Friday, March 12, 2010


If there were eight million stories in the naked city by the conventional reckoning of 1953, Maxwell Shane's film tells the 8,000,001st. It's the story of Peter Kuban (Vittorio Gassman), a Hungarian refugee seeking political asylum in the United States. He's gone about it the wrong way, though, by stowing away aboard a ship carrying documented refugees and displaced persons. He speaks good English and tries to explain to the immigration authorities that he's spent most of the past ten years in camps and could end up in another, or worse, if he's sent back to his homeland. He claims that a New Yorker can vouch for him: a paratrooper he knows only as Tom whom he rescued from the Germans. All Peter knows about Tom is that he plays the clarinet and lives in New York. That's not specific enough for the feds, who keep him confined on board ship until it heads back across the Atlantic.

Overnight, however, someone does a very strange thing. Whoever it is talks to a reporter for the New York Daily News, and the next morning, for some reason, Peter's face is on the front page. A sailor tells him that this could work in his favor, as women will feel sorry for him and people in general will want the government to give him a break. But Peter's not taking chances. He overpowers the sailor and manages to leave the ship, but not without breaking a rib along the way. From there he hops on a truck that takes him all the way to Times Square, which is where he expects to find Tom the clarinetist. As the feds warned him, that's not as easy as he supposed. The futile searching through streets and jazz clubs gets to him, as illustrated in a classic Hollywood montage of delirious symbolism.

Peter has to take a break in a cafeteria, and there he meets our Bad Girl of Film Noir for tonight. It's Gloria Grahame, just off winning an Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful, playing Maggie Summers. Shane introduces us to Maggie in a scene of almost Chaplinesque poverty. She fills a teacup with hot water, then heads to a table where a man has left behind a half-eaten donut. She discreetly eases the remnant over to her side of the table, then daintily extracts a used tea bag from her change purse to dunk in the hot water. This is poverty, folks, of the kind I didn't think people saw much of in Fifties movies, and the next thing you know Maggie's bolting out the door with somebody else's coat. This is where Peter's chivalry kicks in, as he uses his refugee skills (the man escaped from Auschwitz single-handedly) to help her evade the cops in a park.

"Did you ever put tips on shoelaces?" Gloria Grahame demonstrates.

Maggie lives in an attic hovel and has to endure a hag of a landlady and the romantic attentions of her gorilla of a son. She's late with her rent and the hag wants it now. Maggie has nothing, but Peter hands her his last $7 to keep the hag at bay. He wants to go on his way, but passes out from his injury. Maggie keeps him overnight and bares her soul (at least) to him. She lost her awful job in a shoelace factory after falling ill and hasn't found work since. This news rather clouds Peter's vision of America as a land of unanimous prosperity, but he still intends to stay. But the hag and the gorilla are on to him and finally drive both him and Maggie out. Now they have to fend for themselves on the streets. For Maggie that means having to steal two dimes from a couple of busking children as Peter looks on in horror. But that change will get them onto the subway, where they can ride all night and get some sleep -- except for the fact that the cops recognize Peter from the papers and give chase, nabbing Maggie in the process. He barely escapes by dashing across the tracks just before a train plows through.

The cops aren't the only ones looking for Peter by now, because none other than Tom the clarinetist (Jerry Paris)has seen this morning's News and recognized his erstwhile wartime buddy. He wants to contact the immigration people, but this is the night of his big live audition with the Jack Teagarden Orchestra, and his girlfriend pressures him to keep a date that can make his career. As soon as the set is over, however, Tom makes a beeline for the authorities. Once he vouches for Peter, the manhunt becomes a race against the legal clock. With Tom's good word the feds will let Peter stay here, but they have to bring him back into custody before the ship he came in on leaves New York, or else he'll be permanently ineligible. There's also the matter of his broken rib and potential complications....

The Glass Wall is the final film in Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's Bad Girls of Film Noir Vol. 1 collection. As the previous film I reviewed, Two of a Kind, demonstrated, the films from the Columbia Pictures library have been selected mainly on the name value of their female leads: Evelyn Keyes in one, Lizabeth Scott in two, and Grahame here. Two of a Kind had a lot of the right ingredients but lacked the spirit of a true noir, while the film I won't bother reviewing, Irving Rapper's Bad For Each Other, is little more than a class-anxiety soap opera with a lot of people arguing with each other for no good reason. So how does Glass Wall rate on the noir meter?

