The Tall Target (1951)

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To set the scene our storytellers enlist an opening crawl that runs over the unmistakable strains of train noise. The year is 1861. The event being dramatized is the alleged Baltimore Plot and our hero is New York policeman John Kennedy (Dick Powell).

Despite being common and coincidental I can’t but help to acknowledge the bitter irony of our protagonist’s name. But he is not here to thwart a plot against his own life but a man with a much longer shadow.

His in-depth report warning against an impending threat to Abraham Lincoln on the road to his inauguration in Baltimore is dismissed by his superior as alarmist drivel. Nevertheless, the man finagles a way onto the Baltimore-bound steam engine finding an agreeable ally in Colonel Caleb Jeffers (Adolph Menjou). Kennedy once guarded Lincoln for 48 hours and yet in this perilous hour, he will go great lengths for the same man. However, we will soon find out that not everyone feels that way. He’s a very polarizing figure.

I’ve come to the not so startling conclusion that anything Mann touches turns into noir which I readily agree too. Much like Reign of Terror (1948) before it, the director transforms this antebellum train thriller into a reconstruction of history painted in tight angles, smoke & shadows, and coiled with taut action. We grow embroiled in his composed world of greasy close-quartered combat with grimacing faces and flying fists. Far from being constricting these elements are where the story thrives, trapped in corridors and hidden away in side-compartments with the characters that dwell therein.

Because moving through such a space forces Kennedy to brush up against so many individuals. A conductor (soon-to-be blacklisted Will Geer) who is trying to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible only to be inundated by troublemakers and drama. A young mother (Barbara Billingsley) who tries to control her antsy son. An incessant windbag constantly worrying about her prized “jottings” and all she’s going to inquire to Mr. Lincoln about. A southern gentleman sounding off in his dismay with the countries future. You get the idea.

Despite the vague difference in context, it’s quite understandable to place The Tall Target up against another film from the following year The Narrow Margin (1952). Rather than try and decide which one is superior, it’s safe to say that both excel far beyond what their budgets might have you suppose and they utilize the continual motion of a train to an immense degree because in that way the narrative is almost always chugging along to a certain end.

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Ruby Dee has a meager but crucial part in The Tall Target that I deeply wish could have been more substantial. In fact, in an early version, the established star Lena Horne was supposed to play the part of the slave girl Rachel.

Though the movie doesn’t have too much time to tackle the issues at hand, with its limited runtime it does attempt some discussion in terms of African-American freedoms and the southern relationship to such an ideal as asserted in the 13th amendment. The dichotomy I’ve always heard repeated is that “the North loved the race but hated the individual. Southerners hated the race, but love the individual.” It’s a vexing sentiment that we somehow can see playing out here.

Ginny Beaufort (Paula Raymond) a proper southern belle notes that she grew up so close to Rachel treating her like a sister. So close in fact that she never even thought about giving the young woman her freedom. Meanwhile, her younger brother Lance is involved in more than he is letting on. The mystery is not in his objective — he’s made his sentiments fairly clear — he despises Lincoln. Rather what matters is who his compatriots are and how they plan to go after the future president.

For me, the illusion was broken in the final moments because up until that time the picture has kept its eponymous hero masked. He is the Tall Target and nothing else. When we see him somehow the mythos around him is broken and he becomes another actor more than the idea of the man we know as our 16th president.

Regardless, Anthony Mann’s effort, while not well received in its day, is another picture packed with exuberance. It gives us grit and intrigue aboard a train and like the best thrillers, it uses every restriction to keep the tension palpable while throwing around enough diversions to keep us in our seats.

3.5/5 Stars

A Farewell to Arms (1932)

394px-Poster_-_A_Farewell_to_Arms_(1932)_01Again, I must confess that I have not read yet another revered American Classic. I have not read A Farewell to Arms…But from the admittedly minor things I know about Hemingway’s prose and general tone, this film adaptation is certainly not a perfectly faithful translation of its source material. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

However, I do know at least a little something about Frank Borzage a filmmaker that time has been less kind to, though he contributed some quality pictures during the silent era and during the ensuing generation of talkies — even a couple of reputed classics. And yet watching A Farewell to Arms you can see his philosophies working themselves into the story line — the very themes that he would repeat again and again in many of his movies.

It soon becomes apparent that Borzage’s film is not about a war at all though WWI is a major plot point. He would examine an analogous idea with The Mortal Storm. Its his predilection not to focus so much on the carnage or alienation of war and more so on the effects that such a cataclysmic event has on the lives of those thrust into the middle of it. So his narrative borrows from Hemingway but hinges on this idea of lovers battling against the wiles of the world through the sheer euphoria of their romantic fling and yet it proves to be more than transient.

There’s without question a verisimilitude and a candor to the portrayals of Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes as said lovers — an ambulance driver and a nurse. Two seemingly unextraordinary individuals who nevertheless become extraordinary in each other’s arms. They will go to such great lengths to remain together despite the obstacles hindering them on every side. Perhaps it’s heightened by the times but still, there is this general belief in what they do on the part of the audience — that they can actually fall in love and will do whatever it takes to stay together.

Even if it’s not wholly plausible, they lend that needed credence to the parts. Their emotions feel genuine even as their romance gets crippled by the very circumstances they find themselves in. Where years are sped up into days and marriage must be forged in the most humble of moments. There’s no time or space for a normal life with a normal love affair even if that’s what both parties desire. It cannot be so.

Gary Cooper exudes a gentle tenderness in the majority of his scenes and he manages to be as vulnerable as we’ve ever seen him in the part because this romance tears him apart. Helen Hayes is an actress that I, unfortunately, know very little about but she strikes me as a beauty like Claudette Colbert and yet I find an easier time liking her and by some form of transference, the same goes for the character that she plays. It’s also crucial to note the splendorous black & white cinematography of Charles Lang which paints the contours of this love affair with expressionistic shades while never quite allowing us to forget the war at hand.

Though we can compare Borzage’s film with the original novel it seems equally compelling to juxtapose this cinematic adaptation of A Farewell to Arms with Joseph von Sternberg’s romance, Morocco, of only two years prior also starring Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou with von Sternberg’s muse Marlene Dietrich. Hayes doesn’t have the same gravitas or allure of Dietrich but that actually serves her better in this film with what Borzage is trying to accomplish.

Because this story is a tragedy as much as it is a romance of faithful devotion. Whereas von Sternberg seems most interested in the locality and the depictions of his stars — allowing them to have looser morals, you could make the argument that Borzage film holds a greater stake in its thematics and what such a romance can represent in such a turbulent world. The Great War is only an unfortunate backdrop to play the action against and it’s unfortunate because love is a rapturous thing. But it’s the many evils of the world that tear it asunder. The kind of troubles that force two people to bid each other a tearful adieu even if it’s the last thing they want in the world.

3.5/5 Stars