The Tall Target (1951)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Produced by Richard Goldstone
Story by George Worthing Yates, Daniel Mainwaring (as Geoffrey Homes)
Screenplay by George Worthing Yates, Art Cohn
Cinematography by Paul Vogel
Edited by Newell P. Kimlin
Originally distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Warner Archive DVD (1:18)
Last year’s ClassicFlix Blu-ray releases of three superb film noir titles -T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948) and He Walked by Night (1948, uncredited, with Alfred L. Werker) - got people talking about Anthony Mann’s noir work, and rightfully so. Kino Lorber recently announced an upcoming release of Mann’s outstanding western Bend of the River (1952), which I hope will lead to a renewed interest in his other western titles. What might get lost in this rediscovery of Anthony Mann is a little gem that contains elements of both film noir and westerns, yet is technically neither.
The premise of The Tall Target is simple: President-elect Abraham Lincoln, traveling by train to Washington D.C., becomes an assassin’s target. A New York police officer, eerily named John Kennedy (Dick Powell, right), gets a tip that an attempt will be made on Lincoln’s life. Not only do Kennedy’s warnings fall on the deaf ears of his superiors, the man holding Kennedy’s train ticket turns up dead. Another man on the train claims to be the real John Kennedy and has the papers to prove it.
As Kennedy seeks to find the killer and prevent the assassination, he wonders if he can trust anyone onboard: the friendly Northern officer Colonel Jeffers (Adolphe Menjou, right), the scatterbrained abolitionist Charlotte Alsop (Florence Bates), a Confederate officer (Marshall Thompson, center) who hates Lincoln, and even the train conductor (Will Geer). Like The Narrow Margin (filmed in 1950, but released in 1952), most of the action in The Tall Target takes place on a train, creating not only an enclosed space (often a staple of noir), but also many opportunities for tension and suspense, something Mann takes advantage of in spades. Even a seemingly routine moment such as Kennedy walking down the aisle looking for his missing gun provides a suspenseful surprise.
Mann also grabs our attention from the film’s opening with shadows filling the train station, a long dread-filled moment with no musical score, creating added tension. While some noir conventions are circumvented (an enclosed train rather than a city, an historical rather than a modern-day setting), the shadows and chiaroscuro lighting are often present as are mysterious characters and ambiguous motives. This is the perfect setting for conflict for both sides in the midst of pre-Civil War tensions, adding to the confusion Kennedy feels in seeking out the killer.
The Tall Target is a terrific little film that left audiences and critics scratching their heads when it was released. The title wasn’t technically a noir or a western, so critics didn’t know what to do, other than dismiss it (which they did). From time to time I’d hear people talking about it, so I decided to give it a chance. I’m glad I did. I purchased it from the recent Warner Archive “4 for $44” sale, but you don’t have to wait until the next sale. I’d recommend picking it up immediately.
Photos: DVD Beaver, BFI