Abraham Lincoln, Action Movie Star

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.

0 Response Abraham Lincoln, Action Movie Star
Posted By Juana Maria : June 23, 2012 7:35 am

I immediately thought of an episode of “The Twilight Zone” with a very similiar plot. It was called “Back There”.

Posted By Juana Maria : June 23, 2012 7:35 am

I immediately thought of an episode of “The Twilight Zone” with a very similiar plot. It was called “Back There”.

Posted By Arthur : June 23, 2012 8:58 am

The policeman’s name was Kennedy? This is one more astounding coincidence in the parallels between these two pivotal presidents!

I used to fear that I would run out of great old films that I had never seen before. But there appears to be a limitless supply. I will definitely see this one.

Posted By Arthur : June 23, 2012 8:58 am

The policeman’s name was Kennedy? This is one more astounding coincidence in the parallels between these two pivotal presidents!

I used to fear that I would run out of great old films that I had never seen before. But there appears to be a limitless supply. I will definitely see this one.

Posted By Ghijath Naddaf : June 23, 2012 9:29 am

Never saw this.Always want to.
Cause Mann´s other great historical Pulp Thriller,Reign of Terror,is a Masterpiece.
Guess i have to order the american DVD.

Posted By Ghijath Naddaf : June 23, 2012 9:29 am

Never saw this.Always want to.
Cause Mann´s other great historical Pulp Thriller,Reign of Terror,is a Masterpiece.
Guess i have to order the american DVD.

Posted By dukeroberts : June 23, 2012 10:57 am

I watched this last year when it aired on TCM. I enjoyed the hell out of it.

And to clear up any possible confusion, that is Ruby Dee. Her birth name was Ruby Ann Wallace.

Baltimore was crawling with Confederates during and after the War, including one John Wilkes Booth.

Posted By dukeroberts : June 23, 2012 10:57 am

I watched this last year when it aired on TCM. I enjoyed the hell out of it.

And to clear up any possible confusion, that is Ruby Dee. Her birth name was Ruby Ann Wallace.

Baltimore was crawling with Confederates during and after the War, including one John Wilkes Booth.

Posted By Wednesday’s Child : June 23, 2012 10:57 am

Is anyone actually looking forward to Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter?

Posted By Wednesday’s Child : June 23, 2012 10:57 am

Is anyone actually looking forward to Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter?

Posted By dukeroberts : June 23, 2012 11:02 am

I may see it when it makes its way to Netflix. Aside from that? I’m in no hurry. I’m also in no hurry to see Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Sense and Sensibility and Sea Serpents or whatever.

Posted By dukeroberts : June 23, 2012 11:02 am

I may see it when it makes its way to Netflix. Aside from that? I’m in no hurry. I’m also in no hurry to see Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Sense and Sensibility and Sea Serpents or whatever.

Posted By Juana Maria : June 23, 2012 7:12 pm

I found more than a little repulsive to take such beautiful classics and turn them into “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”! I will not be watching very likely.

Posted By Juana Maria : June 23, 2012 7:12 pm

I found more than a little repulsive to take such beautiful classics and turn them into “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”! I will not be watching very likely.

Posted By Arthur : June 23, 2012 8:15 pm

Thank you, dukeroberts. I thought that looked like Ruby Dee. From what I heard there is a similar sort of character, but a male this time, in the current film.

Just as Kennedy’s name popping up in this film prefigured the election and assassination of Kennedy, The Manchurian Candidate prefigured Kennedy’s own death.

I wonder are there other films that prefigure real events? I can think of one, Gabriel Over the White House, made in the 1930s prefigured the rise of fascism, but in the United States! It was pulled from circulation after Hitler’s rise to power. . .

Posted By Arthur : June 23, 2012 8:15 pm

Thank you, dukeroberts. I thought that looked like Ruby Dee. From what I heard there is a similar sort of character, but a male this time, in the current film.

