Monday, March 29, 2010

The Glass Wall (1953)

The construction of United Nations Secretariat building in New York City, New York was completed in 1952. Although it is in New York and activities that happen on the premise are under state and local jurisdiction, the land on which this building stands is considered international territory. The edifice stands at 505 feet tall and has almost 40 stories. It was designed by architects Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer who created a modern building that stood out from the classic architecture that surrounded it. What is unique about the Secretariat building is that it looks like a giant glass wall. You can see the reflection of the city's skyline in the continuous rows of windows. It represents the uniting of nations to create a more cohesive world yet the building seems less like a beacon and more like a giant impediment. On the other side of the building is the East River which flows into the Atlantic. In some ways, the building looks like a wall blocking the US from the world and the world from the US. And the building, it's significance, it's placement and it's appearance proved to be perfect fodder for film noir.

The UN Secretariat building features prominent in The Glass Wall (1953) making the title of the film very apropos.  Peter Kaban (Vittorio Gassman) has reached a glass wall. He can see through the wall to the other side, where there lies hope for a new life and for freedom. But the wall is an illusion and he can't get through. He tries to shatter the glass wall but doing so comes with major repercussions.

After spending nearly 10 years in concentration camps and watching his entire family die in a gas chamber, Peter escapes Aushwitz and walked 300 miles to get on a shipping vessel headed towards America. He gets on the ship as a stowaway and when he gets there, he is denied entrance because of his illegal entry. He tries to reason with the goverment officials using Statute Six which allows people of Allied forces who have helped the American cause to enter America. Peter helped an American soldier named Tom but only knows very rudimentary information about his American friend and cannot convince the officials. Determined not to go back to Europe, as it would be a death sentence for him, he escapes the docked vessel and goes on the lam, looking for his friend Tom. Tom is his one chance at staying in America and for his salvation but like any good film, finding Tom isn’t easy, even when Tom starts looking for Peter.

Peter has a naivete and a wholesomeness that makes us sympathize with him. He's been through so much and it pains us to watch him go through more pain and anguish. There is an amazing scene where Peter walks around Times Square and looks around in wonderment and awe at all the flashing lights, people and general hussle and bussle. He is the film noir equivalent of a lost puppy and we are desperate to save him.

Peter becomes a psuedo-celebrity. His face is plastered on the front page of the newspaper and many people in the city recognize him because of that. He runs and runs even past the point when he doesn't have to run anymore and running would do him more harm than good. We watch Peter’s slow descent into delirium as his body starts to lose it's battle against the broken ribs that threaten to puncture his surrounding organs. His physical deterioration adds to the ascent to the story's climax. When Peter reaches The Glass Wall, he sees the reflection of the building through a puddle. It's the last beacon. It's his final destination. It's his biggest obstacle that he must face. Can he make it? Can he push himself just a bit more? Can he take himself to the brink of death in order to save his life?

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk a bit about the film’s biggest shining star, Gloria Grahame. She has a formidable role of Peter’s love interest and friend, Maggie. Maggie is disillusioned by the same system which has also rejected Peter. She's used to men wanting her body and forcing themselves on her. She's fed up with not having money. She has nothing to fight for until she meets Kaban and she'll rob small children to help him out. Maggie is as desperate as Peter and in this way they complement each other. Grahame always excelled in roles in which the character’s were jaded and fed up. She emoted frustration very well especially with her characteristic frown and pout.

This film comes at a time when Americans are still reeling after the effects of WWII and of the horror that has come to light about the Holocaust and concentration camps. A massive influx of WWII refugees infiltrated the United States, many coming through Ellis Island which is also featured in the film. Many of these immigrants were know settling into their new lives in the US and trying to become part of the local fabric. Many abandoned their pasts for their futures while others never forgot where they came from. When Peter (a Hungarian) is on the lam, he runs into a sympathetic Hungarian-American who takes him in to her home. The sympathy they show for a complete stranger, and a well-known criminal at that, really demonstrates the bond between immigrants and the people from their homeland.

This is what I call an effective movie. It’s relevant to the times, it’s shot on location, the characters are interesting and sympathetic, the pacing works and the rising tension keeps you at the edge of your seat. There are some great shots of New York City and the inside of the UN Secretariat building. The pinnacle of the film is a superb monologue delivered by Vittorio Gassman (Peter) in an empty UN conference room. If that scene doesn’t move you, you have no soul.

The Glass Wall (1953) is highly underrated and overlooked. In my honest opinion, it has to be one of the best and effective film noirs out there. I’m very appreciative that it’s finally got it’s debut on DVD through the Bad Girls of Film Noir Vol 1 boxed set. And maybe with it’s availability, this little noir will get the recognition it deserves.


  1. Ooh An American Neo-realist movie! Intersting! another film I have missed completely. Gassman was a great actor, I have seen him in many great Italian productions. I din't know he was an international star as early as this.

  2. Thanks for introducing me to this one. Vittorio Gassman is excellent; he was in the famous "Big Deal on Madonna Street" heist picture and more recently an elderly mobster in "Sleepers."


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