Saturday, March 9, 2019

Movie Reviews: The Glass Wall

The Glass Wall
directed by Maxwell Shane
This is a 1953 black-and-white drama that might be considered a film noir in some circles. I didn't see that though. It has the look of many noir films but I'm not sure the story quite meets that criteria. It is far more of a very important message film than a noir, not that those two categories are mutually exclusive. It is something that would with some appropriate nationality changes to characters and an even more in your face approach likely resonate well with about half of American viewers were the film remade today. 

Although the message is not always subtle because the director beats the viewer over the head with it near the film's end, the film still has enough drama and excitement to pull the viewer in no matter his views on nationalization, immigration and following the letter of the law. There is always a tension between doing the right thing and doing the legal thing. Survival can make people not care about doing what's right. And the question of who gets to be an American is as important today as it was in 1953. 

The film's cinematography showing New York City at night is intoxicating. It reminded me of why NYC might be a nice place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there. NYC has so many people that if it were a state of its own it would be the 12th most populated state. I couldn't tolerate being around that many people day in and day out. Shane uses the constant throng of people to show how even among millions we can be set apart and made to feel alone. 

As with many films of this time it is sobering to look back and see how skinny Americans used to be. The people considered "fat" in this movie would be considered average today. As a nation we really need to drop some pounds. Peter Kuban (Vittorio Gassman) is an earnest good natured Hungarian Holocaust survivor and displaced person who has stowed away on an ship bound for NYC. 

He wants to come to America! He's heard such wonderful things about it. However things don't go the way Peter was expecting. He doesn't have papers or permission to enter the US.

The immigration authorities, particularly one Inspector Bailey (Douglas Spencer), are initially polite to Peter but continually point out that he's illegal and so is not allowed in the US. Peter doesn't understand this. Peter helped an American paratrooper survive during the war. Peter knows that there's a special program granting American citizenship for people such as himself. Unfortunately Peter has no proof of his actions. All Peter knows is that the soldier's name was Tom and that he plays clarinet in NYC. If the authorities will just let him off the boat Peter will go look for Tom. Well Inspector Bailey hears stories like this every single day. He's sick of them. 

No one is going to pay Bailey next Tuesday for a hamburger today. Without a full name or address Bailey can't verify Peter's story. And he's not inclined to try. Bailey refuses to let Peter off the ship. Peter will be returned to Hungary or wherever the f*** he's from. And that is that as far as Bailey is concerned. But Peter has nothing to return to in Europe. His family perished in the death camps. And the Communists might try to do him in as well. Peter escapes the ship, breaking a few of his ribs and being shot at by police in the process. Only knowing that Tom plays in clubs in Times Square, Peter makes his way to that area. Along the way he meets a good looking woman named Maggie (Gloria Grahame) who's behind in her rent.

Peter sees Maggie steal a coat. He helps her elude the cops. Although Maggie states that she's an unemployed factory worker, the film gives a few hints, not least of which being that she's played by Gloria Grahame, that Maggie might sometimes work in the world's oldest profession--or at least think about it.

Although Maggie is initially alarmed when Peter insists on coming home with her, thinking that he wants what all men want, Peter's innate decency makes itself known. Peter gives Maggie his last dollar in an attempt to prevent her landlady from evicting her. 

And when the landlady's thuggish brother attempts to rape Maggie, Peter comes to her defense. Feeling he's made too much trouble for Maggie, Peter leaves. Unfortunately his picture is already in the news. Now he has an assault charge. The police are redoubling their search. On the run Peter meets more interesting characters. Some are sympathetic to him. Others don't care, even if they happen to share his ethnic background.

Meanwhile Tom (Jerry Paris) actually does exist. He sees Peter's picture in the paper. He must decide whether to alert the authorities that Peter really did save his life or go to a once in a lifetime audition. His long suffering girlfriend Nancy (Ann Robinson) doesn't think Tom owes Peter anything-at least not more than he owes himself and her. She thinks Tom should put the audition first. Nancy has put a lot of time and energy into Tom's career. She'll be damned if she'll let him throw it all away. There's not a tremendous amount of violence in this film. Nothing is explicit. This movie will make you think about the value of mercy and exceptions to the law. The entire story is still relevant today. The shots of NYC, as mentioned, are awe-inspiring and alienating in equal measure. 

Gassman plays Peter as the human incarnation of a well mannered dog. He doesn't understand why certain rules exist. He just wants to do good and be good. Grahame shines in her normal role as the seemingly tough but really sensitive and warm hearted woman who will melt for the right man. Her character will do a lot to help out Peter. A lot.  
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