The year is 1861. President Lincoln has recently been elected and will soon be inaugurated.
John Kennedy (Dick Powell) is a New York police officer. With the country in turmoil following the election, Kennedy is convinced that Lincoln will face an assassination attempt on his way to Baltimore for a pre-inauguration speaking engagement.
Kennedy unveils his suspicions to his supervisor, but the supervisor doesn’t believe there’s a threat. Fuming, Kennedy takes it upon himself to single-handedly foil the plot and protect the new President’s life.
As the film’s opening titles read, “Ninety years ago a lonely traveler boarded the night train from New York to Washington, D.C., and when he reached his destination, his passage had become a forgotten chapter in the history of the United States. This motion picture is a dramatization of that disputed journey.”
The Tall Target was directed by Anthony Mann. In addition to Dick Powell, the cast features Paula Raymond, Adolphe Menjou, and Ruby Dee.
Based loosely on an real, alleged assassination plot (the “Baltimore Plot”) uncovered by Detective Allan Pinkerton soon after Lincoln’s election, The Tall Target inserts a semi-fictional detective (Powell’s character, possibly inspired by an actual cop who claimed to have uncover the Baltimore Plot but was not active in the investigation) and a whole lot of suspense into a historical tale.
The train that John Kennedy travels on seems to be packed with deplorable characters — plenty of suspects that could be involved in the assassination plot, plenty of people who seem to want to do harm to John, and very few people who believe John or are on his side.
Sparring matches over criminal matters aren’t the only issues on the train. Heated discussion occurs over secession, slavery, and the future of the country. One woman relentlessly interviews her fellow travelers, claiming to be writing the next Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The exploration of slavery and race in The Tall Target is quite thoughtful given the period in which the film was produced and the period in which it is set. One poignant scene points out the delusion with which some slave owners viewed the lives of slaves — “She’s as free as I am,” Paula Raymond’s character says of Ruby Dee’s, when in reality the opposite is true. Dee’s role should have been larger, but her performance is stellar and her part in the film is an important one, as Kennedy’s only real ally on the train.
Anthony Mann, the man behind many a brilliant B-noir and Western, crafted a fascinating little film with The Tall Target. While historic in setting and story, the film has all of the pace, thrills, tension, and style of a mid-century crime drama.
Having watched many a period film in my day, I don’t think I’ve seen another that blends modern style with period setting in this way. Some have incorporated modern elements (like the most recent Gatsby adaptation’s modern soundtrack), but very few have blended the past and present so successfully as The Tall Target.
One little flaw to the film is the anachronistic costume worn by Powell in the character of John Kennedy. He looks out of place next to some of the more period-appropriate costumes worn by the women and military men in the film. This anachronism, on a brighter note, can also be kind of fun for the modern viewer — a character named John Kennedy, in clothes that look more mid-20th century than mid-19th, saving Abraham Lincoln’s life! Perhaps he’s a time-traveling future President, eh?
The Tall Target is a fantastic and under-appreciated film. While the outcome is predictable (Surprise: Lincoln survives and is inaugurated!), there are plenty of twists along the way to keep the viewer’s interest. Strong performances and a strong script make for a gripping watch under the masterful direction of Anthony Mann. The score: 5/5!