The Tall Target (1951) Anthony Mann

“The Tall Target” takes place almost one hundred percent of the time on a train. Anthony Mann has created an enclosed, claustrophobic, moody thriller set just days before the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln. It’s difficult enough to make a great thriller but when your audience already knows your target is going to survive, well it just makes it all the much more or a challenge. Mann, I am happy to say was up to the task.

Dick Powell, who by 1951 had already made the transition from song and dance man to the dark lit streets of hardboiled film noir, is New York City policeman, John Kennedy. Kennedy has discovered a plot to assassinate the newly elected President. His superiors in the department do not take his findings  seriously; Kennedy soon resigns in disgust. He arranges to be on board the night train heading to Washington D.C. in an attempt to intercept the inaugural train in Baltimore and expose the plot.

On the train, Kennedy’s world is one of paranoia, darkness and confrontation from forces wanting to prevent his interference. His attempts to investigate and expose the assassination plot are continually met with suspicion and disbelief. Multiple efforts are made on his life. Friends and strangers alike become enemies. No one can be trusted. Every passenger on the train seems to be in a very tense state. A mixture of Yankees and Rebs, both sides are outspoken about their views on the new President and with each other making for quite few potential suspects.

Mann and his cinematographer Paul Vogel have created a world of deep shadows and menacing corners. A continuing atmosphere of motion is always in the air. The train sways back and forth, the passengers rock left and right, the train’s wheels are continually shown in close up racing along the tracks at a fast speed; the engineer trying to make up for lost time. The film’s dark suspenseful atmosphere is gripping, reminiscent of Mann’s work with long time collaborator John Alton.

“The Tall Target” opens with a written prologue stating what we are about to see is a “forgotten chapter in the history of the United States.” Well, yes and no. There is or was what has become known as the Baltimore Plot, an alleged conspiracy to assassinate the newly elected President as he made his way to Washington for his inauguration. Allan Pinkerton, the founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency headed the protection detail for the President. However, historians today question whether there was actually a real plot or not. Lincoln’s advisors and staff at the time believed there was. What is surely fictional but comes as quite a coincidence though is the fictional New York City detective, the hero of the story is named John Kennedy.

Also in the cast are Adolphe Menjou and Marshall Thompson as a corrupt Union officer and a Cadet, both involved in the assassination plot. A very young Ruby Dee portrays Rachael, a slave, and maid to Paula Raymond’s Southern Bell. Will Geer almost steals the show at the train’s ornery conductor.

When the film opened on Broadway in New York City back in the 1951, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowthers gave it a sarcastic and unpleasant review, using terms such as “moth-eaten” and “preposterous” to describe the storyline, snidely reminding readers that Mr. Lincoln “does not get shot.” He then adds, “We wouldn’t be able to tell you about the people who made this film.” Crowthers writing is not so much a review as it is an assassination on Mann’s film itself.  Apparently MGM did not have much faith in the film. The opening day ad in the New York Times, pictured above, was a small barely noticeable listing that the film opened at the RKO Palace along with 10 “Swell” Vaudeville acts.

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21 comments on “The Tall Target (1951) Anthony Mann

  1. Jon says:

    John,

    I love Mann’s films, but somehow have missed this one. It looks like a great historical-noir film with Mann’s typical suspenseful mise-en-scene. Great endorsement and review here.

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Jon. Caught the film on TCM recently (had seen it once before some years ago). It is also avaiable form the Warner Archives.

  2. Long on my wish list, I bought the Warner’s Archive DVD last year only to have it not compatible with my player! First viewing was on my daughter’s laptop which is not my favourite way to enjoy a movie, but even that uncomfortable situation did not take away from the fact that I was watching one of the dandiest thrillers ever to come out of Hollywood.

    I unhesitatingly recommend “The Tall Target” to everyone. I’m thinking of having T-shirts made!

  3. scott wannberg says:

    i have this baby on dvd-always enjoy it-

  4. John, as a fan of both thrillers and Dick Powell, I had been eager to catch up with THE TALL TARGET, and your excellent review lived up to my expectations! Having read a number of film reviews by NEW YORK TIMES critic Bosley Crowther during my research for this and other films for my own blog, TALES OF THE EASILY DISTRACTED, I’m beginning to think Crowther was just an old grump! :-) As APOLLO 13 (among other films) proved, just because we viewers already know how THE TALL TARGET’s real-life events turned out, that doesn’t make the story any less suspenseful or gripping.

    Having said that, as much as I enjoyed the film, there were moments that drove me crazy, if only because I was rooting so hard for Powell’s character, John Kennedy (shouldn’t he have had a secretary named Lincoln? :-)). For instance, was it really wise of Kennedy to slam down his police badge and storm off in a huff, knowing he was the only thing standing between Abe Lincoln and assassination? Granted, this was 1865, but hadn’t Kennedy heard of changing the system from within? Granted, he’d have had to do it in a big hurry to save the President’s life, but couldn’t he have simply pretended to go along with it to get close enough to Lincoln to warn him, at least? On top of that, Kennedy leaves his coat on his chair, lying defenseless for some larcenous jasper to steal, along with his papers and such. What a way to run a railroad! If only they’d had Twitter back then! :-)

    All kidding aside, John, Anthony Mann’s direction was spot-on, and wow, what a cast! Powell, Marshall Thompson, young Ruby Dee, Adolphe Menjou, Florence Bates (best known here at Team Bartilucci H.Q. as Danny Kaye’s would-be mother-in-law in THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY) were all superb. My ears pricked up when I heard what I thought was the unmistakable voice of Barbara Billingsley, June Cleaver herself, and sure enough, that was her playing the mother of that bratty kid (of course, I had to double-check the IMDb to make sure, since Billingsley wasn’t credited, as was the case with the film’s other bit players). I really must add THE TALL TARGET to my Warner Archive Wish List in the not-too-distant future. Great post!