Just as Kennedy’s name popping up in this film prefigured the election and assassination of Kennedy, The Manchurian Candidate prefigured Kennedy’s own death.

I wonder are there other films that prefigure real events? I can think of one, Gabriel Over the White House, made in the 1930s prefigured the rise of fascism, but in the United States! It was pulled from circulation after Hitler’s rise to power. . .

Posted By Jenni : June 23, 2012 10:30 pm

To report, my son’s friends have seen the new AL Vampire Killer and they all loved it. I think I can wait a long time before I see it! I have read an earlier review of THE TALL TARGET and am now kicking myself for not seeing it earlier when TCM aired it. Hoping they’ll air it again. Why not for President’s day, a flock of movies about the Presidents? I know a bunch of them exist.

Posted By Jenni : June 23, 2012 10:30 pm

To report, my son’s friends have seen the new AL Vampire Killer and they all loved it. I think I can wait a long time before I see it! I have read an earlier review of THE TALL TARGET and am now kicking myself for not seeing it earlier when TCM aired it. Hoping they’ll air it again. Why not for President’s day, a flock of movies about the Presidents? I know a bunch of them exist.

Posted By dukeroberts : June 23, 2012 10:57 pm

Arthur- Marooned, with Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna, James Franciscus and Gene Hackman kind of prefigured the Apollo 13 mission. And maybe Wag the Dog?

Posted By dukeroberts : June 23, 2012 10:57 pm

Arthur- Marooned, with Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna, James Franciscus and Gene Hackman kind of prefigured the Apollo 13 mission. And maybe Wag the Dog?

Posted By swac44 : June 24, 2012 12:11 pm

I saw AL:VH yesterday, and was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, but it blows a premise that could have worked (and the work of a game cast) in a series of overblown CGI sequences and awkward storytelling. There’s a fight scene that takes place in the middle of a horse stampede that comes out of nowhere and goes on forever, like there was a herd of horses the size of Chicago running rampant in the middle of Illinois. I’m all for suspension of disbelief, but like a good bridge, that suspension has to be well-engineered, which it certainly wasn’t here.

It’s no surprise that the script was by the same guy who wrote the disappointing Dark Shadows reboot, which also had a great set-up, but failed in the follow-through.

Glad someone else mentioned Mann’s Reign of Terror a.k.a. The Black Book (the version I saw in 16mm had the latter title), a taut thriller with great character acting (Richard Basehart makes for a slimy Robespierre) and John Alton camerawork. Too bad the only copies available are weak PD transfers (haven’t seen the version released by VCI, I’m sure it’s a step up from the Alpha Home Video el cheapo DVD), this one’s overdue for restoration and reissue.

Posted By swac44 : June 24, 2012 12:11 pm

I saw AL:VH yesterday, and was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, but it blows a premise that could have worked (and the work of a game cast) in a series of overblown CGI sequences and awkward storytelling. There’s a fight scene that takes place in the middle of a horse stampede that comes out of nowhere and goes on forever, like there was a herd of horses the size of Chicago running rampant in the middle of Illinois. I’m all for suspension of disbelief, but like a good bridge, that suspension has to be well-engineered, which it certainly wasn’t here.

It’s no surprise that the script was by the same guy who wrote the disappointing Dark Shadows reboot, which also had a great set-up, but failed in the follow-through.

Glad someone else mentioned Mann’s Reign of Terror a.k.a. The Black Book (the version I saw in 16mm had the latter title), a taut thriller with great character acting (Richard Basehart makes for a slimy Robespierre) and John Alton camerawork. Too bad the only copies available are weak PD transfers (haven’t seen the version released by VCI, I’m sure it’s a step up from the Alpha Home Video el cheapo DVD), this one’s overdue for restoration and reissue.

Posted By dukeroberts : June 24, 2012 4:21 pm

If it’s by Mann and Alton I want to see it.

