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The Tall Target

Posted by martinteller on September 2, 2012

Police detective John Kennedy (Dick Powell) learns of a plot to assassinate President-elect Lincoln en route to his inauguration.  When his chief dismisses the report as nonsense, Kennedy turns in his badge and tries to foil the murderous plan himself.  The train journey will be perilous, with only his friend Colonel Jeffers (Adolphe Menjou) on his side.

As he did a couple of years earlier with The Black Book (a.k.a. Reign of Terror) Mann brings a noir sensibility to a period thriller.  Ruthless characters, a determined detective, nail-biting tension and gorgeous cinematography loaded with dramatic angles.  The only thing separating this from something like The Narrow Margin is the historical context and period costumes.  Except Powell, who is anachronistically dressed like a standard 50’s gumshoe with a pocket watch and sideburns.  I can’t say if any of the historical details are accurate (nor do I really care) but besides Powell’s suit nothing jumped out at me as out of place.

The film has a tight, tense story with enough twists to keep it interesting.  Trains usually make for great settings, and this is no exception.  It does suffer from a few slow patches, and as much as I like Powell I’m not sure he’s the best man for this role.  But he has some good moments.  For what I assume are either marketing or contractual reasons, Paula Raymond gets second billing despite having a rather small role.  More instrumental to the plot is one of my favorites, Ruby Dee.  Something about her just gives me a charge whenever I see her, and she brings an intelligent dignity even to this subservient role.

Not the most original thriller and far from Mann’s best, but it’s a well-constructed bit of noirish fun with terrific photography.  Rating: Very Good (81)


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