As Lincoln’s bicentennial comes and goes, a reinvigorated interest in our 16th President has been in the air of late, with Barack Obama singing his praises on a daily basis. And so Film Forum in New York presented a double feature of classics on Lincoln’s 200th birthday, starting with Anthony Mann’s riveting The Tall Target, which dramatizes a little known (including by historians; details are hazy, hence the dramatization) assassination attempt on Lincoln by Southern secessionists as he travels the railways to his inauguration. Taut and sharply paced, The Tall Target opens in a smoky New York police station, where carefree cops and their captain ignore the warnings of former Lincoln bodyguard John Kennedy (Dick Powell) that the game is afoot. What follows is 77 minutes of wit, sharp banter, and political commentary. The script smoothly mixes effective humor—the befuddled conductor in particular is a hoot—with heated interactions between Confederates and Northerners. The young slave Rachel (an astonishingly young and beautiful Ruby Dee) is particularly fascinating; she grew up with a sympathetic mistress who treated her like a sister, leaving her loyalties and emotions conflicted as so many pushed for freedom. The superb screenplay clearly depicts the bitter division pervading 1861 America, along with the grim certainty that war was inevitable once Lincoln took office.
But for all its social relevance, The Tall Target is first and foremost a 50′s drama, full of action, whiskey, and saucy characters. Powell may not be Edward G. Robinson or Jimmy Stewart, but he plays the resilient Kennedy with aplomb. Adolphe Menjou is a hoot as the hard-drinking Colonel Jeffers, and the aforementioned Dee steals every scene she’s in. Mann keeps a strong hand on the wheel at all times; there’s not a wasted second, not a dull moment. The Tall Target never reaches the level of a Double Indemnity or Strangers on a Train, but it deserves ample praise for its consistency, entertainment value, and strong writing and production values. Our greatest President would be proud.