The Glass Wall (1953)
Director: Maxwell Shane
Starring: Vittorio Gassman and Gloria Grahame
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 - everything including the kitchen sink. From Frank Capra's classic "It's a Wonderful Life" to the Zucker Brothers "Zero Hour" parody, "Airplane!" and sandwiched between 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 winning work on "The Towering Inferno") or too small (some of the coolest 50s sci-fi second features 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' "Blazing Saddles".
His work on "The Glass Wall" is especially 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 immensely to this thrilling, offbeat tale of a refugee on the run from police and immigration officials.
Directed and written by Maxwell Shane, an extremely prolific screenwriter who specialized in genre pieces, "The Glass Wall", while not a great film by any means, is still one of those gems that's been largely forgotten and now, thanks to the medium of DVD, can now be seen by many more people.
And it deserves to be seen.
Starring the great Italian actor Vittorio Gassman in his American debut, we're immediately sucked into the tale of the 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 in order to get a sponsorship to begin a new life in America. The officials are having none of Kaban's story and with various levels of law enforcement pursuing him, he is befriended and aided by the sultry Gloria Grahame (Violet Bick, the prostitute with a heart of gold in "It's a Wonderful Life" and the gangster moll in "The Big Heat" who becomes seriously deformed after Lee Marvin tosses a pot of scalding coffee in her face).
Set over one night, the film 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 one of the few American films 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 some kind of classic status is Shane's competent, but unexciting 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 needs more than competence, it needs a nasty, pulp sensibility.
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-G.I., 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.
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?