warning as he begins to debate a future in politics.
It's all very sordid and graphic. Like the best of noirs, it doesn't shy away from the darker side of the American reality. Each man who owns a string of gambling dens, whorehouses, and pays the police their real income is thriving on their version of the American dream. While they may be cartoonishly evil in the movie, it's not much of a stretch to see real motivations behind petty and frightened actions; like a lot of zealotry and crime nowadays, the only way to survive the ridicule of the masses is confusion and fear.
As for the truth of what actually happened in Phenix City, which was uncovered through exposes for various news magazines, is a bit whitewashed from reality. But the film never deviates so far as to be unbelievable or silly, and though it follows a lot of cliches, it dares to violate a lot of the audience's expectations as well. As a work of startling immediacy, The Phenix City Story never backs down.