Posted by David Kalat on June 23, 2012
Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter? Seriously?
I took my kids to The Avengers a few weeks ago and we were assaulted by a preview for Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. Both kids, almost simultaneously, leaned in to me to ask in incredulous bafflement, “This is a movie? For realsies?” (That’s how 14 year-olds talk these days. For realsies). Now, just consider how far off the mean you have to have wandered to have the audience for The Avengers think your premise is too preposterous.
Well, the fact is, the definitive Abraham Lincoln action movie already exists—and has done for over 60 years. If it was a person, it could retire. Now, this fantastic action thriller may not have Lincoln in very many scenes (one, if you’re counting), but it’s about Lincoln, it’s an action thriller, and it hits it out of the friggin’ park, so…
We’re here to enjoy The Tall Target. And hoo boy is there a lot to enjoy.
The thing opens with austere, minimalist opening titles—no bombast, just a masterful understanding that putting the audience in a state of awkward tension right away will pay off handsomely as you seek to ramp up the suspense later on.
These titles promise a screenplay by the guy who brought you Them! (I can feel my heart beat quickening already) and direction by Anthony Mann (now you’re talking!). Mann knew his way around taut thrillers. Mann came to this with a resume already stuffed with: Strange Impersonation, T-Men, Raw Deal, He Walked by Night, Border Incident, Winchester 73. Any one of these is cause for cinematic immortality.
(I suppose I should note here, for pedantry’s sake, that Yates wouldn’t pen Them! for another couple of years, and was still a greenhorn screenwriter at this point in his career. But he had greatness in him: Them!, It Came From Beneath the Sea, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, The Amazing Colossal Man, Attack of the Puppet People, Space Master X-7, Frankenstein 1970, Earth vs. the Spider, and the US version of King Kong vs. Godzilla. And while none of these stand alongside Mann’s claims to cinematic immortality in the same way, Yates had his feet firmly planted in the zeitgeist of his era and left behind a body of work that is in many ways critic-proof. That counts for something. And Them! is awesome in every respect.)
The whole thing is grim, dark, and paranoid—and pointedly political. It came out in 1951, but it has the aesthetics of a 70’s era paranoid thriller. It’s an anachronism, a film out of time—but its glorious power lies in being something more than just a 70’s era thriller made 20 or 25 years too early, it’s a 21st century thriller made 50 or 60 years too early.
From the original audience’s standpoint, the events of the film took place 90 years earlier (although “took place” has an odd meaning in something so wildly fictionalized) but the point here is the time frame. 90 years ago from our standpoint is 1922. In other words, Tall Target deals with a period of history within the reach of its audience comparable to today’s viewers watching, say, The Artist.
From a historical standpoint, though, the aspect most likely to raise eyebrows is the fact that the hero is named John Kennedy. It was a name of no special significance to audiences in 1951, but the idea of a film about a presidential assassination starring a hero named John Kennedy, who isn’t the president in the assassin’s crosshairs, is bound to feel weird to viewers today.
Push past that, though, and what’s left is a movie that has a very different claim on modern sensibilities—this is, to put it mildly, an episode of 24. It’s in B&W, it runs 78 minutes, it’s set in the 1860s, but you could show this in any multiplex today and its tone, style, and attitude is absolutely in synch with contemporary sensibilities.
(and did I mention it plays out in real time?)
(and did I mention it has torture scenes and graphic violence?)
Let’s pause a moment and establish the premise: John Kennedy (Dick Powell, playing more manly and macho than anytime else in his career) is a heroic policeman who suspects an imminent attempt on the life of newly inaugurated President Lincoln. No one will listen to him, so he turns in his badge and boards the train to Baltimore as a private citizen—or, rather, a vigilante. He’s gonna stop this murder plot with sheer gumption.
But as the journey unfolds, and the sinister trap starts to go into action, Kennedy comes to realize that the reason he couldn’t get anyone to listen to him was that the conspiracy runs to his superiors as well. He isn’t just alone on the train, he’s alone—one man against nameless, faceless legions, whose deep hatred of Lincoln and his policies will drive them to any length. Kennedy has his hands full fighting the bad guys, but then he also has to fight pretty much everybody else besides.
The circumstances of the plot provide for much open discussion of slavery, white/black relations, and related issues that would have a direct significance to 1950s audiences beyond their historical relevance. It’s worth noting that Tall Target goes out of its way to make the character of slave girl Rachel, played by Ruby Wallace, a fully rounded human being—one of Wallace’s better roles of the era. Black characters don’t figure much in Mann’s film noir classics listed above; black characters don’t figure at all in the sci-fi thrillers written by Yates listed above. But the setting of this story made a full-on commentary of race relations somehow more palatable in 1951 than in any story set in the modern world.
I should also single out Adolphe Menjou—for the sake of not bringing any spoilers to the party I’ll steer clear of describing his character, save to say that like Powell he plays against type and does so excellently.
While I’m on the subject of things I guess I’m obliged to say, let’s deal with the facts here: whether or not there was a genuine assassination plot against Lincoln that night remains a matter of historical dispute. One of the frustrations people in national security generally face is that it’s hard to get credit and glory for averting catastrophe, because an averted catastrophe is invisible. Based on my experiences with people who deal with 21st century national security issues. I’m vaguely inclined to believe there was a plot, which was averted by the clever-thinking/paranoid fantasies of Allan Pinkerton. I’m a huge fan of Pinkerton—and I work for people who used to work in the agency he created—so I wear my biases on my sleeve. But even if there was a plot, the actual events didn’t have much in common with the absurdly entertaining and over-the-top action-movie hysterics of this film. And while there was a policeman named Kennedy who claimed to have uncovered the alleged plot, he wasn’t the one on the train protecting Lincoln, that was Pinkerton.
Part of protecting Lincoln was keeping his travels secret—and Lincoln paid a PR price for valuing personal safety over showing his face to the masses like a Prez is s’posed to. Crowds rallied in Baltimore to greet the new President only to face the disillusionment that he had been and gone in the night without a fuss. Something important had been their way and they missed it—and it burned in them.
Like this film, really—a wonderful, gripping thriller that can stand toe to toe with anything out this summer, but which came and went in 1951 without leaving much of a trace. You missed it—and the only difference is, Lincoln isn’t coming back, but The Tall Target isn’t that hard to see. Don’t let it get by you again.
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