Tuesday 28 November 2023

The Glass Wall (1953)

Director: Maxwell Shane
Writers: Ivan Tors and Maxwell Shane
Stars: Vittorio Gassman, Gloria Grahame, with Alan Robinson, Douglas Spencer, Robin Raymond, Jerry Paris, featuring Jack Teagarden and Shorty Rogers and His Band

Index: 2023 Centennials.

I had plenty of choices to watch in honour of Gloria Grahame’s centennial, given that she was a pivotal actress in film noir, but I’m rather happy that I plucked this one out of the blue instead of any of the more famous films I’d already seen. That’s because classic film, so often fascinating for cinematic reasons, can be a real window onto a time and sometimes the light through that window is commentary on our own time. I wonder how The Glass Wall would be received were it to be made today. It seems to me that it could prompt calls for its cancellation from the sort of people who tend to rail against cancelling their particular brand of culture. That’s because it’s fundamentally about refugees, a big issue in 1953 with so many Jews and other oppressed minorities in Europe moving to the United States during and after World War II to claim refugee status. Somehow it’s only become a bigger issue in the decades since and almost everything that happens here seventy years ago could easily happen today.

The refugee at the heart of the story is Peter Kuban, who’s on board a ship sailing past the Statue of Liberty into the United States as the film begins. There are 1,322 other displaced persons on board, each rescued by the International Refugee Organisation of the United Nations. “Welcome to America!” say the other boats in New York Harbor in yet another reminder that times have changed. The catch is that, while Kuban is absolutely a displaced person, he’s also a stowaway. That means that, while the rest of the people seeking asylum, who have escaped war and concentration camps to start a new life in the New World, are processed and admitted, Kuban is interviewed, but he’ll be sent home again because he can’t back up anything with evidence. He was born in Hungary, but that doesn’t exist any more. He spent ten years in concentration camps, where he learned English from other prisoners. His family perished in the gas chambers. He’s missing a number of fingernails from Nazi torture. Crucially, he can’t tell them where Tom is.

And Tom is so important to this story that he’s almost a MacGuffin. He was an American paratrooper in Europe who Kuban helped to hide from the Nazis during the war, well enough that he got out of Europe and back home to the States. He also knows that there is an exception in what I presume is the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, a Harry Truman-era law that provided permanent residence in the U.S. to 200,000 refugees, to let in those displaced persons who contributed to the war effort by assisting Allied soldiers during wartime, which is exactly what he did. Tom can vouch for him, he says. He merely can’t provide Tom’s last name. Or his address. Or anything else at all, beyond the fact that he’s a musician who used to play a clarinet in a band in Times Square. That’s not enough to persuade the immigration officials, some of whom clearly believe that he made Tom up on the spot. He’s kept on the ship, confined, ready to return to Europe when it sails at seven the next morning. That’s tough, but it is what it is.

Well, Kuban isn’t willing to accept that, so he escapes and jumps overboard, given that the ship is docked, grabs the back of a truck and suddenly he’s in the Big Apple. He’s hurt in the process, because the authorities are giving chase and they’re armed, but he will be able to find Tom, he thinks, and clear the whole thing up in no time. Of course, he hasn’t been to Times Square before. He hasn’t even visited a city before, so he’s swamped by the enormity of the place and, while he quickly realises that his search isn’t going to be remotely as quick and easy as he thought, especially given that he only has eight bucks in his pocket, he refuses to give up. After all, if he didn’t give up hope in the concentration camps, why would he give up hope when he’s so close to a new life? So onward he goes. The actor tasked with playing Kuban is Vittorio Gassman, one of the great Italian actors who had also married Shelley Winters a year earlier. He does a magnificent job in Times Square, simultaneously lost and amazed, disheartened and yet still optimistic.

