Glass Wall, The (1953): Maxwell Shane’s Film Noir with a Message, Starring Vittorio Gassman and Gloria Grahame

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Maxwell Shane directed The Glass Wall, an offbeat film noir with a liberal message, starring Italian Vittorio Gassman and Gloria Grahame, right after winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful.

The Glass Wall
The Glass Wall.JPG

Theatrical release poster

The title refers to the design of the United Nations headquarters in New York City.

After the end of World War II, Peter Kuban (Gassman, then married to Shelley Winters), a Hungarian displaced person and survivor of Nazi concentration camps, stows away in Trieste (a city divided between Italy and Yugoslavia) on a ship bound for New York.

However, he is spotted by ship officials and held captive. When the ship arrives, he claims to qualify for entry for those who helped Allied soldiers during the war. But all he knows about the paratrooper he hid from the enemy is that his name is Tom and he plays clarinet in jazz band in Times Square.

The immigration authorities, led by Inspector Bailey, say that without better documentation he must be sent back to communist Hungary on a ship that departs the next morning.

Kuban escapes by jumping off the ship, and begins searching for Tom in nightclubs. He encounters unemployed factory worker Maggie Summers in a restaurant. When she steals a coat off a rack, she is spotted and flees, and Peter helps her elude the police.

They go to her apartment, where she tends his injury as she learns his story. When landlady Mrs. Hinckley threatens to evict her for not paying rent, Peter gives her the money.

Eddie Hinckley, the landlady’s son, tries to get amorous with Maggie, and Peter bursts out of hiding and starts fighting him. Maggie knocks Eddie out with a chair and flees with Peter.

Meanwhile, Tom discovers Peter’s picture on the newspaper. He wants to go to the immigration department, but his girlfriend Nancy persuades him to attend an audition instead. Tom impresses band leader Jack Teagarden, but leaves to try to help Peter.

The fleeing couple attempt to hide in the subway, but are recognized. The police grab the girl, but Peter gets away.  After hearing Tom’s story, Inspector Bailey believes that Peter can stay, but only if they can reach him before the ship departs; after 7am Peter would be arrested and deported.

Peter slips into an unoccupied taxi and falls asleep. When burlesque dancer Tanya gets into the taxi after work, she recognizes Peter from the newspaper photo. She takes him to her apartment for rest and a meal. When he asks why, she explains that her real name is Bella Zakoyla, and that she is a fellow “Hunky”. Her immigrant mother approves, but her brother Freddie does not want to risk getting into trouble, saying that it is the responsibility of the United Nations. The loud argument rouses Peter, who has been sleeping in the next room. He slips away.

Peter heads toward the United Nations building in the early morning, but h is recognized and the police are alerted. Peter delivers a soliloquy to empty meeting room with places marked for representatives of the U.N.’s member states.

He preaches to an empty room for peace and freedom for every individual.

The police, Maggie, Tom, and Bailey pursue Peter through the halls of the U.N., while Peter panics and flees to the roof,  contemplating jumping.

In the implausible happy ending, Maggie and Tom reach Peter, reassuring that he is now safe.

The film was shot on location in New York, and at the United Nations building (the “glass wall” of the title) on First Avenue at 46th Street in Manhattan.”

Critical Status:

The Glass Wall shared the Golden Leopard, the top prize of the Locarno Film Fest in 1953 with Julius Caesar and The Composer Glinka (Kompozitor Glinka).

Vittorio Gassman as Peter
Gloria Grahame as Maggie
Ann Robinson as Nancy
Douglas Spencer as Inspector Bailey
Robin Raymond as Tanya
Jerry Paris as Tom
Jack Teagarden as himself


Directed by Maxwell Shane
Screenplay by Shane, Ivan Tors
Produced by Ivan Tors
Cinematography Joseph F. Biroc
Edited by Stanley Frazen, Herbert L. Strock
Music by Leith Stevens

Production company: Shane-Tors Productions

Distributed by Columbia Pictures

Release date: March 20, 1953 (San Francisco)

Running time: 80 minutes

TCM showed the movie on October 3, 2021.