I've seen quite a number of Dick Powell movies this year -- links are provided at the end of this post -- and I think my favorite thus far was tonight's movie, THE TALL TARGET, directed by Anthony Mann.
THE TALL TARGET is set in 1861 and tells the story of John Kennedy (Powell), a New York Police detective who desperately attempts to unravel a plot to assassinate President-Elect Lincoln. The story unfolds as Kennedy's night train speeds toward Baltimore, the site of the planned pre-Inaugural murder. The film is very loosely based on historical facts.
The movie, set entirely on the train and in train stations, has tremendous atmosphere, beginning with the faint sounds of trains in the background as MGM's Leo the Lion roars at the start of the film. The eye-catching opening credits, which roll up from the bottom of the screen, are superimposed over the train engine ready to begin its journey, and the viewer is then immediately plunged into the exciting story. Lanterns swinging in the fog as the train pulls in for its stops, telegrams sent and received at train stations, and the engine speeding through the night, as seen from the engineer's perspective, all contribute enormously to the presentation of a rather unique film.
The outstanding cast includes Paula Raymond (you can read a bit more on Raymond here), Adolphe Menjou, Marshall Thompson, Ruby Dee, Florence Bates, and Leif Erickson. Will Geer is memorable as the train conductor, who perpetually walks around with a shawl over his shoulders. Further down in the supporting cast are familiar faces such as Barbara Billingsley (LEAVE IT TO BEAVER) as the hapless mother of a wild little boy and Jeff Richards (SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS) as a Philadelphia police officer.
Bit parts are played by many recognizable faces such as Jonathan Hale, Ken Christy, Victor Kilian, Percy Helton, Frank Sully, Will Wright, and Roger Moore (not 007, but the older brother of Robert Young, who had a long career as a bit player). Dick Powell's close friend Regis Toomey, who was godfather to one of Powell and June Allyson's children, played a small but critical unbilled role as Inspector Reilly; Toomey was somewhat disguised by muttonchop sideburns and glasses.
THE TALL TARGET was shot in black and white and runs 78 minutes.
THE TALL TARGET can be seen on cable on TCM. The film has not yet been released on video or DVD. Click here to indicate interest in a DVD release.
This year's previous reviews of Dick Powell movies: FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933), 42ND STREET (1933), GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (1933), DAMES (1934), FLIRTATION WALK (1934), HOLLYWOOD HOTEL (1937), NAUGHTY BUT NICE (1939), and CHRISTMAS IN JULY (1940).
Fall 2009 Update: THE TALL TARGET is now available on DVD-R via the Warner Archive.
March 2014 Update: I had the great pleasure of seeing a 35mm print of THE TALL TARGET at UCLA along with Anthony Mann's THE FAR COUNTRY (1954).