The Tall Target (1951)

The Tall Target (1951) is a historical film noir crime film starring Dick Powell as a latter-day detective working to foil an assassination plot against then President-Elect Abraham Lincoln.

The action is based on an alleged real life plot to kill the President in 1861, and this historical fact of a possible assassination attempt on Lincoln gives the movie most of its power and interest.

Dick Powell is the star with the period hat and haircut who uses deduction and logic to find who on the train could be conspirators. 

He is straight-up foiled at different times but manages to win the day even when the conspirators have caught him. For effect, the movie's action takes place mostly on the train with the old rocking-camera technique and some fun fights in the steam and in the various parts of the vehicle.

Films set on trains have their own pedigree, clichés and aspects, and for sure present a distinctly exciting technological, dangerous and claustrophobic background, as well as dramatically bounding and binding characters in one single but varied location.

Dick Powell in The Tall Target (1951)

Adolphe Menjou and Dick Powell in The Tall Target (1951)

The romance and threat of trains was captured and well developed in proto-Noir thrillers like Murder in the Private Car (1934) and The Lady Vanishes (1938)  —  although there are many films set on trains that could be mentioned.

By this point in the inauguration action, several states had already seceded from the union and that included Virginia, which is why Lincoln had to travel to Washington, DC, through Maryland, also a slave state. 

Dick Powell in The Tall Target (1951)

When Lincoln was taking his own so-called Inaugural Train the plan was to kill him in Baltimore during a long stop but Lincoln's supporters smuggled him on board the last train to the capital. 

Gripping fist fight in the machinery of The Tall Target (1951)

A neat side-story manages to discuss slavery and civil rights through the character of a young slave, Rachel, played by Ruby Dee.

Indeed the train is no less than a metaphorical United States of America and its passengers have symbolic roles: the slave-owning Southern belle Ginny Beaufort (Paula Raymond) and her slave (Ruby Dee), along with her short-tempered Confederate brother Lance (Marshall Thompson), and there is even a busybody-style abolitionist played by Florence Bates, and the conductor Will Geer, an practical engineering type who just wants the train to keep going.

The argument for emancipation plays out clearly in The Tall Target (1951)

Regarding civil rights and the issue of slavery, The Tall Target in general makes an effort to steer clear of political comment if given the chance. Kennedy states at one point that he’s “no abolitionist” but holds Lincoln in high regard on a personal level because of the president-elect’s integrity and humanity.

It’s Ruby Dee as the slave girl who carries out the heavy lifting regarding the subject, and states the film's case. This is because her mistress believes she is perfectly happy with her situation, but makes a speech making clear how wrong her owner is.

Rachel: Freedom isn't a thing you should be able to give me, Miss Ginny. Freedom is something I should have been born with.

1861 is however the year that the Civil War broke out and so something must emerge from The Tall Target from which political conclusions may be made. The Tall Target raise stakes and tension from the off, in terms of its mis en scene and the public astrictions visible at the station at which the film starts, showing a divided country on the brink of falling apart, with tension between slave-owning secessionists and Northern abolitionists. 

Dick Powell under pressure in The Tall Target (1951)

Dick Powell's New York cop Kennedy is meant to meet a man on board a train heading South, but his contact has disappeared, and no one on board seems to bother in the slightest.

Film noir is however brought to 1861 with various touches —  lanterns swinging in the fog create atmosphere and as ever in film noir, there is a good deal of communication, here brought alive by  telegrams sent and received at train stations. Finally there are many shots of the engine speeding through the night, usually seen from the engineer's perspective, which help with the classic noir mood. 

Florence Bates plays a variety of Harriet Beacher Stowe style abolitionist called  Mrs. Charlotte Alsop. She is very model of a  well-meaning, firm but actually not very worldly liberal. She is on the train to Washington for a private audience with Lincoln where she will raise with him the issues of emancipation and the difficulties of travel. 

Adolphe Menjou in The Tall Target (1951)

Historical film noir on the rails in The Tall Target (1951)

Some of the characters enjoyable state their openness to the idea of Lincoln’s being executed, and director Anthony Mann goes out of his way to show that even great and revered figures of history can in fact be divisive and contested. 

Ruby Dee in The Tall Target (1951)

Nineteenth century cop John Kennedy’s decision to risk everything for Lincoln despite his own rather  apolitical perspective does find a mirror in Lincoln’s presidency itself. The train ride and the character of the cop do however resist antiquity, largely down to the firmly solid film noir structure of The Tall Target and the visuals, which are chiaroscuro noir as opposed to the Technicolor floods of light which characterise many of the Civil War films of the Golden Age, which often set up to emulate or at least look a little like Gone With The Wind (1939).

Strong civil rights film noir The Tall Target (1951)

There is also a rather strong and urgent paranoia about the train journey and the who is who of The Tall Target, which does make it much more of a 1950s production, with glances and doubts, and resentments burning from afar. Some of the conspirators in the plot like Lance Beaufort (played by Marshall Thompson) are ideological fanatics, but Jeffers, who proves to be the secret leader of the conspiracy, is motivated by commercial concerns — an entirely 1950s notion — as a Lincoln presidency is too much of a threat to his business.

