The Tall Target, 1951. 10/10

Interesting sort of historical fiction involving an 1861 plot to assassinate President Lincoln. This isn’t the familiar, historical John Wilkes Booth 1865 assassination; but four years earlier, just after the 1860 election. South of the Mason-Dixon line, in Maryland, especially in the highly-charged Baltimore area, there were plenty of folks who were not only pro-secession, but some who were actively hostile to the president-elect.

One odd coincidence here is that the New York City detective played by Dick Powell has the ominous name of John Kennedy (sounds meaningless for this 1951 debut, but a name in high-relief only a dozen years later). The other major characters are the Beauforts, Ginny and Lance (Paula Raymond and Marshall Thompson), the Colonel Jeffers (Adolphe Menjou). Regis Toomey is the unfortunate Inspector Reilly; Leslie Kimmel is Lincoln.

Pretty haunting opening, a train pulling into a station at night, the only signs of life are railway workers swinging lanterns. Kennedy waits for Lieutenant Coulter’s arrival from Harrisburg, PA. (how did they source the vintage locomotives? It would be at least as hard as finding a 1929 vintage locomotive now).

Inspector Kennedy has a hard time locating the Colonel; it seems that all movies taking place on trains involve mystery, intrigue, suspense. Sure enough, things get complicated when Kennedy meets up with the Colonel. They discuss the situation in Baltimore. Strangely, when Kennedy gets back to his seat, there’s an imposter ‘John Kennedy’ there, who of course has his I.D., which he’s left there with his other belongings. But the ‘real’ Kennedy has personal ID, plus the Colonel vouches for him.

There’s a great fight under the just-moving train between Kennedy and the imposter Reilly. The colonel contributes by plunking the Confederate agent with a pistol. The Colonel has a good idea: smoke-out remaining Confederate operatives by starting a card game–in the smoking room. Lance, clearly a Southerner, looks in on their maid Rachel (Ruby Dee) and his wife, Ginny. Doesn’t take long before Lance and Kennedy get into it. Kennedy and the Colonel suspect that there’s a plot afoot.

But the shocker is the Colonel himself–he’s the turncoat, as he nearly ambushes Kennedy. They parley for a bit; both wonder what the other is really up to. The Colonel’s deal is trading on the skyrocketing price of cotton. At Philadelphia, both of them try to impress the local police–finding Lieutenant Coulter is the key. Meanwhile, the stationmaster gets a telegram. “Hold The Flyer (the train) for a package?” Sounds suspiciously like it means the President–not exactly, instead, it’s a heck of a red herring.

Now, the Lieutenant gets a telegram basically saying that Kennedy is the imposter, and is himself wanted (?!) by N.Y.C. police. Just as the Colonel boards the train, Lincoln and his party come up in a carriage. Thinking quickly, Kennedy hails a cab, and in the process of getting into it, punches the Lieutenant. Kennedy, known by the railroad crew, easily boards the Flyer, joining the President and the Colonel. The Lieutenant orders the train to wait, but more dithering ensues. And, they can’t find Kennedy anywhere on the train. The Lieutenant gets aboard, figuring something isn’t right. Kennedy comes out of hiding, but now has to dodge the Lieutenant. A great bit of connivance with the young boy (whom Kennedy’s befriended earlier) means that he’s able to hide out in their bunk. Frustrated, the Lieutenant debarks at the next stop, convinced that Kennedy’s elluded them.

Still skulking about the train, Kennedy keeps an eye on Beaufort and the Colonel. Rachel smoothes things along, herself greatly worried for Lincoln’s safety. He relates to her how he met Lincoln; Ginny and Lance, however, find them out. Lance wants to kill him right away. Ginny is taken aback once she learns that Lance is himself in on the assassination plot. He drags the unconscious Kennedy to the Colonel’s cabin. They agree just to tie him up and leave him there. Very realistically, the traincars are hooked to horses for the across town journey to the other station that handles the line from Baltimore to the South.

The barber, another confederate agent, ensures the Colonel that the plot is on: the Lieutenant himself is fingered as the assassin, outfitted with a rifle sporting a “new-fangled” telescopic site. All of a sudden, however, the headlines announce that the president isn’t passing through Baltimore. That’s historically accurate. But, for our purposes here, the assassination team figures that the newspapers are lying. So, Lincoln is indeed on the train. In yet another mix-up, Kennedy is apprehended by the conductor. That would seem to work for Beaufort, but, significantly, it means that Beaufort has to give up his gun to the guard. No one is assassinating anyone.

With a somewhat contrived ploy that involves chewing tobacco, Kennedy gets the guard’s gun. That leads to the denouement: a cool fight on platforms between cars. Kennedy wins, but it’s a nice tussle. Mary Todd Lincoln herself comes to personally thank Kennedy for saving the President’s life. One quickie view and a few lines from Lincoln, and we’re done.

This was amazingly good. When I read that it was semi-fictional, I thought, oh, no, lots of hokey stuff. But, not at all. From the very first scene, we have a dark mystery, with a very Hitchcock-like touch. The plot and pacing work hand-in-hand to produce a tense series of surprises, about-faces, and just plain drama. The setting compounds the feel of isolation and the tentative nature of reality on the verge of the Civil War in a border area.

The historical context is brought out with skillful and accurate attention to detail. Aside from the railway stuff mentioned, the uniforms, styles of dress for civilians, street scenes, all add to the verisimilitude. One last note is the Colonel’s regiment of Zouaves, a French style of infantry only seen in American armies in the Civil War era (on both sides).

The acting is very even all around; here we have characters with loads of nuance, particularly the Colonel. I’m reminded of westerns or secret agent movies where the villains and heroes, though on opposing sides, have a great deal of respect, even admiration for each other. The lighter moments, especially featuring the adventurous boy, who first annoys Kennedy, and then helps him, is at once amusing and believable. That bit, along with the tireless railway engineers and workers having to fish through all the orders and counterorders, shows how fate and luck play a role in even the most serious affairs.

The simple device of hiding Lincoln until the very end (except for the shadowy glimpse as he emerges from the carriage) is brilliant. He in fact doesn’t need to show himself, as the entire drama focuses on him anyway. Even the passengers give a sort of panorama of the political climate, both phobic and informative.

A must see for Civil War period fans, and also mystery lovers. Farmermouse thought those Zouave dudes were cool; he’s enlisting. Ten vintage trains for The Tall Target. 10/10.

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