The Tall Target
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Traveling by train to Washington D. C. for his inauguration, President-elect Abraham Lincoln was scheduled to stop and change trains in Baltimore on February 23, 1861. By the time Lincoln was elected, several Southern states had already seceded from the Union, and emotions were running very high in a country headed for Civil War. Detective Alan Pinkerton and General Winfield Scott had both been tipped to a planned assassination attempt on the President-elect's trip, so they persuaded Lincoln to bypass Baltimore on an earlier night train. These basic facts were elaborated upon and reshaped into a tight, engrossing thriller in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's The Tall Target (1951), directed by Anthony Mann.
Mann had recently taken a career turn from such taut B-movies of the 1940s as The Bamboo Blonde (1946), Railroaded! (1947), Raw Deal (1948), and T-Men (1947), to the first of his classic series of reinvented Westerns starring James Stewart, Winchester '73 (1950). Along the way Mann had directed Reign of Terror (1949), set during the French Revolution. This film proved to be a historic piece which carried over several of the noir elements of his earlier B pictures. In the same vein, The Tall Target takes a historic footnote and fashions a modern-flavored narrative with twists and a tense pacing and editing style. Unfortunately, critics in 1951 had no idea what to make of it.
Instead of detective Pinkerton, the fictionalized film focuses on New York police officer John Kennedy (Dick Powell), who becomes aware of the plot against President-elect Lincoln, whom Kennedy had previously guarded while he campaigned in New York. Kennedy is ignored by his supervisor, but he is still so convinced of the potential danger that he resigns his post and, unable to purchase a ticket, jumps aboard the Night Flyer Express to Baltimore. On the train all manner of skullduggery and deceit is afoot. Kennedy finds the dead body of the friend holding his ticket, and encounters a number of fellow passengers: Col. Caleb Jeffers (Adolphe Menjou), a Northern officer; a stranger with a gun (Leif Erickson); Mrs. Charlotte Alsop (Florence Bates), an abolitionist; Lance Beaufort (Marshall Thompson), a Confederate officer with a decided grudge against the new President; Lance's sister Ginny (Paula Raymond); and Rachel (Ruby Dee), the Beaufort's slave, who is being interviewed by Alsop about her slavery status. Train conductor Homer Crowley (Will Geer) provides a link to the characters as he roams the train taking tickets and lamenting the delays that ensue as outside forces create havoc with his timetable.
Reviews at the time of release were negative and even dismissive. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times said that, according to the film, "Lincoln would never have been President if it hadn't been for Dick Powell." He said the movie had a "silly murder plot" and that "after clattering through the night in tedious fashion, with occasional characters dropping by the way, 'The Tall Target' finally gets to Washington and Mr. Lincoln in case you were wondering does not get shot. We wouldn't be able to tell you about the people who made this film."
Art Cohn, screenwriter of The Tall Target, had previously written for such diverse films as The Set-Up (1949), the noirish boxing picture directed by Robert Wise, and Roberto Rossellini's neorealist film Stromboli (1950). Cohn died in 1958, in the same plane crash that took the life of film and theatrical producer Mike Todd; Cohn was writing a biography of Todd at the time.
. Story credit goes to George Worthing Yates and Daniel Mainwaring (as Geoffrey Homes). Mainwaring had previously contributed to the screenplay for the quintessential noir film, Out of the Past (1947), based on his own novel. Following The Tall Target, both writers contributed to the science fiction cycle of the 1950s; Mainwaring wrote the screenplay for Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), while Yates worked almost exclusively in the genre, on such films as Them! (1954), Conquest of Space (1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), War of the Colossal Beast (1958) and, with Mainwaring, Space Master X-7 (1958).
Character actor Will Geer had just appeared in Mann's Winchester '73 in a memorable supporting role as Wyatt Earp. The Tall Target and The Barefoot Mailman (1951) would be his last Hollywood films for more than a decade. Geer was blacklisted soon after, not appearing on film again until Otto Preminger broke the blacklist and hired Geer for Advise & Consent (1962). The only film in which Geer appeared in-between was the famous independent production Salt of the Earth (1954), financed in defiance of the blacklist by the Union of Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers.
Echoes of the train intrigue of The Tall Target were evident in an RKO thriller from the following year, The Narrow Margin (1952), directed by Richard Fleischer.
Producer: Richard Goldstone
Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: Art Cohn, Story by Daniel Mainwaring and George Worthing Yates
Cinematography: Paul C. Vogel
Film Editing: Newell P. Kimlin
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Eddie Imazu
Makeup: William Tuttle
Special Effects: A. Arnold Gillespie, Warren Newcombe
Cast: Dick Powell (John Kennedy), Paula Raymond (Ginny Beaufort), Adolphe Menjou (Caleb Jeffers), Marshall Thompson (Lance Beaufort), Ruby Dee (Rachel), Richard Rober (Lt. Coulter), Will Geer (Homer Crowley), Leif Erickson (Stranger), Florence Bates (Mrs. Charlotte Alsop).
by John M. Miller