“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.