The Tall Target (1951)
Directed by Anthony Mann
What do you get when you combine a classic film noir whodunit with a historical incident from the life of Abraham Lincoln? You get The Tall Target, director Anthony Mann’s dark rendition of the real-life plot to assassinate the president-elect as he traveled by train through secession-rife Baltimore in February 1861, en route to Washing ton for his first inauguration.
Whatever the merits of Mann’s film, it is a classic example of how Holly wood can take a historical incident and sprinkle it with real and imagined characters to create a cinematic public memory that blurs the line between truth and fiction. This is evident from the film’s opening written prologue: “Ninety years ago a lonely traveler boarded the night train from New York to Washington, D.C., and when he reached his destination, his passage had become a forgotten chapter in the history of the United States. This motion picture is a dramatization of that disputed journey.”
The “facts” of the conspiracy are a matter of record. Norman Judd, a Republican Party official and Lincoln’s friend, called a late-night meeting with the president-elect and detective Allan Pinkerton in a Philadelphia hotel room to reveal information he had received about a gang of secessionist toughs who supposedly planned to divert the attention of Lincoln’s police escort at Baltimore’s Calvert Street Station while Lincoln was changing trains for Washington. Other gang members would surrounded “the tall target” and kill him. Letters from William Seward, Secretary of State-designate, are brought to Lincoln containing corroborating information, including a report from a New York police superintendent ironically named John Kennedy, who had been investigating ominous assassination rumors while in Baltimore.
Lincoln, who had received threats on his life before, remained calm. He reluctantly agreed to a diversionary plan devised by Judd and Pinkerton. After making a scheduled speech in Harrisburg, Pa., on February 22, he quietly left on a special evening train back to Philadelphia. There, he secretly transferred to a sleeping car on the regular overnight train to Balti – more, accompanied only by Pinkerton, a bodyguard and a female operative working for Pinkerton. Once in Balti more, Lincoln’s car was uncoupled and hauled by horses through the darkened streets to Camden Station, where it was coupled to an engine for the final leg of the journey. Lincoln safely slipped into Washington at dawn on the 23rd and made his way to Willard’s Hotel and a reunion with his family.
New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther was not impressed with the film when it was released, writing that it “had a silly murder plot” that clattered through the night “in tedious fashion, with occasional characters dropping by the way.” Nevertheless, Mann, ably assisted by cinematographer Paul Vogel’s ominous manipulation of light and shadow, makes Kennedy, played with a debonair determination by Dick Powell, the central character in an intriguing game of “Who Do You Trust?” Unable to convince his superiors of the pending danger to Lincoln, Kennedy resigns, sends his report to the War Department and then arranges to join his partner to ride the “Night Express” in search of vindication and an assassin.
When his partner turns up dead, dangling off the end of the observation platform, Kennedy is left to wander the train among a host of potential suspects. Can he trust the Northern militia Colonel Caleb Jeffers, played by a suave Adolph Menjou, or Mrs. Charlotte Alsop, the abolitionist novelist played by Florence Bates? More obvious suspects are Marshall Thompson as the outspoken, Southern-leaning officer Lance Beaufort, and his sister, Ginny, played by a fiery Paula Raymond. Ginny is traveling with her maid, Rachel, played with an innocent openness by young Ruby Dee. A powerful stranger (Leif Erickson) seems to be one of the plotters because Kennedy spots him carrying a pistol. When Erickson’s character tries to push Kennedy off the train but is shot by Colonel Jeffers, it seems Jeffers is one of the good guys. But Jeffers soon reveals his true color: gray. Rachel tells Kennedy that Lance Beau – fort has a rifle and helps him get a pistol. Ginny overhears them whispering, slaps Rachel and grabs the gun from Kennedy. Lance drags Kennedy to Jeffers’ compartment, where the conspirators bind and gag him. As the train pulls into Baltimore, word comes that Lincoln’s train has been diverted. Jeffers investigates but soon realizes that there is no diverted train and that Lincoln has been in the compartment of a mysterious Mrs. Gibbons all the time. As the train slowly pulls out, Jeffers scrawls “the man [Lincoln] is on the train” on the dust of Lance’s car window. Seeing the message, Lance goes to retrieve his rifle. Kennedy reads the message, frees himself and runs after Lance. They struggle, and Kennedy pushes Lance off the train. Soon after, Mrs. Gibbons appears, identifies herself as an undercover agent and congratulates Kennedy for saving Lincoln’s life.
No one was ever indicted in the purported real-life conspiracy to kill Lincoln, but the story continues to fascinate us.
Originally published in the March 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.