In fact, he does a magnificent job throughout the movie, so sincere that it’s almost hard to believe that even professionally cynical immigration officials might not buy into his story. It doesn’t matter that it’s also true, it’s told with such sincerity that we can’t not be affected by his performance. Maybe he overplays some scenes late in the picture, once he gets to the Glass Wall of the title, but it has to be said that those scenes are so inherently emotional that we buy into everything he does anyway. That Glass Wall, I should add, is a famous feature of the architecture of the United Nations building in New York, which Kuban attempts to reach after failing to find Tom. Maybe he can claim asylum there or plead his case to someone higher up the chain. It’s worth a try, especially since he is being sought not only by Immigration at this point but New York’s finest too. Surely the most emotional scene is the one when he soliloquises to a vast empty room used by the Commission on Human Rights, but there are many others to choose from.

That’s not really a spoiler, by the way, because the only thing that matters from the moment that Kuban jumps ship is whether he’ll find Tom, who we firmly believe will be able to vouch for him to the authorities. He doesn’t, but we do because the script intends us to be in no doubt about whether he truly exists or not. He’s at the Musician’s Club when his fiancée Nancy brings word that he’s got a shot in Jack Teagarden’s band. He’s very real and findable. However, it also doesn’t want Kuban to find him, just like that, because there are eighty minutes of feature to fill. Therefore it has Kuban work his way through the city, checking out all the clarinetists in all the clubs, always failing to find the one he needs, until his injury becomes too much for him to ignore. That’s where a succession of supporting characters come in, each of them adding another level to this look at humanity in the largest city in the country, with some of them restoring our faith in it and some threatening to take it away again.

The first and most important of those is Maggie Summers, played by our centenarian, Gloria Grahame. He sees her when he stops to eat at a diner, as her actions are notable. She carefully sits at a table where she can finish up someone else’s food and dunk a tea bag she brought with her into a cup of hot water, before leaving with Kathleen Freeman’s coat. We recognise that yell easily enough! It prompts her to be chased by the authorities but Peter follows and helps her escape. He’s had plenty of experience with that during wartime, so he’s able to get them safely back to her place, where his sincerity and her cynicism clash. Maggie has a fire in her, much of it controlled anger but tempered with fear and the knowledge of how low she’s fallen in the world. Kuban notices that too as the landlady arrives for overdue rent, so he gives her his last seven bucks, even though it’ll only make a dent in the thirty she owes. It’s enough, at least, to keep her from being evicted. As he leaves, he collapses, and she sees a paper with his story on the front page.

If the most obvious parallel across seventy years of history is how we see refugees, there are others. We might think that the nation has moved forward in that time but the way this picture looks at concerns that were topical seven decades ago and remain so today, we might be persuaded otherwise. There are plenty of questions here about the land of the free and the home of the brave. Maggie, for example, used to work for a living by putting tips on shoelaces, dealing with routine sexual harassment as she did so. However, a ruptured appendix meant a gap in wages and the cost of her treatment meant she couldn’t cover rent and suddenly she’s struggling to avoid eviction. And the refugee who’s already given her the last of his meagre supply of cash tells her, entirely sincerely, “When I get work, I will help you.” Goddamn. This is the sort of film that could make any viewer tear up, not merely watching it but thinking back on scenes like this too, not only for their sheer power but for how applicable they remain today. What's changed?

Maggie isn’t the only supporting character of note, but she’s the first and the impact that Peter had on her in that scene means that she remains part of the story even after he moves on. She thinks that she’s fallen about as low as she can go, so talks down her room as crummy. Kuban thinks it’s a very good room and she’s able to live there all by herself too. “If I had a room like this, I’d think I was rich,” he tells her and that perspective, delivered as sincerely as everything else he says in this film, shakes her. No wonder she feels the need to play her part as far as she can to help him out. Tom, not that Peter knows it, does too. He’s cleaning up in the bathroom when someone tells him about this refugee in the news, but no names are mentioned. He almost doesn’t see the paper but, when he does, he recognises Peter immediately, and tells his fiancée that he has to go down to the immigration office to help him. Nancy, on the other hand, wants him to take his audition with Jack Teagarden and he does, but it’s only a temporary obstacle to his help.

