The Tall Target
Directed by: Anthony Mann
Starring: Dick Powell, Paula Raymond, Adolphe Menjou, Marshall Thompson, Ruby Dee, Richard Rober, Will Geer
|Studio: Warner Bros. (Warner Archive) |
Film Length: 78 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 4:3
Release Date: Fall 2009
The Film ****The Tall Target takes place during the politically charged winter of 1861. A New York Police Detective named John Kennedy (played by Powell and based on a real historical figure with that unusually coincidental name) discovers evidence of a conspiracy to assassinate President-elect Abraham Lincoln before his inauguration. Unable to convince his superiors of the legitimacy of the plot and unable to get a telegram through to Lincoln, Kennedy turns in his badge and boards a train bound for Baltimore where the assassination is expected to take place. The journey proves to be a dangerous one as conspirators informed of Kennedy's efforts are on the train and bound to stop him at any cost. Minus his badge and with only his brains and guts as credentials, Kennedy must try to ferret out the assassins from among the train's passengers including the friendly Colonel Jeffers (Menjou), the high-strung southern West Point Cadet Lance Beaufort (Thompson), his kindlier but pro-secession sister Ginny Beaufort (Raymond), the Beaufort's long time family slave Rachel (Dee), and the perpetually perplexed Train Conductor Homer Crowley (Geer), while avoiding being killed himself.
In the 1950s, Anthony Mann would help to re-vitalize the western genre by infusing it with a healthy dose of the postwar psychological angst that informed his film noir work in the late 1940s. Somewhat less celebrated were his similar dressings up of historical dramas in noirish trappings. The first such film was the French Revolution drama The Black Book from 1949. The next was this tale of 19th Century American political unrest.
It is no accident that Mann's two non-western "historical noirs" are set during times of extreme political unrest. In the particular case of The Tall Target, the atmosphere surrounding Lincoln's inauguration and the inevitability of war was a perfect breeding ground for the kind of psychological isolation and paranoia that were cornerstones of the noir detective genre. Setting almost all of the action on a train proved to be a great pressure cooker environment that would be exploited effectively a year later in Richard Fleischer's "straight" noir, The Narrow Margin.
While The Tall Target is not quite as tightly constructed as Mann's best films, it moves at such a breakneck pace with enough interesting twists and turns, that the viewer will scarcely mind the few bumps in the tracks along the way. It does offer some vintage Anthony Mann style violence including a fight where Powell and his assailant alternately try to force each other's heads under the wheels of a slowly moving train and a scene where one of the conspirators puts a loaded pistol directly against a man's head and pulls the trigger. It also displays Mann's predilection for classical drama by offering multiple betrayals between comrades and close family members.
As far as the historical details, while Dick Powell in his tough guy detective mode comes off as an anachronistic man of the mid-20th century (which probably helped the film appeal to audiences of the time), certain historical details worked into the plot are very interesting such as how horses would be used to pull trains through the city center of Baltimore to avoid the air and noise pollution of the train engines: Hybrid propulsion 19th-century style!
From a technical standpoint, the cinematography by Paul Vogel does not quite achieve the impressionistic use of light and shadow that were the trademark of Mann's collaborations with John Alton, but it is still moody and effective. The opening title scroll rolls from the bottom front of the screen into a distant perspective at the top in a manner that will be familiar to Star Wars fans.
The supporting cast is filled with the type of veteran character actors who can threaten to walk away with the film at any moment if given half a chance. Chief among these are Adolphe Menjou as the unusually pacifistic Colonel who proves to be more of a complex character than he first appears and Will Geer as the comically perplexed but reasonably competent train conducter who never quite knows what to think about Kennedy. Paula Raymond is the nominal female lead, but the romance the film's promotional images seemed to suggest would develop between her and Powell never materializes, and a young Ruby Dee outshines her considerably playing a more active and intelligent role.
The Video **½As is the case with a number of the vintage 4:3 titles in the Warner Archive "burn to order" DVD series, this video transfer appears to be sourced from a composite master likely created for broadcast, laserdisc, and/or VHS release. Fortunately, it is a better than average example of such a master with a very solid range of contrast in its black and white image with excellent shadow detail and no instances of blown out highlights. Detail is also above average. Unfortunately, ringing along high contrast edges is pervasive although mild in intensity. There are also instances of color aliasing in highly detailed portions of the black and white image such as patterns on men's suits or uniform coats that betray the transfer's composite video origins. Print damage is evident to casual viewers, but not severe or distracting.
The Audio ***The Dolby Digital 2.0 channel rendering of the film's mono soundtrack fares a bit better than the video. Dialog is fairly crisp and almost always clear, and there is sufficient dynamic range in the mix to allow much of the audio activity to play out over a bed of train sounds that contribute to the film's claustrophobic environment. Noise reduction artifacts will be audible to critical listeners.
The Extras *When the disc is first spun-up, the viewer is greeted with a Warner Archive promo (1:00) in 4:3 video with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound.
The only proper extra is the film's Theatrical Trailer (2:15) also presented in 4:3 video with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound. It starts with a bunch of alliteration-crazy promotional text (The Tall Target is "Taut and Tense"!), segues into some awkwardly dubbed-in Paula Raymond narration, and eventually gives way to a series of film clips before ending abruptly.