Posted By dukeroberts : June 24, 2012 4:21 pm

If it’s by Mann and Alton I want to see it.

Posted By vp19 : June 24, 2012 4:41 pm

This makes me think of Abraham Lincoln as portrayed in the credits of the TV series “Police Squad!” (in color)

Posted By vp19 : June 24, 2012 4:41 pm

This makes me think of Abraham Lincoln as portrayed in the credits of the TV series “Police Squad!” (in color)

Posted By dukeroberts : June 24, 2012 10:46 pm

vp19- I totally forgot about that! I have the complete series on DVD. I love it.

Posted By dukeroberts : June 24, 2012 10:46 pm

vp19- I totally forgot about that! I have the complete series on DVD. I love it.

Posted By Tom S : June 25, 2012 1:44 am

@Swac

Black Book, alongside the Tall Target, has a solid Warner Archive release

Posted By Tom S : June 25, 2012 1:44 am

@Swac

Black Book, alongside the Tall Target, has a solid Warner Archive release

Posted By swac44 : June 25, 2012 8:31 am

I knew Tall Target was on Warner Archive, but I was able to see it via a recent TCM screening. Ah, I see Reign/Black Book is a Columbia Classics MOD title, that’s why I couldn’t find it on Amazon.ca (some Warner Archive titles show up there, but not many Columbia ones). Warner Archive won’t ship to Canada, but I’ve found it for $15 on another DVD retail site. Onto the want list it goes! Thanks Tom!

The problem with these new MOD services is that sometimes you don’t know a desired title is available unless you chance to hear about it from a Morlock or a DVD Savant (for some reason, I’ve signed up for the Warner Archive email newsletter more than once, and I’ve yet to receive it).

Posted By swac44 : June 25, 2012 8:31 am

I knew Tall Target was on Warner Archive, but I was able to see it via a recent TCM screening. Ah, I see Reign/Black Book is a Columbia Classics MOD title, that’s why I couldn’t find it on Amazon.ca (some Warner Archive titles show up there, but not many Columbia ones). Warner Archive won’t ship to Canada, but I’ve found it for $15 on another DVD retail site. Onto the want list it goes! Thanks Tom!

The problem with these new MOD services is that sometimes you don’t know a desired title is available unless you chance to hear about it from a Morlock or a DVD Savant (for some reason, I’ve signed up for the Warner Archive email newsletter more than once, and I’ve yet to receive it).

Posted By dukeroberts : June 25, 2012 10:05 am

swac- I used to get the Warner Archive emails every week and they stopped coming. I even signed up two more times to get them and they haven’t come. Is anybody else having this problem?

Posted By dukeroberts : June 25, 2012 10:05 am

swac- I used to get the Warner Archive emails every week and they stopped coming. I even signed up two more times to get them and they haven’t come. Is anybody else having this problem?

Posted By Medusa : July 19, 2012 1:48 pm

Glad to see this appreciation of an exciting movie revolving around the only President who has such a vibrant character that we can imagine him doing just about anything. He truly lives in the hearts and minds of so many people on Earth — if he magically returned to walk the streets, most of us would feel completely comfortable going up to him and shaking his hand. His story and his character will never get boring. I’ve seen “The Tall Target” and need to see it again, and because I am such a Lincoln-phile I need to get out to see AL:VH (which I just read).

You can’t go wrong with Lincoln! I think it’s also his famous sense of humor and penchant for self-deprecation that makes him resonate so much today. We love people who love to laugh — what is the quality most women claim they want in a man?? — and Lincoln certainly had it.

Go Abe!

Posted By Medusa : July 19, 2012 1:48 pm

Glad to see this appreciation of an exciting movie revolving around the only President who has such a vibrant character that we can imagine him doing just about anything. He truly lives in the hearts and minds of so many people on Earth — if he magically returned to walk the streets, most of us would feel completely comfortable going up to him and shaking his hand. His story and his character will never get boring. I’ve seen “The Tall Target” and need to see it again, and because I am such a Lincoln-phile I need to get out to see AL:VH (which I just read).

