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Film Noir enthusiasts often point to films from other genres that bear noir-ish tendencies -- the western Pursued, the science fiction films Them! and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the historical thriller The Black Book (Reign of Terror). MGM's 1951 The Tall Target is very definitely in the noir mode, a tale of an attempted political assassination in the mode of Suddenly and The Manchurian Candidate. The only difference is that this story happens in 1861.
The taut screenplay plays around somewhat with the facts, but a high-ranking New York police official named John Kennedy was indeed involved with protecting President-Elect Abraham Lincoln just prior to his inauguration. That parallel aside, Lincoln came to office just as the country was about to be torn in two and plunged into a Civil War. Half of the characters in the movie openly state that they'd like to see Honest Abe shot dead. Coincidences aside, these issues make the movie seem especially relevant today. 1
The unusually intense and fast-paced story begins in New York with police detective John Kennedy (Dick Powell, in full-on noir mode) failing to generate interest for heavier security protection for Lincoln on his upcoming train trip to Washington. Kennedy tosses in his badge but takes a midnight train south. His attempts to warn Lincoln's people directly are thwarted by telegraph problems. On the train Kennedy realizes that his partner has been murdered. A leering thug (Leif Erickson) steals his identity papers and his train ticket, and it's only through the friendly intervention of a newly-minted Army Colonel (Adolph Menjou) that conductor Crowly (Will Geer) doesn't throw Kennedy off the train. Various passengers are expressing strong sentiments pro- and anti- Lincoln, secession and slavery, but Kennedy's attention soon focuses on Ginny and Lance Beaufort (Paula Raymond & Marshall Thompson) a brother and sister returning to the Carolinas. Lance Beaufort is a definite hothead, and he's carrying a fancy rifle with a new-fangled telescopic sight. Their maid Rachel, a slave (Ruby Dee), wants to tell John Kennedy something...
The Tall Target is another intense thriller from Anthony Mann, who was making his name as one of Hollywood's hottest new directors. It has plenty of Mann's characteristic touches, including some for-the-time gritty bits of violence. The hero holds a villain's head on a railroad track as a train is starting to move. A man shoots a sleeping victim point-blank in the face, through a newspaper. The picture is also a treasure trove of great supporting actors. Adolph Menjou is a spirited presence, and Will Geer and Victor Killian make a fine conductor-engineer team. Marshall Thompson's uptight, hostile West Point grad is definite mad assassin material and Ruby Dee receives a fine -- and racially sensitive -- role as the maid well aware that freedom is something she should be born with. Leif Erickson (Invaders from Mars) is wonderful as a nervy con-man, conspirator and all-round thug, while Florence Bates scores big points as an opinionated, ditzy abolitionist author far too tickled by her own celebrity.
The movie has a wonderful period feel that doesn't opt for the easy "quaint" references. New York and Philadelphia of 1861 are busy places with businessmen and officials attending to their affairs as seriously as they do now. Railroad officers resent the train being held up by "official" demands. Train lovers will laugh at the scene where the entire express is pulled through Baltimore by teams of horses, because the local ladies pushed through an ordinance banning trains in city limits: the soot from the locomotive soiled the laundry hung out to dry. Victor Kilian looks very forlorn, leaning out his locomotive window as it is dragged backwards through the streets. Dick Powell's suit is a tiny bit too modern, but the one anachronism that bothers me happens right at the start. Less than fifteen or twenty years after the implementation of railroad trains, the New York terminal is an enormous indoor pavilion. That may surprise me by turning out to be accurate, but the giant building also appears to be illuminated by hanging incandescent electric lights.
The Tall Target's Lincoln-Kennedy parallel is matched by another relationship that, in Savant's opinion, isn't a coincidence at all. Richard Fleischer's train-set contemporary thriller The Narrow Margin was released by RKO in 1952, months after the premiere of The Tall Target. But the RKO film was completed almost a year before, its release held up by Howard Hughes while he considered re-filming it with bigger stars. The parallels are simply too many to be coincidental. In both films:
-- Neither films uses a soundtrack score, only source music.
-- Two detectives rush to a train to protect a mystery passenger.
-- One of the detectives is murdered by agents who'll stop at nothing to kill the mystery passenger.
-- The remaining detective is harassed and helped by the bratty young son of a pretty female passenger.
-- The conductor tries to help the detective but is confused by the clever assassins.
-- The detective's official role is doubted: one has no credentials and the other's honesty is constantly placed in question.
-- Another prominent passenger's role in the mystery is deliberately kept ambiguous.
-- The detective fights with more than one assassin; the bolder of the thugs makes his presence known out in the open.
-- A mystery passenger stays hidden in one of the closed compartments.
-- Both the detective and the killers rush to make important telegraph communications at stops; various good guys and bad guys board the train and attempt to search the cabins.
-- During the climax, the detective gets crucial information by looking through the window of a moving train car.
-- In both movies a particularly heinous bad guy boards the train near the end. Both are played by the same actor, Peter Brocco!
I bring this up just as a matter of curiosity, but clearly something was going on. Perhaps both movies were from a common source treatment, or -- who knows? Even though Howard Hughes shelved the terrific The Narrow Margin for over a year, its producer Stanley Rubin received a career boost. He told me that his film gained a positive reputation through closed-door industry screenings.
Today The Tall Target plays like a subdued James Bond adventure, with an idealistic cop risking his career and life to save the life of a great man everybody seems to want dead. It's a unique picture already well established as a sleeper favorite.
The Warner Archive Collection's DVD-R of The Tall Target is a very good, very clean transfer. It's not a new restoration but must have been done fairly recently. A grabber original trailer stresses the film's tension and violence, and even ends with a derringer blasted directly at the camera.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Tall Target rates:
1. If you like really wild strange-but-true facts, a page called The Reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln into John Kennedy lists dozens of strange parallels between the lives of John Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln. The page begins by suggesting that one great president was reincarnated as another, so skip down to the actual tables of oddly-aligning facts.
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.