Warner Archive Wednesday ~ The Tall Target (1951)
The Tall Target (1951) is a historical detective story based on the disputed Baltimore Plot; a conspiracy to assassinate President-elect Abraham Lincoln on his scheduled train stop in Baltimore, Maryland. The year is 1861 and President Lincoln was on a whistle stop tour that would take him to Washington D.C. America was already deeply divided over slavery and traveling through Maryland would prove to be a rather dangerous venture. The Tall Target explores the Baltimore Plot and how it might have been foiled.
The film stars Dick Powell as New York Detective John Kennedy. Let's stop and talk about that name for a second. The character John Kennedy is based on real life New York Police Superintendent John Alexander Kennedy who allegedly discovered the Baltimore Plot. However, today's audiences are going to think of John F. Kennedy, the President who was assassinated a little over a decade after this film was released, much like Lincoln had been almost a hundred years earlier. At first when I heard the name, I immediately thought of that common theory that Lincoln and Kennedy were linked by various odd coincidences. It's often thought that Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln and Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy. The former is true but the latter is not. I stopped the movie and did a little research before continuing. It was bugging me because I thought maybe the John Kennedy in the film would go on to become the Kennedy of Lincoln's administration and I needed clarification. Maybe the myth of Lincoln having a Kennedy as a secretary came from the real life John Alexander Kennedy who was supposedly instrumental in foiling the Baltimore Plot?
Name confusion aside, Dick Powell's John Kennedy is a New York Detective who senses that trouble awaits for Lincoln on his scheduled stop in Baltimore. It's unclear how he gets this information but because it's out of his jurisdiction and because it isn't war time quite yet, he has to forgo his detective badge and head out to prevent the assassination on his own. Adolphe Menjou plays Colonel Caleb Jeffers. The Colonel is well aware of Kennedy's investigation and they travel on the same train to Baltimore. On the train is southerner Lance Beaufort (Marshall Thompson). He's a military man traveling with his sister Ginny (Paula Raymond) and her slave maid Rachel (Ruby Dee).
Kennedy's troubles begin almost instantly when there is confusion about his ticket, someone steals his coat and his identity and the people on the train seem to have different motives. Kennedy discovers Lance Beaufort is in on the Baltimore Plot but Kennedy is now being sought after by the police. He can't prove his identity because he is missing his badge, his ticket and all his identification. I particularly enjoyed Powell's performance as well as that of Ruby Dee. Dee's character Rachel is instrumental in helping Powell with his mission to prevent Lincoln's assassination.
We all know how this ends. Lincoln doesn't get assassinated on his inaugural tour and he also ends up skipping the Baltimore stop. However, the fun about this movie is finding out how the plot gets foiled!
This film is satisfying because it gives us the story of an Abraham Lincoln assassination that didn't happen. Even almost 150 years later, as a nation we are still troubled by President Abraham Lincoln's assassination and it still fascinates us. We are still invested in Lincoln and the story of his life and his death. What if the plot was discovered early and the perpetrator was caught in time before the crime ever happened? We want a hero to step in and save our President! And in this film it happens without altering history.
The Tall Target has a lot going for it: a great title, an interesting story, the pacing keeps things exciting, all the action happens on a train and I particularly enjoyed the performances of Powell, Menjou and Dee. I recommend reading about the Baltimore Plot before you watch the film. Knowing a bit of the context going in helps a lot.
Summary: A suspenseful and interesting historical detective story, The Tall Target (1951) explores the disputed Baltimore Plot to assassinate President Elect Abraham Lincoln in 1861.
The Tall Target (1951) is available on DVD MOD from Warner Archive.
Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. I rented The Tall Target (1951) from ClassicFlix.