An excellent forgotten movie featuring an assassination plot, Lincoln and billows of back-lit steam
May 18, 2011
If Anthony Mann, Paul Vogel and Dick Powell hadn't been around, Abraham Lincoln most likely would have been assassinated while making a speech in Baltimore on his way to his first inauguration. Ft. Sumter has been fired upon. West Pointers from Southern states are resigning their commissions to serve in their home state regiments. Abolitionists detest Lincoln as a man of compromise. He is so widely reviled by both the South and the North it might be difficult to know who is behind the plot.
In Baltimore the plot to kill Lincoln is set. He will travel by night train from New York. He'll stop at Baltimore in the morning. And there, 20 sharpshooters, each unknown to the others, will fire at him as he makes his speech. Surely at least one of them will hit their tall target. John Kennedy, a New York police officer, has learned of the plot. He is determined to foil it.
Anthony Mann, directing The Tall Target, and Paul Vogel, his cinematographer, have crafted an historical crime noir filled with the lurking dangers of the night, and with a cast of characters we, like Kennedy, don't know whether to trust or not. This is a tale of murder and plots on a train, and there's nothing like a train for suspense and atmosphere. The noir photography is some of the best you could hope for. The story is contained for the most part within the narrow confines of the train, from the engine to the caboose, to the sleeper car, the ornate private rooms, the passenger car and the smoker. All this, and we also get a terrific steam engine, swaying and clacketing through the night and billowing out great clouds of back-lit steam at every stop.
Men struggle and die on the train. Kennedy forces one man's head on the track just as the engine begins to pull the wheels forward. There are lies, misjudgments and deceit. Telegraph lines are cut. Kennedy himself is accused. It seems that only Kennedy can foil this plot...and he doesn't know, yet, how.
Kennedy, played by a tough Dick Powell, finds no one believes him...except, of course, the assassins and those they employ who, like Kennedy, are on the early evening train to Baltimore. His only ally, a fellow detective, is killed on the train before the journey even starts by a man who claims he is John Kennedy. There's the young West Point officer Lance Beaufort (Marshall Thompson) on his way back home to Georgia with his sister (played by Paula Raymond), and her maid (played by Ruby Dee), like a sister to her, she says, who is a slave. Beaufort speaks of a gentleman's honor, his sister speaks of gracious living and her maid thinks about Lincoln. There's Mrs. Charlotte Alsop (Florence Bates), the busybody abolitionist who shares, perhaps too forcefully, her disdain for slavery. There's Caleb Jeffers (Adolph Menjou), a small-time New York politician who has raised a company of volunteer Poughkeepsie zouabs. He and his men are traveling to Washington to march in Lincoln's inauguration parade. Jeffers is a man of the world (as only Menjou can be) who befriends Kennedy when Kennedy most needs a friend. And there is Homer Crowely (Will Geer), the train conductor, who seems more concerned with order on his train regardless of what deadly schemes may be in play.
Then, of course, there is that well disguised, tricky ending which is played out, after the violent nighttime train ride, in the bright Baltimore morning.
Why this first-rate film was ignored or forgotten is something only Hollywood moguls could explain, but they never cared much one way or the other. Powell is just fine as the tough, skeptical John Kennedy who believes in Lincoln. He has to rely at times on his fists and a degree of ruthlessness, but he also must use his wits. He's in a double or triple game, and his opponent shouldn't be underestimated. Will Geer with his flat, mid-West twang makes a distinctive conductor. Ruby Dee gives a lot of heart to the movie, especially with why some believe in Lincoln while so many think he is a disaster. Adolph Menjou is a delight, and nearly wrestles the movie away from Powell. If you like that dark, lurking, well-photographed noirish look, if you like history mysteries, if you like Dick Powell and if you like excellent but forgotten movies, The Tall Target is well worth having.