A New York City detective, traveling by train between New York and Baltimore, tries to foil an on-board plot to assassinate President-elect Abraham Lincoln before he reaches Baltimore to give a major pre-Inauguration speech in 1861.
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The historical fact of a possible assassination attempt on the President-Elect Abraham Lincoln makes the movie very interesting. The drama comes from a fictitious New York police sergeant discovering the plot and boarding the last train to Washington, DC, to protect the new president to be. Dick Powell does a very good job using deduction and logic to find who on the train could be conspirators. He is foiled at different times but manages to succeed even when the conspirators have caught him. The movie's action takes place mostly on the train and the effects of travelling are well done. Historically, several states have already seceded from the union and that included Virginia. That's why Lincoln had to travel to Washington, DC, through Maryland, also a slave state. When he was taking his own "Inaugural Train" the plan was to kill Lincoln in Baltimore during a long stop but Lincoln's supporters did some slight of hand to sneak him on board the last train to the capital. Maybe not ... Written by
In 1861 the train would have traveled on a number of different short line railroads to get from New York to Washington (the Philadelphia & Trenton; the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore; the Baltimore and Washington, etc.); the Philadelphia, Washington & Baltimore Railroad was not formed until 1902 and it was still in existence (on paper) until 1976. Obviously the filmmakers kept the name consistent to provide continuity and to avoid having to repaint the engine and cars after every few shots. See more »
Although the film is a work of fiction, The Tall Target is based in part on an actual incident that involved an attempt to assassinate President- elect Abraham Lincoln on his way to Washington to assume the presidency in early 1861. A planned stop in Baltimore was canceled and Lincoln was spirited into Washington in the wee small hours of the morning with no kind of fanfare or publicity, as he put it, 'like a thief in the night'.
Anthony Mann directed this 19th century noir type film starring Dick Powell as a New York police sergeant who gets wind of a plot to murder Lincoln in Baltimore. After he confides his suspicions to colleague Regis Toomey, Toomey winds up dead and Powell's more convinced than ever of the rightness of his belief. He boards the train that Lincoln is scheduled to board in Baltimore on to warn him, but Powell's got a lot of people on that train ready to do him in and he doesn't know who to trust.
The Tall Target is very similar to Mann's other classic Winchester 73 in the tautness of the direction and script. There isn't one wasted frame of film in The Tall Target and the suspense is kept throughout, even though history tells us Lincoln dodged a bullet that day. Mann assembled a very strong supporting cast for Powell that includes Adolphe Menjou as a militia colonel called to the colors, Leif Erickson as a Bowery tough, Will Geer as an officious conductor, Marshall Thompson as a southern hothead and resigned West Point cadet and his sister Paula Raymond.
Best performance in the film though is that of young Ruby Dee who plays a slave to Thompson and Raymond traveling with them. She proves to be the only real friend Powell has on the train. It's a quiet understated performance of dignity and strength.
By the way in case any of you are wondering why she doesn't just run away and claim her freedom, a couple of things stops her. The Dred Scott decision for one which obliterated the Missouri Compromise of 1820 with the northern free and southerns slave states and the new Fugitive Slave Law from the 1850 Compromise. However Dee knows that freedom is coming her way and soon.
The Tall Target is one excellent film, one of the best from Dick Powell when he decided to stop making musicals. Catch it absolutely.
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