John Kennedy doesn’t take shit from anybody. He’s discovered a plot to kill Abraham Lincoln on a stop in Baltimore on the way to his inauguration. When his boss at the New York police headquarters laughs him off, Kennedy (Dick Powell) quits and hops a train to Baltimore to personally foil the attempt on Lincoln’s life. Even in the North, the president-elect isn’t without detractors. “As far as I’m concerned, the new President is Jefferson Davis,” jeers one Secessionist passenger as Kennedy boards the train.
His one contact dead, Kennedy finds himself up one corpse and down a badge, gun, and train ticket. He even manages to lose the corpse and gain a guy claiming to be “John Kennedy.” Kennedy’s doppelganger tries to bump him off but he’s saved by the sharp shooting of Colonel Jeffers (Adolphe Menjou), a guy so friendly and so helpful that he just has to be in on the deception. It seems the Kennedy doesn’t have many friends on the train other than a slave (Ruby Dee) traveling with her owners back to the Land of Cotton. Otherwise, Kennedy’s being pursued by Southern spies, his former coworkers at the police department, and the conductor who’s determined to get his fare.
Even with the workmanlike direction of Anthony Mann, The Tall Target can’t escape feeling like a stage play with its confined setting and clunky dialogue. That the film lacks any kind of soundtrack (save a few bars of “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” at the end) doesn’t help matters. Luckily, Powell manages to inject his wry gumshoe sensibility into his character enough to make the film worthwhile.
Released in 1951, the irony of “John Kennedy” trying to save Abraham Lincoln from an assassin’s bullet wouldn’t be realized for years to come. It’s often held that there are “eerie connections” between the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy including the mistaken belief that JFK had a secretary named Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy. The John Kennedy of The Tall Target and of history was a New York City Police Commissioner. Still, there is the startling fact that a week before Lincoln was shot he was in Monroe, Maryland and a week before John F. Kennedy was shot he was in Marilyn Monroe.