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