Tall Target, The (1951)
“Anything could happen in Baltimore — it’s a nest of secessionists!”
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
… 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:
One thought on “Tall Target, The (1951)”
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.