Tall Target, The (1951): Anthony Mann’s Historical Thriller, Starring Dick Powell

Anthony Mann The Tall Target, an historical thriller, starring Dick Powell and Adolphe Menjou, based on the alleged Baltimore Plot.

It’s hard to explain why this MGM thriller, which was decent, if not great, was a commercial flop at the box-office, failing to recoup its budget (of about $1 million). The cause might have been the timing in which it was released, summer of 1951.

Powell stars as a police sergeant who tries to stop the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at a train stop as Lincoln travels to his inauguration.

Powell plays New York Police Sergeant John Kennedy, who once guarded Abraham Lincoln for 48 hours during his campaign for President.

Kennedy has infiltrated a cabal and discovered that an assassination attempt will be made as the president-elect makes his way by train via Baltimore to Washington, DC.

His boss, Superintendent Simon G. Stroud dismisses the threat as “hogwash,” as does Caleb Jeffers (Adolphe Menjou), a militia colonel.  As a result, Kennedy resigns on the spot to try to foil the conspirators on his own. Having already sent a copy of his report to the Secretary of War, he telegrams Lincoln, urging a meeting in Baltimore.

On February 22, 1861, he boards the Night Flyer Express train, where Inspector Reilly is to give him his ticket. However, Kennedy cannot find his friend. Without a ticket, he is forced to get off by conductor Homer Crowley (Will Geer) as there are no more tickets.  However, Kennedy sprints aboard anyway.

Among the other passengers are Mrs. Charlotte Alsop (Florence Bates), an anti-slavery writer; Lance Beaufort (Marshall Thompson), a soldier from Georgia who plans to enlist in the Confederate army; his sister Ginny (Paula Raymond); and their slave Rachel (Ruby Dee).

Kennedy finally discovers Reilly’s body on the exterior platform, but the corpse slips off the train. When he returns, he finds an imposter (Leif Erickson) claiming to be him, holding his ticket. Fellow passenger Jeffers vouches for Kennedy and gives him a spare ticket to share his compartment.

The imposter forces Kennedy off the train at gunpoint at the next stop, planning to kill him. The commotion attracts Jeffers’ attention, and the colonel kills the conspirator. When they reboard, Jeffers offers Kennedy the only bed in their compartment. Jeffers steals the derringer he had loaned the ex-policeman and shoots him. Kennedy had become suspicious and tampered with the bullet. Jeffers confesses he is in the plot in order to protect his shares in Northern cotton mills.

At the next stop, Kennedy tries to have Jeffers arrested, but Jeffers gets a telegram from Stroud that Kennedy is no longer a police officer. It is now Kennedy who is taken into custody by Lieutenant Coulter (Richard Rober). Rachel tries to give Kennedy an urgent message, but is brushed off by Coulter.  Kennedy manages to escape and get back on the train.

Meanwhile, the conductor is ordered to hold the train until a special package is delivered. Passenger Mrs. Gibbons meets and takes aboard her ailing husband.

Rachel informs Kennedy that Beaufort is getting off at Baltimore, not Atlanta. He is taken prisoner by Beaufort and tied up in Jeffers’ compartment. The plotters are disappointed, however, when they receive news that Lincoln had cancelled his speech at Baltimore.

Jeffers then surmises that Mrs. Gibbons’ “husband” is actually Lincoln in disguise, and alerts Beaufort. Kennedy frees himself and, in the ensuing struggle, the assassin is thrown off from speeding train.

The big confession comes at the end. Mrs. Gibbons discloses that she is an undercover Pinkerton agent, and that his report to the War Department was read by Allan Pinkerton, who persuaded Lincoln to cancel his speech and travel incognito as the ailing Mr. Gibbons.

Dick Powell as John Kennedy
Paula Raymond as Ginny Beaufort
Adolphe Menjou as Colonel Caleb Jeffers
Marshall Thompson as Lance Beaufort
Ruby Dee as Rachel
Richard Rober as Lieutenant Coulter
Leif Erickson as Stranger
Will Geer as Homer Crowley
Florence Bates as Mrs. Charlotte Alsop


Produced and distributed by MGM

Directed by Anthony Mann
Produced by Richard Goldstone
Written by George Worthing Yates (story and screenplay), Daniel Mainwaring (story, as Geoffrey Homes), and Art Cohn (screenplay)
Cinematography (b/w): Paul Vogel
Edited by: Newell P. Kimlin

Release date: August 17, 1951
Running time: 78 minutes


I am grateful to TCM for showing this fil on November 14, 2019.