Saturday, 4 February 2012

THE GLASS WALL - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Compelling Post-War thriller deals with both the Holocaust and displaced Europeans seeking asylum in America. Picture lays claim to some of the most extraordinary location footage ever shot in Manhattan during the 50s.

The Glass Wall (1953)
Director: Maxwell Shane
Starring: Vittorio Gassman and Gloria Grahame


Review By Greg Klymkiw

Cinematographer Joseph Biroc's career spanned a rich period of American cinema. From the silent/part-talkie period in the late 20s through to the 1980s, his six decades of shooting movies include a diversity of titles. From Frank Capra's classic It's a Wonderful Life to the Zucker Brothers Zero Hour parody Airplane! - Biroc shot everything, including the kitchen sink. Sandwiched between the aforementioned he developed a solid working relationship with such directors as Samuel Fuller (notably Run of the Arrow and Forty Guns) and Robert Aldrich. The latter director used Biroc's eye to lens 16 of his pictures including Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, Ulzana's Raid, Emperor of the North and The Longest Yard.

No job was too big (his Oscar-awarded work on The Towering Inferno) or too small (some of the coolest sci-fi second features of the 50s like Donavan's Brain and The Red Planet Mars). Biroc was a meat and potatoes cinematographer who was equally comfortable shooting the liberation of Paris in World War II as he was capturing the famous campfire-bean-farting sequence in Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles.

His work on The Glass Wall is truly exceptional. This low-budget Columbia second feature has some of the most extraordinary location footage ever shot in Manhattan during the 50s (and not just the dirty mean streets, but the starkly beautiful United Nations Building as well). Blending documentary realism in many of the exteriors and sharp proficiency in the interiors, Biroc's work contributes immeasurably to this thrilling, offbeat tale of a refugee on the run from both police and immigration officials.

Directed and written by Maxwell Shane, an extremely prolific screenwriter who specialized in genre pieces and as a director, delivered two of the 1940's more memorable crime pictures Fear in the Night and City Across the River, The Glass Wall is still one of those gems that's been largely forgotten. Thanks to the medium of DVD, the movie can now be seen by many more people.

And it deserves to be seen. Its moving portrait of a political refugee seeking asylum and a subplot involving the sexual exploitation of women in the workplace (as well the significant story element which exposes the lack of a proper public health system in the United States), all blend seamlessly to deliver a film that's as relevant to contemporary audiences as to those who saw it in 1953.

Starring the great Italian actor Vittorio Gassman in his American debut, we're immediately sucked into the tale of this desperate, sad-eyed displaced person and Holocaust survivor Peter Kaban, who, after illegally stowing away on a freighter and evading customs officials, begins a desperate search for the American soldier whose life he saved during the war. The soldier, in gratitude, offered Kaban a sponsorship to begin a new life in America, but in wartime, unexpected separation is an inevitability and the seemingly inextricable link between the two men is broken. Kaban has no contact information for the soldier and immigration officials are having none of his story. With various levels of law enforcement pursuing him, he is treated like a common criminal instead of both a war hero and Holocaust survivor.

Kaban is befriended and aided by the sultry Gloria Grahame. The gorgeous Grahame was no stranger to roles where she was attracted to doomed men or involved in doomed relationships. Her legendary parts include Violet Bick, the prostitute with a heart of gold who delays leaving the "life" by loaning her nest-egg to the troubled George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life and the gangster moll in Fritz Lang's The Big Heat. In the latter picture, poor Miss Grahame's character receives gruesome scars after the brutish Lee Marvin tosses a pot of scalding hot coffee in her face.

Set over one night, The Glass Wall becomes a desperate race against time for the couple to find Kaban's ex-G.I. friend and climaxes as Kaban storms the United Nations, seeking justice and sanctuary.

It's an almost-perfect little post-war thriller with all the right dark and tragic elements. It's also, to my knowledge, the only American film of the period to deal with both the Holocaust and the plight of displaced Europeans seeking asylum in the U.S. What keeps it from achieving the perfection it yearns for is Shane's by-the-numbers direction. One can only wonder how much better Shane's fine script might have been in the hands of either a Fuller or Aldrich. It needed more than competence, but the sort of nasty, pulp sensibility its screenplay offers.

That said, Biroc's stunning photography, especially all the hidden camera nightime stuff keeps the picture buoyant. As well, Gassman and Grahame have fabulous chemistry and their performances bring incredible power and humanity to the proceedings.

One major bonus is that the picture features a very cool cameo with Jack Teagarden and his Orchestra. The ex-GI, it turns out, is a struggling musician who gets a shot auditioning for the legendary bandleader. The other major bonus is that Kaban must prowl numerous Manhattan nightclubs in search of his old friend.

Manhattan at night.

Gloria Grahame.

Jack Teagarden.

And, lest I forget, scenes filmed in both the United Nations building and on Times Square - in the 50s!!!

Things don't get much better than this.

"The Glass Wall" appears on Volume One of Sony Home Entertainment's two-volume DVD set entitled "The Bad Girls of Film Noir". Incidentally, Biroc's work is on view in "The Killer That Stalked New York" which also appears in this series. Biroc's work there is fine, but it's hard to say if the unflattering shooting of leading lady Evelyn Keyes is intentional. If it was, then the picture might actually deserve more credit than I've given it. Like many of the titles in this series, the leading lady of "The Glass Wall" is not a "bad girl" at all and while it shares some of the post-war disillusionment of film noir, it's finally not really noir. But that's a minor quibble. If this type of branding is what the studio needs to get a back catalogue of interesting titles out and into the hands of movie geeks, who am I to complain?