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
The first director attached to this subject, several years before the film was finally made, was Joseph Losey. He had planned to cast Lena Horne in the role finally played by Ruby Dee - originally planned as a much larger part. See more »
Train movies are usually kind of fun. Everything is tick-tocking back and forth while the train is underway, so there is a sense of constant motion, of imminence in each scene. Also, you get to see the scenery flashing by, which you don't see in an airplane or aboard a ship. And the train can make multiple stops, with something new cropping up each time, opportunities and missed opportunities, which is likewise difficult with airplanes and ships. The train, further, encloses spaces with varied characteristics -- there are seats, compartments, sleeping berths with curtains drawn across them, dining cars, an observation platform on the caboose, a baggage car, a locomotive with a greasy engineer. Put these all together, along with the limited expense involved in a mockup of a train, and it's all pretty appealing. This one is a rather typical noir set aboard such a vehicle in 1861. It has political undertones too. Nobody believes the hero. As is so often the case he finds himself pursued by both the police and the would-be assassins.
The villainy shifts shape. There are lots of shadows. Too many shadows in fact, except for the one or two brief outdoor daytime scenes. It always seems to be nightime aboard the train, whatever time it may be outside. The acting is competent, with Will Geer doing quite well in the part of the conductor, and Ruby Dee a beautiful young woman. It ends happily.
Well, it had to end happily, really. How can you make a movie that ends up with Lincoln being assassinated in 1861? Actually, Pinkerton did smuggle Abe into Washington, with a set of whiskers newly grown for the occasion, which he kept for the rest of his life. But Pinkerton also went on to serve as head honcho of intelligence during Lincoln's administration and lord only knows how many lives were lost through his consistent overestimations of Confederate strength. He gave McLellan all the reason he needed to develop a case of "the slows." Abe should have thanked Pinkerton, shaken his hand at Union Station, and wished him well. Then maybe appointed John Kennedy in his place. One wonders, where are today's Lincolns? Some of our modern presidents give the impression that they could barely read the Gettysburg address, never mind write it. What a calculated and beautifully framed set of ideas in those two hundred and forty-some words. Gary Wills has a neat book on the subject.
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