The Tall Target (Warner Archive) Review
While usually steeped in the anxiety which met and followed World War II, film noir can, on rare occasions, take place prior to the 20th century. There are a few examples set during the Victorian era (with John Brahm's Hangover Square being a particular standout), but, otherwise, the only director I'm aware of who was able to effectively turn back the clock with noir was Anthony Mann and he did it twice. The first, Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book) involves Robespierre and is set during the French Revolution. It's a stunning example of moving beyond the seeming limitations of noir while still creating one of the truly frightening pictures in the cycle. John Alton's camera was perhaps never more effective. Two years later came Mann's The Tall Target, a film noir set on a train and starring Dick Powell as a man (named, I promise, John Kennedy) intent on preventing a conspiratorial plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln on his way to the 1861 inauguration. The Tall Target is inferior to Reign of Terror, but it does maintain that very specific atmosphere of tension and immediacy so native to noir. The cinematography, here by Paul C. Vogel, is more black and not quite black than black and white.
The Tall Target tracks the determined Kennedy as he makes his way via train from New York to Baltimore. Prior to boarding, he relinquishes his police badge because no one seems to believe his theory that the president-elect is in danger. Kennedy thus becomes a lone wolf, without any authority or help. He also slides comfortably into the Hitchcock mold of the protagonist who faces one difficulty after another in the course of having to establish his innocence when falsely accused. Indeed, there's much here to associate with the master of suspense as Mann presents the character as a very solitary figure. He does so using the confined spaces of that most cinematic means of transportation - the train. The suspense isn't on par with a Hitchcock picture, this being a 78-minute B-movie, and Mann doesn't bleed that facet as much as, say, Richard Fleischer did in The Narrow Margin, but the few opportunities which arise are hardly wasted. A gun to Kennedy's back while walking through the train reveals how adept Mann was at making the small seem large.
Even better is a scene where Kennedy is struggling with an impostor near the tracks while the train is stopped but about to resume movement. It's lit so that darkness and steam obscure the faces almost to the point where the viewer struggles to see who's positioned where. As the two men struggle, Adolphe Menjou's Colonel Jeffers blindly fires a shot. This is the first time Jeffers is seen using a gun. The second is equally memorable, and probably even more shocking. Having Menjou, an actor whose screen presence is rarely sympathetic and someone whose actions away from the movies could easily be regarded as despicable, play a character of questionable trustworthiness proved to be a wise choice. He oozes cowardice. Overall, The Tall Target has believability issues, where things that happen seem implausible and reason often falls by the wayside. With Menjou, however, his inherent and almost oblivious sliminess entirely rings true for Colonel Jeffers. The variety of secessionists we meet are treated with almost comedic loathing by Mann. Appropriately, none show any appreciation for being on the wrong side of history. They come across as the 1861 version of teabaggers.
Beyond politics, The Tall Target has time on its side. Part of Mann's genius in approaching both the French Revolution in Reign of Terror and this semi-factual footnote of history is that the setting becomes incidental. Here, the 1861 time period and the knowledge that Abraham Lincoln is involved do ground the events depicted to a point, but the other aspects of the plot are versatile enough to extend beyond the specifics. Dick Powell trying to stop a political assassination while on a train works for 1861 or 1951, the year of the film's release. Nothing necessarily limits the action to that period of time. The extra wrinkle of slavery allows Ruby Dee, making the most of her short amount of screen time, the rare opportunity of having a role of some significance. Other than Powell and perhaps Menjou, Dee glows the brightest. Actually, I've never found Powell to have a very compelling screen presence in noir, but we are at least able to recognize some of the drive of his character in this film.
It's probably not Powell or Dee or Menjou or even Abe Lincoln who weighs heaviest on the viewer. The most striking part of such a lean film is how it's delivered via Mann's direction and the cinematography (reminiscent of John Alton's work but actually done by Paul C. Vogel). Unexpected close-ups, usually of Powell, become impactful. The pitch black darkness and steam from the train combine to hide what must have been a low budget film while strongly evoking German Expressionism's mood of despair. It's the visuals in The Tall Target that elevate the picture beyond being a simple suspense thriller set on a train. Anthony Mann was one of the key directors of film noir and this was his last effort in that vein. It's not necessarily among his two or three best really, but the movie is still highly entertaining at times and a strong example of teasing out a story within an enclosed space.
The Warner Archive gets its tentacles on another much-anticipated film by finally bringing The Tall Target to American home viewers. That it's a DVD-R with no additional restoration or extra features, and at a price point just below $20, must be seen as a disappointment to fans of Anthony Mann and/or film noir. (It's even more depressing when you consider that the Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 4, released by Warner Bros. way back in the glory days of 2007, included 10 movies in good quality and with commentaries and featurettes for $60 retail.) Good for us that the progressive transfer isn't too bad at all. The 1.33:1 image displays frequent speckles of dirt and a stray reel change marker but detail is probably as good as one could hope for from this service. A higher bitrate (on a dual-layered disc) would have likely removed much of the noise and artifacting. The blacks, an essential component here, generally still register as being deep and inky enough.
An English mono track is fair but seems to lose strength in the final third or so of the picture. At one point, Powell whispers and since there aren't any subtitles offered, the volume has to be raised to understand what he's saying. The score makes little impact so only the dialogue proves essential. Other than the up and down of the volume, things can be heard cleanly.
Only a trailer (2:15) is offered in the extras department.