The other important supporting character is a burlesque dancer called Tanya, who finds him sleeping in her taxi. She doesn’t wake him because she recognises him from the paper, but she does go to the 54th Street police station to get the truth before taking him to her place. She’s really Bella Zakoyla, a fellow Hungarian, and she wants to help. Her two bit brother doesn’t and proclaims that he wants “the lousy foreigner” gone. That gets him slapped by his sister and their mother, but Peter overhears and takes off. It’s telling that all the people who want to help are traditionally looked down on: poor people stealing to keep warm, showgirls working a late shift and musicians eager for a gig. Maggie’s landlady and her lech of a son, on the other hand, might seem more respectable from a traditional standpoint but they have no honour, the latter forcing himself on Maggie and the former lying to the police after he’s knocked out by Peter, doing the gentlemanly thing. The same goes for officials, whether they’re wearing blue or not.

It doesn’t hurt that the cast is impeccable. Gassman is perfectly cast as Peter Kuban, able to bring serious depth to what could easily have been an overly sentimental role. Jerry Paris, who plays Tom, can’t bring the same depth but does bring honesty and goodness. If he was playing that clarinet for real, he could have had a career in jazz. Instead he went on to direct Police Academy 2 and 3 and an abiding guilty pleasure of mine, Evil Roy Slade. Tanya is played by Robin Raymond, who shows how much she could do with a role in one of the rare occasions where she was given one of this substance. Her jackass of a brother is a very young Joe Turkel, so young that I didn’t immediately recognise him as Dr. Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner and Lloyd, the ghost bartender, in The Shining. The bands we see so often in montages are real, with jazz musicians of the calibre of trombonist Jack Teagarden and trumpeter Shorty Rogers appearing as themselves. And then there’s Gloria Grahame, who had won an Academy Award a year earlier.

Given how controversies in her personal life stole attention away from her career, it’s easy to forget how good she was and just how quickly she rose to her peak. She was born Gloria Grahame Hallward in Los Angeles, but her parents were British. Her father was an English architect and her mother a Scottish stage actress, Jeanne McDougall, who performed as Jean Grahame, so providing Gloria’s middle name. It was her mother who taught her acting and she began her career on the stage, but soon graduated to film, debuting in Blonde Fever in 1944. Two years later, she made a big splash as Violet Bick in It’s a Wonderful Life, demonstrating precisely what she could do if she were cast in a film noir. She promptly was only a year later and Crossfire landed her an Oscar nod as Best Supporting Actress. Only ten films into her screen career and she was the leading lady in a Humphrey Bogart picture, In a Lonely Place, although she was married to its director, Nicholas Ray, at the time, her second of four marriages.

She continued to go from strength to strength, making four films in 1952, one of which won the Oscar for Best Picture, The Greatest Show on Earth, and another of which won her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, The Bad and the Beautiful, even though it marked the shortest performance of any winner that far at only nine minutes. That record stood until 1976 when Beatrice Straight won for a five minute performance in Network. She was always at her best in film noir, because she was a natural in that genre, delivering an array of gritty performances in films noir like Sudden Fear, The Big Heat and Human Desire. Almost typecast at this point as a scheming femme fatale, she tried to diversify her roles but met with resistance from the public, especially when playing in a romantic musical comedy like Oklahoma! That meant a shift back to theatre and to television, where she served as the guest star on a host of episodes of major shows, like Mannix, Burke’s Law and The Fugitive, botched plastic surgery on her lips also affecting her looks and delivery.

While her final screen performance came as late as an episode of Tales of the Unexpected in 1984, four years after her death, her life had taken all the attention away from her work. It wasn’t that she had been married four times, none of the first three lasting over four years—to actor Stanley Clements, director Nicholas Ray and producer Cy Howard—it was that the fourth was to Anthony Ray, her former stepson. In a 2011 biography of Grahame, Nicholas Ray claimed that their marriage ended in 1950 because he found his wife in bed with his then thirteen year old son. While there’s no proof of that; later partner Peter Turner, who wrote a book about their time together, called it fiction; and they remained married for fourteen years; the optics weren’t good. Neither was her third husband’s long custody battle for their daughter, nor her subsequent nervous breakdown. She died in 1980, after the breast cancer she had survived in 1974 returned. Her career was overshadowed then but deserves revisiting now, especially her films noir.

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