It’s elating when a much-heralded cult item justifies its reputation. Case in point: Anthony Mann’s The Tall Target, a great thriller and one of the finest suspense films of its decade or any other. This 1951 movie feels modern for several reasons, most subtly because it dispenses with background music and you never miss it. Although the film works as a historical period piece as well as a solid and breathless thriller, it’s a classic example of how a mere piece of genre entertainment can also be a vital contemporary comment on a bitter and divisive subject, and the “happy ending” can’t avoid melancholy.
It’s set on a train 100 years earlier. Dick Powell plays one Sgt. John Kennedy (!), on his way to Baltimore to prevent an assassination plot against president-elect Lincoln. The movie is one fine scene after another, rich in atmosphere, character, great camera work, an angry social ferment, and an exciting script crammed with incident and frustration. It’s a heck of a ride, and unwittingly eerie in all its talk of rifles with telescopic sights and the constant repetition of “Kennedy”. Adolphe Menjou virtually steals the film from our hero, and beautiful young Ruby Dee presents what amounts to a damning showcase of how the rest of Hollywood wasted her.