The Phenix City Story (1955)
After his election as Attorney General of Alabama in 1954, Albert Patterson was assassinated by forces resisting his efforts to clean up organized crime in Phenix City. Fortunately, his death compelled state action in the corrupt town.
The beginning of this film, featuring reporter Clete Roberts interviewing residents of the city, straddles the line between historical fiction and documentary, ten years before Truman Capote popularized the non-fiction novel as a serious dramatic form.
Despite growing up in Alabama, I was unfamiliar with the cautionary tale of “the wickedest city in the United States.” While the public typically thinks of the mafia and organized crime as the exclusive problems of big cities like New York, Chicago, and, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles, this film reminds us crime and profiteering are not limited to large urban centers.
Dial 1119 (1950)
Escaped mental patient Gunther Wycoff barricades himself in a bar across the street from the home of police psychiatrist, Dr. Faron, who he blames for his imprisonment.
Despite objections from the police, Dr. Faron is murdered when he tries to reason with his deluded former patient, forcing the police to storm the bar and kill Wycoff.
This straightforward B picture about a deranged killer is only interesting for the insight it provides regarding attitudes about mental illness in 1950. The clearly mentally ill Wycoff is portrayed as a cold-blooded killer, but if it were made today, the film would portray him as a sympathetic victim of his illness, unfairly punished by the system designed to protect him.
The Player (1992)
When Hollywood executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbin) receives threatening postcards, he confronts David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio), the rejected writer he suspects is responsible.
After a brief fight in the alley outside a movie theater, Mill kills Kahane only to discover another writer was behind the threats. After a series of Machiavellian moves, Mill, now callously dating Kahane’s ex-girlfriend, rises to head of the studio, but must make a lucrative deal with his tormentor to prevent information regarding Kahane’s murder from being released to the public.
After the huge success of MASH (1970) and Nashville (1975), Altman’s films in the later 70s were critically lauded, but failed to make as much money many as his earlier efforts. Focused on the bottom line, studios were increasingly reluctant to finance his projects and he spent much of the 1980s struggling to find funding.
This film exposes the artistically hostile environment created by studios worried more about their profit margin than the artistic merit of their product.
In his DVD commentary, Altman said it was “mild satire which offended no one.” Sadly, Altman’s insistence on being inoffensive means the film loses its punch. It’s too mild to be an effective satire, but too satirical to be an effective drama. Robbins is well cast as the sad sack Mill who slowly transforms into a cold-hearted executive, it’s fun seeing Lyle Lovett play against type as a police detective partnered with Whoopi Goldberg, it’s always a delight to see Dean Stockwell, and spotting the myriad stars who cameoed as themselves is an amusing parlour game which gives the film an authenticity lacking in other Hollywood satires, but I wish the film had been braver. Ironically, this film about the unjustified compromises art must make to economic necessities, feels like a half-truth, almost like its bitterness was reigned in by a studio worried about how it would play in Peoria.