Judging by looks alone, it'd be a noir. Columbia sent cinematographer Joseph Biroc back to New York (he'd done The Killer That Stalked New York) for some impressive nighttime footage of Times Square and early morning midtown footage. Sometimes the footage is used in process shots when it's time for Gassman's close-up, but the Italian actor is actually at the Crossroads of the World and appears to try to catch some Zs in a real penny arcade at one point. Some of his Times Square scenes appear to have been shot with a handheld camera to avoid public attention to the shoot, while the morning scenes are shot on largely empty but clearly real streets and are impressively composed. There are other moments, whether shot on set or location, that look and feel like echt noir. In story terms, there's also a social realism and attention to poverty and low life that argue for the film's noir standing.

Location, location,...location? Joseph Biroc's cinematography is excellent regardless.

But if anything disqualifies Glass Wall from noirdom, it's the fact that Peter Kuban is an unambiguous good guy. Given the time period, you might have suspected the writers to tease that Peter might actually be a fugitive from justice or a Commie spy, but our hero has nothing on his conscience except his failure to go through proper channels to enter the country. It's entirely appropriate for him to get a happy ending (though we may ask how he intends to support himself and, one presumes, Maggie), but it's so thoroughly deserved that there's no room for the moral ambiguity that often defines noir.

Now ask me if it's a good film. It certainly is, and I'm inclined to call it the best film in the set. While the whole newspaper business is a contrivance to make it easy for Tom to get into the story, The Glass Wall is otherwise constantly inventive, throwing important new characters into the mix quite late in the game, as when a Hungarian-born stripper ("She's Atomic!") befriends Peter and decides to shield him from the law at a point when he most needs the law to find him. This causes a scene when the stripper's criminal brother (Joseph Turkel) finds out about the fugitive and makes a loud case for turning him in that only earns him slaps in the face from sister and mother. Turkel, later of Paths of Glory and Blade Runner fame, storms through his one scene as if he's out to steal the whole movie, and he helps keep the film fresh as it heads into the homestretch. Glass Wall is close to being one of those "night from hell" movies that became fashionable decades later, and those films could be seen as evolutionary offshoots from film noir. In general, it may be best to say that noir is a subcategory of a larger genre of socially-conscious lowlife dramas to which Shane's film also belongs -- hence the resemblances. Grahame is effortlessly good here, and Gassman nails the desperation of many a noir hero even if he isn't one exactly. This film was his introduction to American movie audiences, but the trailer (currently unavailable online) undercuts him a bit by emphasizing first and foremost that he was then Shelley Winters's husband. He went on to have a distinguished international career but could have had a stronger Hollywood sojourn on the strength of this effort, which was regrettably released in most places, from what I could tell, as a second feature on double bills. It deserved better than that.

Along with all the features I've mentioned in the previous posts, Bad Girls of Film Noir Vol. 1 has one more extra that makes a nice square-up for viewers disappointed in the films' noir content. "The Payoff" is a half-hour episode of the anthology series All Star Theater (aka The Ford Television Theater minus the ads) starring Howard Duff as a private eye hired to receive a mysterious envelope at a boxing card. It's written by Blake Edwards (just prior to Peter Gunn) and proves a quite entertaining case of who's double-crossing who. It's another detail that persuades me to give Volume 1 a recommendation for old-movie fans in general, if not necessarily for noir specialists. I'm just about persuaded to give Vol. 2 a shot as well.


Sam Juliano said...

Ha! I just looked at this this week, courtesy of a gift from Dee Dee! Yes, i'd say it'sd the best film in the set, and this qualification is dead-on:

"But if anything disqualifies Glass Wall from noirdom, it's the fact that Peter Kuban is an unambiguous good guy. Given the time period, you might have suspected the writers to tease that Peter might actually be a fugitive from justice or a Commie spy, but our hero has nothing on his conscience except his failure to go through proper channels to enter the country..."

I agree that Joseph Biroc's cinematography is excellent, and that BAD FOR EACH OTHER is forgettable. I have Volume 2 here as well Samuel, and I will certainly give a shot this week. I look forward to your responses. Another exhaustively fascinating essay here.

Judy said...

This sounds very interesting, Samuel and the stills you have chosen look stunning - I haven't seen all that much noir, though Dave's countdown and the other blogs I read mean I am ever adding to my list of films I want to see of this genre. I also haven't seen many 50s films featuring this kind of poverty, as you mention - sounds more like something from the 1930s movies I've been watching lately. A fascinating piece.