Last week I reminded readers that a movie cannot be bad if it is set primarily on a train, or if a wicked little man, prone to malice, riddled with impishness, perhaps heading a wide-ranging syndicate of additionally nefarious little men, certainly with sinister and arcane purposes known only to him, gets a hot-water shave in it. There are so few reliable guarantees in life! When we do find one, it is worth sharing. I had forgotten entirely to mention that The Tall Target, an excellent second-tier noir from 1951, features a wicked little man getting a hot-water shave while on a train.
It deserves your attention for several other reasons besides, too – it clocks in at a tight hour-fifteen, which more movies ought to do, it features Ruby Dee in an early role, and she’s just marvelous, taut and guarded and cool, and displaces a classic noir detective (the always-wonderful Dick Powell) into the 19th century. He’s a time traveler in everything but name; absolutely nothing about his manner of dress, speech, carriage, or approach to detective work bears any hallmarks of his supposed time period. Even his relationship to the plot is anachronistic, since he’s trying to stop a(n earlier) assassination against President Lincoln, this one just prior to his first inauguration in 1861 – he’s got to make sure the future unfolds in the correct way, even though on the level of the script he can’t possibly know what what we might call “our” future looks like.
Look at this establishing shot of Powell’s New York Police Sergeant John Kennedy (the first time his name is spoken on-screen has never failed to get laughs from a modern audience, whenever I’ve been lucky enough to see it on the big screen, although it came out a few years before JFK was first elected to national office, so I’m not sure whether it would have registered much at the time):
As best I can tell, he’s wearing a homburg hat. There’s the slight but distinct single dip down the center of the crown, the dark hatband ribbon, the flat but slightly curled brim – it could be a bowler, but bowlers are a little stiffer, and there’s a slightly limber look to the fabric that makes me think it’s a homburg, which wasn’t popularized until the very late 19th century and was extremely popular in the twentieth century. His overcoat, his tie, his collar (is it detachable?), his vest – none of it would look out of place in the 40s. Set him among an otherwise-appropriately-dressed cast made up to look like characters from 1861, and he looks like those BuzzFeed-ripoff “10 Historical Photographs That You’ll SWEAR Are Of Time Travelers”-type slideshows that used to pop up online all the time.
Here he is walking with a colleague, who’s dressed “normally,” and you’ll see what I mean. It looks like the Old Year being escorted offstage by the New Year in a newspaper comic from January 1st.
So you have this grim, gruff, classically-postwar gumshoe in a Civil War context, which is remarkable, and he’s as out of place as a waking person in a dream, or vice versa. That’s part of Tall Target’s really interesting relationship to time throughout – ideas about Lincoln as a man uniquely of or at least suited to his time (“Now he belongs to the ages”), telegraph stations going in and out of service, and the railroad’s new mandate to slow down balanced against the continually-beleaguered driver, who only wants one thing and that’s to go fast, driven finally to burlesque proportions when the train has to be painstakingly tugged through Baltimore behind a team of horses. The train, the twice-prophetically-named John Kennedy, Lincoln himself, all seem to be dragging the future, or at least a sense of timeliness, into the past.
Hard Science’s “How time stopped circling and percolating and started running on tracks” goes a bit more in-depth about 19th-century conceptions of time:
More fundamentally, as the German historian Jürgen Osterhammel notes in his book The Transformation of the World (2009), the democrati[z]ation of time – through clocks in town squares and later through the availability of wrist watches – changed how the North Atlantic regions in the 19th century understood their relationship with this proliferation of homogeneous time. But this too posed challenges of its own. In Germany alone, where there were five time standards, it took the valiant campaign of a Prussian field marshal, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, to persuade the parliament to adopt a single time, with the Greenwich meridian as the referential. As the historian Vanessa Ogle writes in her bookThe Global Transformation of Time (2015): ‘Doing away with the regionalism inherent in keeping five different times was as much an act of national security as of nation-building.’
The best-possible outcome Det. Kennedy can hope for, which the audience knows and which he seems to know too, is another assassination four years down the road. I promise I’m not going to say the word liminal to you, but it’s not for nothing that all of the action takes place at night, on a moving train, with bewildering doppelgangers and mysterious, meaningless packages holding up the schedule for seemingly no reason. At one point Kennedy gets up to search the train, finds a dead body just in time to see it slowly roll off the ledge of the rear car and into nothingness, returns to his seat to find another man sitting there, wearing his jacket and claiming his ticket; this sinister imposter is the only other character in contemporary clothes and, to my mind at least, looks like the grown-up version of that weird kid who gets turned into a donkey in the animated version of Pinocchio.
It’s very much like a dream, with rules operating along those inflexible, baffling, iron lines of dream-logic, is what I’m trying to say. And it’s very interested in trying to recuperate 20th-century ideas about the timeliness of the Civil War (there are a few lines along the “Model T? Never heard of it/it’ll never amount to anything” types designed to tickle the ribs of a contemporary audience) and about Lincoln-as-Christ whose suffering and bloodshed just might redeem whiteness and America, if ushered carefully along the correct stages of the cross, and not permitted to die too soon before coming into his full salvific powers. Powell’s Kennedy takes pains to explain in to Ruby Dee’s Rachel that he takes no position on slavery, that this has nothing to do with her particular enslavement or any cause she might consider herself part of:
“I’m no Republican or abolitionist. But I guarded Mr. Lincoln while he was campaigning in New York. I helped him open a window. He held a door for me. I found a parcel for him, some nightshirts in the laundry. I was only with him for 48 hours. But when he left, he shook my hand and thanked me. He wished me well. I was never so taken with a human man.”
It’s a slightly shocking speech, first for its unprompted hostility towards a potential claim Rachel never even tried to make on him, and second because of the soapy sentimentality, the absolute non-event of his attachment to Lincoln – all this because of how the man opens a door or looks for his laundry. It’s like a Tin Pan Alley song!
And still can you tell me why do you love me?
Only because you are you, dear!
Not that you are fair, dear,
Not that you are true.
Not your golden hair, dear,
Not your eyes of blue.
When we ask the reason,
Words are all too few!
So I know I love you dear, because you’re you.
That famous line of Douglass’ about Lincoln as a “white man’s President” comes to mind – for a certain type of white man, I think, of which Detective Kennedy is one, Lincoln is as safe to love in manly, queer rigor as Christ. My father had an incredible, deeply sentimental attachment to Abraham Lincoln, and really, I think, loved him with all his heart, with all his soul, with all his strength, as the Good Book says in Deuteronomy, chapter six, and then again in Mark, chapter 22, and yet again in Mark 12, and once more for good measure in Luke, chapter 10. It offers a curious framework for understanding the Civil War and the arc of American history as a white-on-white romance, without taking a position on Republicanism or slavery, just “if you knew Susie like I know Susie,” for the great and terrible love of Lincoln, which always pulls into the station right on time. And it’s really just a terrific movie.
You have convinced me. I have to watch this now.
Rarely can an essay tug at so many curious and sort of foundational topics as this and not come off as a mess. Reading your writing makes me a better writer. ♥️