Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE TALL TARGET. MGM, 1951. Dick Powell, Paula Raymond, Adolphe Menjou, Marshall Thompson, Ruby Dee, Richard Rober, Leif Erickson, Will Geer, Florence Bates. Director: Anthony Mann.

   Call it Civil War noir, Confederate noir. On the other hand, maybe it’s not really noir at all, but just a very good crime film set in 1861, but one with a quasi-postwar shadowy, urban atmosphere with a protagonist who looks like he would have fit right in roaming the neon-lit streets of 1950s Manhattan.

   However you describe it, Anthony Mann’s The Tall Target is a extremely well-constructed, taut thriller about a New York City policeman named John Kennedy (Dick Powell) tasked with stopping an assassination plot against President-elect Abraham Lincoln. Nearly the entire film takes place on a night train from New York en route to Washington DC, giving it a beautifully claustrophobic sensibility.

   Based on the Baltimore Plot against Lincoln, the film follows Kennedy as he tries to convince people that there really is a plot against the future President’s life. In a plot device that is necessary to the development of the story, but which comes across as clichéd and rather unbelievable, Kennedy resigns his police commission and decides that he’s going to stop the plot as a private citizen. It’s the weakest part of an overall exceptional film, one that perhaps isn’t as well known as some of Mann’s Westerns from the same time period.

   Along the night journey, Kennedy has to contend with a scheming U.S. Army Colonel, (Adolphe Menjou playing it to the hilt), a brother-and-sister pair of Confederate sympathizers, and their slave, Rachel, portrayed with grace by Ruby Dee. Also aboard the Night Flyer, a woman and her son, as well an outspoken abolitionist woman who wants to interview Rachel for a book she’s allegedly writing. There’s also a stranger who boards the train in the Philadelphia darkness.

   Much as in The Heroes of Telemark, which I reviewed here, Mann demonstrates extreme dexterity when it comes to filming trains. Look in particular for the shots of the train approaching the station, with its bright circular light signifying its arrival.

   The train station scenes are also very well filmed, creating an atmosphere of doom and gloom in the dark, rain swept night. There’s also a couple of murders and a harrowing scene of a man thrown from a moving train.

   In conclusion, Mann’s The Tall Target is worth seeking out, particularly if you haven’t seen it already. With a running time of little under eighty minutes, the movie more than enough plot twists to keep a viewer engaged with the story. Even the Pinkerton Detective Agency plays a role in this under-appreciated film.