Tall Target, The (1951)

Tall Target, The (1951)

“Anything could happen in Baltimore — it’s a nest of secessionists!”

On the precipice of the Civil War, a detective (Dick Powell) concerned about a rumored plot to assassinate President-Elect Abraham Lincoln encounters a variety of individuals traveling by train — including a Northern colonel (Adolphe Menjou); a mysterious man who has taken over his ticket and identity (Leif Erickson); a chatty abolitionist author (Florence Bates); a mother (Barbara Billingsley) and her young son (Brad Morrow); and a Confederate officer (Marshall Thompson) travelling with his sister Ginny (Paula Raymond) and Ginny’s personal slave, Rachel (Ruby Dee).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Adolphe Menjou Films
  • Anthony Mann Films
  • Assassination
  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Dick Powell Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Ruby Dee Films
  • Trains and Subways

Near the beginning of his career as an “A film” director, Anthony Mann helmed this noir-ish historical thriller bearing an uncanny narrative resemblance in many ways to The Narrow Margin (1952) (scroll to the bottom of DVD Savant’s review for more details). The title character himself — Abraham Lincoln (Leslie Kimmell) — doesn’t appear until the very last shot:

… and it’s no spoiler to say, of course, that he survived this initial attempt at taking his life — but the storyline remains surprisingly gripping until then, despite knowing this outcome. Mann (working with DP Paul Vogel) creates an impressively claustrophobic atmosphere on board the train, with shadowy figures literally lurking around every corner, and violence a possibility at all times.

We don’t quite understand at first who each of the characters is or what they stand for, but this suits the narrative perfectly: only gradually do we understand the complex web of deceit being carried out (thank goodness for Powell’s tenacity!).

A subplot involving a slave (Dee) is handled especially well, allowing her to give a surprisingly nuanced performance for such a minor role.

Meanwhile, smarmy Menjou is perfectly cast as a supportive colonel with more up his sleeve than he first reveals:

… and Bates is memorable as a blunt-speaking abolitionist who thinks nothing of asking Dee outright, with gleeful anticipation, “Tell me, my dear: how does it feel being beaten? They did beat you, of course?”

Perhaps most eerie of all is how powerfully the storyline here echoes our current polarized political landscape:

It’s easy enough to believe in a story of complex sedition like this given… Well, given recent events. Enough said.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Paul Vogel’s cinematography

  • Ruby Dee as Rachel
  • Adolphe Menjou as Colonel Jeffers
  • Numerous tension filled moments

  • Fine historical sets

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful drama by a master director.


  • Good Show
  • Important Director


One thought on “Tall Target, The (1951)

  1. Agreed; must-see – simply as a great flick. As per my first-viewing 4/10/20 post in ‘The ’40s-’50s in Film’ (fb):

    “Somebody doesn’t want me to get to Baltimore.”

    ‘The Tall Target’ (1951): What a terrific flick! ~ and another one with a short running time (78 min.) used to maximum effect. In a 30-year career, Anthony Mann made over 40 films. After about his 10th film, he hit his commercial stride and, from then on overall, gave us a very rich and satisfying body of work – quite often in westerns. ‘TTT’ is something of a change-of-pace in that it is an historical thriller (but with the kind of noir overtones found in Mann’s ‘Raw Deal’ and ‘T-Men’). It’s based on the infamous ‘Baltimore Plot’ – you can look that up on Wikipedia to see how the film compares to the ‘real story’… ~ and I put that in quotes because apparently the exact truths of the story have never been verified. The plot was on Abraham Lincoln’s life – and it was a plan to kill him just before he was inaugurated. The film reveals the extent of the (ultimately foiled) plot as monstrous – but, although the film is considered fiction it is also said to adhere closely to what is believed to have happened.

    ‘TTT’ is one of those murder-related tales that takes place largely aboard a moving train. That always seems to add a certain ‘something extra’ to the impact of such a film – maybe that has to do with the tension of a train in motion, on top of that claustrophobic feeling that comes with characters confronting each other in confined spaces.

    The film stars Dick Powell in one of his best performances, supported by Adolphe Menjou, who doesn’t often impress me on-screen all that much… but here he does. The bottom line, though, is that this is Mann’s baby all the way; high-octane stuff. And it has a great last line.

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