The Tall Target 1951

Metro Goldwyn Mayer

It’s February 22, 1861. The American Civil War is about 7 weeks from exploding on the scene, and the 16th President of the United States has yet to be inaugurated. Gosh. I wonder who the tall target is?

Filmed mostly on MGM’s Lot #2 and at RKO’s Encino Ranch (on just 1,800 feet of railroad track), today’s movie features a wonderful 4-car passenger train pulled by the venerable Virginia & Truckee 4-4-0, #11 the “Reno”.

Many thanks to Bruce Bruemmer for recommending this flick and a hat tip to Larry Jensen’s “Hollywood’s Railroads, Volume One”, for the skinny on equipment used. It’s 78 minutes of film noir murder, suspense and intrigue, onboard a speeding express bound for our Nation’s Capitol!

It was a dark and stormy night. Wreathed in steam is the wood-burning, 1872 product of the Baldwin Locomotive Works; Coming down the aisle is our hero, Sergeant John Kennedy (played by Dick Powell). Hey, that gal with the knitting on the left…that’s none other than June Cleaver (played by Barbara Billingsley)! I wonder if she spoke jive back then…

Guided by only a switchman’s lantern, #11 and train slowly back to the bumper post at MGM’s arched train station set (standing in for Camden & Amboy Railroad’s Jersey City, NJ terminal).

As the camera looks down the locomotive’s boiler, Mr. Conductor discusses their orders with the Engineer in the time-honored manner.

I get a kick out of these two views. The stationmaster flips the train board from the Albany Express (NYC to Albany) to the Night Flyer Express (Jersey City to Washington D.C.).

These are the best external views I could find of the entire train — although we never get a clear look at the last car. All equipment is lettered for the fictitious Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore RR (PW&B). Trailing the Reno are:

  1. Former D&RGW combine #552 (PW&B #10).
  2. Former V&T coach #3 (PW&B #27) “Kimball Coach“.
  3. Former V&T coach #4 (PW&B #42) “Kimball Coach“.
  4. Former V&T coach #19 (no PW&B number visible).

At the time of filming, all the railroad equipment was owned by Paramount Studios and leased to M.G.M.

As Sgt. Kennedy chats up Mrs. Cleaver and the gents across the aisle, we get a good look at the interior of car #42.

Train time! The whistle blows, the engineer spins the drivers, and they’re off. Still without a ticket, Kennedy pushes past the gatekeeper and races alongside the last car as the train pulls out.

Powell walks the train. The last car contains an Army marching band headed to the Inauguration. Note how the V&T #19 car interior is decorated differently from the two “Kimball” cars.

Sgt. John questions June and son. He’s looking for his contact who has his train ticket. As he makes his way forward, we see a parlor section of one coach. Finally, he reaches the baggage car.

As the train lurches around a curve, Kennedy FINALLY locates his contact…DEAD out on the end platform! The train’s motion throws the guy off. Geez, he’s only been onboard 5 minutes and someone’s already been offed.

Now royally brassed off, Powell charges back to his coach, only to find this schmuck wearing his coat, sitting in his seat and pretending to be Sergeant John Kennedy!

“Why, you, I oughta…” Kennedy enlists the aid of the conductor showing his engraved pocket watch…confirming HE’S the real McCoy, err, Kennedy.

As further proof of his identity, Dick Powell introduces the train boss to Colonel Jeffers (played by Adolphe Menjou). Showing there’s no hard feelings, the conductor takes a belt of the Colonel’s “tonic”….thus violating Rule G. Tsk. Tsk.

Reno trundles to a stop at New Brunswick with a great display of steam.

Uh-oh. The schmuck is back and he intends to do Dick Powell some serious harm! At gunpoint, he takes Kennedy up to the engine.

Big Fight! Wrestling perilously close to the locomotive’s wheels, Col. Jeff hears the commotion and shoots…..the Smirking Assassin!

The shooting of smirk boy is quickly rationalized and the Night Flyer Express is on its way once more.

At “Trenton” (same depot set as New Brunswick — different sign), the 4-4-0 wood-burner takes on water from the trackside tank. Here’s a view of the lounge section of one of the Kimball coaches. Nice woodwork and pot bellied stove!

Arriving at Philadelphia (different depot set) we get a good look at #11’s builder’s plate on the nose of the locomotive. Check out all that fancy brass work and hardware up front!

Now a reverse-angle, side-lit shot of the train. Cab shot of #11. A nice touch is the locomotive engineer’s name on the cab side: JNO (John) K. GANNON.

At the telegraph office (love their eye shades), there’s a delay of 1 hour and 40 minutes for them to pick up a special “package”. Say, who are those shadowy figures boarding the Night Express?

Finally, our train gets the highball and charges south (railroad west) out of Philly.

Ya know what? I’m just gonna skip ahead here. Enough of these night-time views. Let’s have some DAYLIGHT!

Much better. The Reno trundles into Baltimore station. Due to a local ordinance (steam engines not allowed on city streets), the train and Reno are separately pulled by a team of horses to another depot — much to Engineer Gannon’s displeasure.

Yeah, about half the passengers on the Express are Confederate sympathizers, including our oily Colonel Jeffers. He’s got Sgt. Kennedy all trussed up and gagged. Two vistas of a Kimball coach and the V&T #19 bringing up the markers.

A couple well-lit views as the train pulls out of “Baltimore”. This looks to be the redressed Jersey City, NJ station seen at our movie’s opening.

As the Express heads towards Washington, (Jeffers stayed in Baltimore), Dick Powell is left with one, inept guard — whom he promptly dispatches with a Captain Kirk flying leg kick! This leads to a final confrontation with Cadet Beaufort (played by Marshall Thompson) who IS planning to assassinate Lincoln! Another Big Fight. Great faces.

Naturally, the rumble moves to the dangerously-swaying open platform and…AND…YYAAAAAAAHHHH! Beaufort is bashed and banished beyond the ballast! Bastard…

Well, the conductor is getting mighty sick of all the skullduggery, so he’s got Sgt. Kennedy in manacles up in the baggage car. (There’s that inept guard again). Who is this strange woman interceding on Powell’s behalf?

Why, it’s none other than Mary Todd Lincoln! Here she is back in her compartment with Abraham gazing at the unfinished Capitol dome as the credits roll. You know Abe. He’s on the five dollar bill and the penny.

Basically, the entire movie took place on a train, so I had difficulty chopping it down into a shorter review. If this sort of historical railroad fiction interests you, ya might want to stream it sometime. As for the locomotive used in the picture, there’s a happy ending — The Reno is back home again in Nevada and will be fully restored to operation!

Here’s what IMDb has to say about The Tall Target:

If you have ANY information about this movie you’d like to share, please contact me at:, or leave a comment.  Thanks and enjoy the blog!



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