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The Glass Wall

The Glass Wall(1953)

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teaser The Glass Wall (1953)

In this noir-inspired look at the perils of covert immigration into America, Italian actor Vittorio Gassman gets a rare Hollywood leading-man role as Peter Kaban, a displaced survivor of a Nazi concentration camp ordered by the United Nations to relocate to America. His traumatic past during which he lost his entire family refuses to sway U.S. Immigrations, whose chief inspector insists Peter leave the country despite a legal loophole whereby any foreigner who aids a wounded Allied soldier will be allowed to stay. However, the soldier Peter helped in Europe only left a few clues to his identity: his name (Tom) and neighborhood (Times Square, New York). As Peter's story becomes a local media story, he escapes from his confinement and makes his way into Manhattan and instigates what the posters touted as "the 10-hour manhunt... that tore New York apart!"

A cross between a dark chase thriller and picaresque view of urban Americana with a colorful gallery of characters, The Glass Wall is a slightly darker view of the ideals behind Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty than usual. It also features a major setpiece shot on location at the United Nations well before Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959), while the presence of noir regular Gloria Grahame (The Big Heat [1953], In a Lonely Place [1950]) ensures its thriller pedigree as well. The supporting cast teems with familiar faces from a variety of postwar entertainment venues, most prominently the key role of the elusive Tom played by Jerry Paris, the TV actor-turned-director who gained fame as Rob Petrie's neurotic neighbor Jerry Helper on The Dick Van Dyke Show; he subsequently went behind the camera for numerous television shows as well as an oddball assortment of feature films including the hip Jacqueline Bisset vehicle The Grasshopper (1970) and one of the last traditional romantic comedies, 1968's How Sweet It Is!

Also noteworthy in the gallery of New Yorkers is stuntwoman-turned-actress Ann Robinson (best known for her leading role in George Pal's The War of the Worlds, 1953), busy character actor Joe Turkel (who went on to immortality in the 1980s as Tyrell in Blade Runner [1982] and Lloyd the ghostly bartender in The Shining [1980]) , colorful Douglas Spencer (also seen in memorable supporting roles in Shane [1953] and This Island Earth [1955]), and a young, briefly-spotted Kathleen Freeman, a seasoned TV actress who went on to earn a Tony Award for The Full Monty while becoming a reliable comedic supporting player in films like The Blues Brothers (1980) and Innerspace (1987).

The film's director and co-writer, Maxwell Shane, was more prolific as a screenwriter than an auteur; however, the strong affinity for urban thrillers he displays here also carried over into two mysteries adapted from cult writer Cornell Woolrich (1947's Fear in the Night and 1956's wonderfully surreal Nightmare). He had written numerous programmers (mainly horror and westerns) in the 1940s, but the small handful of films he actually directed indicate a strong aesthetic sense he sadly left behind in favor of TV.

The Glass Wall was produced by Columbia Pictures, who had found a sudden affinity for postwar noir projects with other releases around the same period like The Sniper (1952) and The Big Heat. Among its technical credits, perhaps the most noteworthy is its cinematographer, Joseph F. Biroc, who started out with Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and stayed with Columbia for far more stylized work with directors like William Castle (13 Ghosts, 1960) and George Sidney (Bye Bye Birdie [1963], The Swinger [1966]). However, most viewers will know him for two of the most popular comedies ever made, Blazing Saddles (1974) and Airplane! (1980), which are a far cry from the gritty, monochromatic starkness seen here.

Producer: Ivan Tors
Director: Maxwell Shane
Screenplay: Ivan Shane, Maxwell Shane, Ivan Tors
Cinematography: Joseph F. Biroc
Art Direction:
Music: Leith Stevens
Film Editing: Stanley Frazen
Cast: Vittorio Gassman (Peter Kaban), Gloria Grahame (Maggie Summers), Ann Robinson (Nancy), Douglas Spencer (Inspector Bailey), Robin Raymond (Tanya aka Bella Zakoyla), Jerry Paris (Tom), Elizabeth Slifer (Mrs. Hinckley, the Landlady), Richard Reeves (Eddie Hinckley), Joseph Turkel (Freddie Zakoyla), Else Neft (Mrs. Zakoyla), Michael Fox (Inspector Toomey), Ned Booth (Monroe, the Taxi Driver), Kathleen Freeman (Zelda, the Fat Woman with Coat), Juney Ellis (Girl friend), Jack Teagarden (Himself, Musician), Shorty Rogers (Himself, Band Leader).

by Nathaniel Thompson

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