One year, one film: 1951

The film:
The Tall Target, dir. Anthony Mann
starring Dick Powell and Paula Raymond

Recommended | Highly Recommended | MUST-SEE

(Image via Caftan Woman)

A soon-to-be-President, a suspicious cop, an assassination plot: these are the key elements of the tale told by The Tall Target, a work of historical fiction based very loosely on a real assassination plot aimed at Abraham Lincoln.

Dick Powell stars as John Kennedy, a New York cop who decides to strike out on his own and solve the case when he learns of a potential threat to the life of pre-inauguration Lincoln. Fast-paced and full of tension, The Tall Target feels every bit the ’40/ crime drama even though it’s a period film set in the 19th century, and released in the early ’50s. It also features a very good supporting performance by Ruby Dee as one of Kennedy’s few allies on his train journey to Washington.

The Tall Target was one of my favorite film discoveries of 2015. I reviewed it in October with a “SUPER FIVE” score, or “5/5!,” meaning it was an instant favorite upon first viewing. But did the critics of 1951 add it to their favorites lists?

Curiously, we may never know what the consensus was unless I happen to add a magazine to my own collection that features a review. Modern Screen for 1951, available from the Media History Digital Archive, offers but one mention of the film — a caption on a photo of June Allyson and Dick Powell in an ad for Jergen’s lotion. Mentions of the film aren’t found in a quick search of more serious industry mags from that year, either.

Of course, there’s always one reliable place to turn for digitally-accessible and very cruel mid-century reviews: the man, the myth, the legend… Bosley Crowther. He, of course, hated The Tall Target. He didn’t just hate it a little, but hated everything about it, it seems. He takes issue with the film having “no basis other than legend,” which would be a valid criticism if Hollywood were known for its super-accurate and strictly fact-based period films. The film on the whole? A “moth-eaten melodrama,” according to Crowther, and Powell is “cussedly smug.” I’m beginning to think this man sometimes wrote reviews not for the sake of critiquing the films, but to show off his own flair for writing mean things in very creative ways.

It remains to be seen whether the rest of the world hated the film as much as Crowther did; I’ll have to do some more digging. I hope that everyone else instead enjoyed it, as I did, for what it is: a very good suspense film only marginally related to history.