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Dorian,

      I wa going to mention Mrs. Cleaver’s bit part and never did. Thanks for bringing it back to my attention and to other readers. Kennedy was a bit of a hot head and i agree he did some things that just seemed to be idiotic (leaving his coat and ticket on the train seat) just to advance the storyline. As for Mr. Crowthers, I have used many of his constipated reviews as sources of amusement a few times. He missed the boat quite a few times.

      BTW the film will be on TCM, once again, oh July 23rd (p:30AM EST).

  5. Sam Juliano says:

    This was one of the unexpected highlights of last summer’s Anthony Mann Festival, and a glistening print was on display to boot. But as you rightly note, it’s one of the most claustrophobic of all thrillers, and when one mentions movies on a train, one thinks of a few Hitchcocks and this one. I agree that Paul Vogel’s work envisions John Alton, with the shadown expressionistic lensing and Dick Powell is terrific. I am not surprised back in the day that Crowther looked down his nose, but I happy that the film has been favorably re-estimated. But what terrific tension and atmosphere! And a story of great historical urgency!

    As always, wonderful review here John!

    • John Greco says:

      Sam,,

      I do remember your raves about seeing this film and the Mann festival in general. Wish I could have been there for that. I was really surprised by how little attention was paid to this film during its originally release. Thanks again for stopping by and for your thoughts!

  6. […] John Greco has authored a stupendous review on Anthony Mann’s “The Tall Target” at Twenty Four Frames: ttp://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/2011/07/15/the-tall-target-1951-anthony-mann/ […]

  7. ClassicBecky says:

    I don’t know how I missed this one, John. I like Mann’s movies, I like Dick Powell, and I love Civil War era movies and books! Despite whatever flaws it has, I want to see this, mostly because of your intriguing review!

  8. Just ask says:

    John,
    I’ve never heard a film described “motheaten” so that certainly was original. I’ve seen my share of film that I would describe colorfully though. Thanks for sharing some of the backstory on the film, info to give us a look back just briefly out how some of our favorite or not so favorite films were received.

    Page

    • John Greco says:

      Page,

      I have seen plenty of films that can be described as “moth-eaten” but this certainly is not one of them. Mann made a neat little thriller that deserved a better response than that. Hope you get a chance to catch this one. Thanks!

  9. I DEFINITELY need to see this film. I love Mann’s work…although I slight prefer his Westerns.

    Anyway…this is Nathanael from Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear! You signed up to do our Monster Movie blogathon in two weeks. Well…we’ve begun to select dates. You need to send me the following information to be allowed to pick your date:

    Name
    Site Link
    Email Address

    Send it to nahood@ursinus.edu

    The slots are first come, first serve. Here’s the link to the current schedule:

    http://forgottenclassicsofyesteryear.blogspot.com/2011/07/monster-movie-blogathon-update-2.html

  10. Rick29 says:

    John, you have such good tastes in movies! As an Anthony Mann and Dick Powell fan, I looked for this movie for years. I finally caught with it a couple of years ago on TCM and it did not disappoint. The Western and mystery genres mesh so well that I’m surprised so few filmmakers have combined them (I also like FIVE CARD STUD and BREAKHEART PASS, though neither belong in the same paragraph as a Mann film, so I apologize). I love your description of “a world of deep shadows and menacing corners.” That’s typical of Mann’s early works such as RAW DEAL. The confined corners of a train are always a nifty setting for a thriller. Great review!

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks very much Rick. Train movies have been used for thrillers for many years (there is a blog posting here somewhere) and as you say they make for, “a niffy setting,” compact, claustrophobic, always moving.

      I also like FIVE CARD STUD (have not seen BREAKHEART PASS). I cannot make any claims to it being great but it is an enjoyable western and I always liked Robert Mitchum and Dean Martin. Thanks again!

  11. The Lady Eve says:

    John, I haven’t seen “The Tall Target,” but am a fan of Mann’s – so – I have my DVR set to record when it airs, as you mentioned, on TCM this coming Saturday morning (it airs at 6:30 a.m. in my time zone…to early for me!). Looking forward to it – thanks for the recommendation and heads up. Bosley Crowther could be so needlessly nasty. The story goes that his negative reviews of and persistent snide references to “Bonnie and Clyde” (’67) led the NYT to decide he was out of touch – and he was replaced the following year…

    • John Greco says:

      Eve,

      let me know what you think after seeing it. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts. Crowthers was cruel and misguided in many instances. The BONNIE AND CLYDE review and follow up article(s) that he did cemented his total alienation on what was happening in film at the time. I always wondered how he lasted so long at the Times.

  12. sandra says:

    Actually, Lincoln’s bodyguard WAS named Kennedy. And John Kennedy”s secretary was named Lincoln. Its one of those weird coincidences .

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