You can’t go wrong with Lincoln! I think it’s also his famous sense of humor and penchant for self-deprecation that makes him resonate so much today. We love people who love to laugh — what is the quality most women claim they want in a man?? — and Lincoln certainly had it.

Go Abe!

Posted By Arthur : July 20, 2012 12:38 am

Medusa, interesting you should say that. Recently another tall and lanky, big-eared, big hearted Senator from Illinois with a sense of humor and penchant for self-depreciation, who also rose from humble beginnings also made it to the White House.

Posted By Arthur : July 20, 2012 12:38 am

Medusa, interesting you should say that. Recently another tall and lanky, big-eared, big hearted Senator from Illinois with a sense of humor and penchant for self-depreciation, who also rose from humble beginnings also made it to the White House.

Posted By Simon Tarses : September 10, 2012 2:01 am

Unlike you people, I was hoping to see this movie on the big screen, but missed it-this sounds like a tongue-in-cheek story of an alternate Abe Lincoln similar to other side-wise history stories like Anno Dracula, in which the Big Guy did survive what happened to him in the original novel, and unleashed his plague on the planet. To be sure, this movie did get a bit out there with it’s premise, but is no more weirder than Anno Dracula or any other side-wise history/’What If…’ novel or movie.

Also, I can’t believe that the same people that love low-budget (but now considered ‘classic’) dreck like I Was A Teenage Werewolf can now blast a weird, out-there (but at least well-filmed and budgeted) movie like Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It seem that nostalgia has wreck and warped the USA and its people to an alarming degree.

Oh well, this lover of old and new movies will be seeing Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and will be liking it more than all of you-at least, I’m open to alternate history and possibilities, even if none of you are.

Posted By Simon Tarses : September 10, 2012 2:01 am

Unlike you people, I was hoping to see this movie on the big screen, but missed it-this sounds like a tongue-in-cheek story of an alternate Abe Lincoln similar to other side-wise history stories like Anno Dracula, in which the Big Guy did survive what happened to him in the original novel, and unleashed his plague on the planet. To be sure, this movie did get a bit out there with it’s premise, but is no more weirder than Anno Dracula or any other side-wise history/’What If…’ novel or movie.

Also, I can’t believe that the same people that love low-budget (but now considered ‘classic’) dreck like I Was A Teenage Werewolf can now blast a weird, out-there (but at least well-filmed and budgeted) movie like Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It seem that nostalgia has wreck and warped the USA and its people to an alarming degree.

Oh well, this lover of old and new movies will be seeing Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and will be liking it more than all of you-at least, I’m open to alternate history and possibilities, even if none of you are.

Posted By swac44 : September 11, 2012 12:29 pm

I went into Buffy Lincoln hoping to have a rousing good genre-iffic time at the movies, but found the whole endeavour took itself a tad too seriously, while offering overbaked CGI sequences that did nothing to enthrall me. I have nothing against newer horror movies, I loved Drag Me to Hell and Cabin in the Woods, but AL:VH just didn’t live up to my expectations. I may revisit it on home video, I’ve heard there were a number of scenes cut from the theatrical version, especially where Alan Tudyk is concerned, probably for the sake of the running time, and an expanded cut might not be a bad thing.

Posted By swac44 : September 11, 2012 12:29 pm

I went into Buffy Lincoln hoping to have a rousing good genre-iffic time at the movies, but found the whole endeavour took itself a tad too seriously, while offering overbaked CGI sequences that did nothing to enthrall me. I have nothing against newer horror movies, I loved Drag Me to Hell and Cabin in the Woods, but AL:VH just didn’t live up to my expectations. I may revisit it on home video, I’ve heard there were a number of scenes cut from the theatrical version, especially where Alan Tudyk is concerned, probably for the sake of the running time, and an expanded cut might not be a bad thing.

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