The Baltimore Plot was a conspiracy in late February 1861 to assassinate President-elect Abraham Lincoln en route to his inauguration. 

Allan Pinkerton, founder of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, played a key role by managing Lincoln's security throughout the journey. Though scholars debate whether or not the threat was real, it is certain that Lincoln and his inner circle believed that there was a threat and took actions to ensure his safe passage through Baltimore, Maryland.

On November 6, 1860, Lincoln was elected as the 16th President of the United States. Lincoln was a Republican, and the first to be elected from that party. 

Shortly after the election of Abraham Lincoln, representatives from the South made it clear that the Confederacy's secession from the U.S. was inevitable, and this increased social and political pressure across the nation. A plot to assassinate Lincoln in Baltimore was alleged, and Lincoln ultimately arrived secretly in Washington, D.C. on February 23, 1861. 

Richard Rober in The Tall Target (1951)

In 1951, when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released their fictional re-creation of the plot against Lincoln, the story generally followed what is known about the Baltimore Plot, with some differences. 

In The Tall Target it is a New York Police Department detective named John Kennedy, played by Dick Powell, who contacts the administration about the conspiracy and boards the train hoping to discover whether any of the plotters are on board before they reach Baltimore.

There actually was an NYPD officer, John Alexander Kennedy, who claimed to have been the one who uncovered the Baltimore Plot, but unlike Powell's movie character, he was not really on the scene.

Moreover, in real life, Kennedy was the superintendent of the entire force whereas in the film, he is simply a modest detective sergeant, with something of the rogue cop about him.

On the evening of February 22, telegraph lines to Baltimore were cut at Pinkerton's behest to prevent communications from passing between potential conspirators in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Meanwhile, Lincoln left Harrisburg on a special train and arrived secretly in Baltimore in the middle of the night. The most dangerous link in the journey was in Baltimore, where a city ordinance prohibited steam engine powered rail travel through the downtown area because of worries about noise and fires caused by sparks or cinders. Therefore, the railcars had to be horse-drawn between the President Street and Camden Street stations.

As he did a couple of years earlier with The Black Book (1949) (a.k.a. Reign of Terror) Anthony Mann brought all the fun of the film noir style to a period thriller.  The results included ruthless characters, a determined detective, and plenty of tension loaded with dramatic angles.  

Throughout the film there are moments of conversations that show there was a genuine hatred, even in the north, for tall target Abraham Lincoln. Some people openly hope that he is killed since that would end what they see as the country's problems. Some people oppose Lincoln simply because he will cause a war which will be bad for business. 

When revealed the assassin argues that a single bullet will save thousands of lives, northern and southern — sentiments which did exist at the time. Although tensions between the north and the south had been rising for a decade, the election of Lincoln was a trigger for war.

As the Slave Power tightened its grip on the national government, most Republicans agreed with Lincoln that the North was the aggrieved party. Throughout the 1850s, Lincoln had doubted the prospects of civil war, and his supporters rejected claims that his election would incite secession.

Paula Raymond in The Tall Target (1951)

The Tall Target (1951) is even for the 1950s makes a powerful statement against slavery without resorting to violent drama and scenes of abuse. The script aims to harness the thinking that enabled slave-owners to view slaves as part of the family without considering the actual implications of one human being owning another human being. 

The young slave in the movie named Rachel (played Ruby Dee) has an independent mind seems comfortable with her life but this proves to be a front. Presented with her defiance, her owner Ginny Beaufort (played by Paula Raymond), wields her force by merely stating that they will soon be back in the South, implying that forceful punishment is coming once they are in a slave state. 

When her loyalty is on the line, Rachel states with an uncertain but firm dignity that freedom is not something that you should have to ask for. The great contrast here is with the opinionated abolitionist who demonstrates that not every northern abolitionist had any first-hand experience of slavery, and really knew anything about it.

For those wondering why Rachel did not simply get off the train while it was still in the north, since slavery was illegal there, the Dred Scott case had actually made that impossible. 

After his offer to purchase his freedom from Irene Sanford, the widow of his former owner, was rejected, Dred Scott launched a lawsuit against her, eventually appealing to the United States Supreme Court. The court ruled in 1857 that the descendants of Africans were not citizens of the United States, and therefore they had no right to submit a case to the supreme court.

Lincoln home and dry — next stop: Civil War  — in film noir The Tall Target (1951)

The logic followed that since slaves were the private property of their owners, the Missouri Compromise did not have the legal authority to deprive an owner of his or her property. The court’s judgement only added more ire to the divide between the abolitionists and the pro-slavery supporters in the south.

The tough guy persona of Dick Powell, honed in such classic film noir as Murder, My Sweet (1944) is a joy to see despite the anachronism. There is nothing like a film noir train thriller and The Tall Target (1951) is a beautiful addition to this themed corner of the style.

The Tall Target (1951) on Wikipedia

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