In The Glass Wall (1953), the protagonist is an Hungarian war refugee, Peter Kaban (Vittoria Gassman), who jumps ship after his quest for entry into the US is rejected. A stowaway and without sufficient evidence of his assisting the US war effort by helping a wounded GI, the young man’s deportation is imminent. Kaban’s only chance is to find the GI. All he knows about the vet is that his name is Tom, that he is from New York, that he plays the plays the clarinet, and that he talked about the wonder of a place called ‘Times Square’. Kaban’s search has him roaming the teeming streets of Manhattan and visiting venues with jazz bands playing. These scenes of Kaban amongst the crowds on the streets of NY are documentary, and the central noir motif of individual alienation in the anonymity of the city is dramatically evoked – a cold glass ‘wall’.
But in his jump from the ship Kaban has injured a rib and his search for Tom becomes more desperate as his injury progressively weakens him. After getting help from Maggie (Gloria Grahame), a young woman on the skids, they are separated after he escapes arrest on a crowded subway platform. By now his photo is plastered on the front page of the evening papers.
Back on the streets he hears jazz from a burlesque dive and enters from back-stage. A show is in progress with a stripper on stage. Kaban is visible at the curtain as he peers at the clarinetist – no luck. His appearance attracts the attention of the rowdy patrons, and the stripper is not amused. She yells to the stage manager: “Throw that bum out. He’s lousing up my act.” Kaban is pitched out the back of the theater and stumbles into the back-seat of an empty cab at a taxi rank.
The scenario is now set for the vignette, which in terms of the plot, has only a single purpose: to inform Kaban of the existence of the UN and its humanitarian charter, and that it is in NY, the ‘glass wall’ of the title. However, the scenario evocatively reinforces the film’s central theme of personal obligation and social responsibility, with such a deep humanity and charm that it leaves an indelible imprint on your memory. The dialog and the acting are pitch perfect.
The stripper Bella Zakoyla, who goes under the stage-name of Tanya, is played by bit player Robin Raymond. Her performance is really impressive. She is not young, on the cusp of middle-age, and when we first see her on stage, she fills the frame, and the sincerity of her ‘act’ is striking. She has a joyous grace. When she finishes work she enters the same cab still parked back-stage and hails the driver from a news-stand. The cab heads for her apartment and she discovers Kaban asleep next to her. She recognizes him from his photo in an early edition on the front page of the day’s newspaper. She has spunk and jokes with the cab-driver after asking him to detour to a police station on the way to her apartment. At the precint station, she leaves Kaban asleep in the cab and enters the station. After a while she returns. We have been played by a neat little conceit in the script: she wanted to check if the guy was on the level before taking him home! By this time, Tom the clarinetist, who also saw Kaban’s photo in the newspaper, has confirmed his story with the authorities, and now they only want to locate Kaban to tell him and process him as displaced person.
The cab arrives at Tanya’s tenement building, where as a single mother she supports her own widowed mother, an Hungarian immigrant, her two young children, and a brother, who is not in regular employment – he is a huckster for poker sharps. She puts Kaban in the bed she shares with her two kids while she waits for her mother to serve the supper she has prepared. The old lady is suspicious of Kaban at first, but is persuaded that he is kosher and needs their help. Then the brother turns up flush with dough he has ‘earned’ that night. It is clear that this boy is a disappointment after being put through school by Tanya. He blows up when he finds out Tanya is harboring Kaban, and threatens to throw him out. We cut to Kaban anxiously overhearing the argument in the closed bedroom with the kids, who are now awake, intrigued and smiling. He hears about how Tanya intends to go to the UN in the morning. Back in the living room, the argument continues, and ends only after Tanya’s mother slaps her son across the face for a racist outcry.
Tanya goes to the bedroom to rouse Kaban for supper, and finds he has left after leaving a note thanking her for her kindness and saying that he did not want to make trouble for her. Tanya is mortified not only for him, but for herself – a lonely woman struggling to raise her kids alone. It is all established without a word. Raymond’s acting is that good. Tanya returns to the living room and slaps here brother across the face. Kaban was – if only momentarily – not the protagonist but an observer of someone else’s story.
Great writing, great acting, great craft. This is how Hollywood even in the decline of its golden period could still fashion great cinema from simple human stories without melodrama and without pretense.
The Glass Wall (1953)
Columbia Pictures 82 min
Directed by Maxwell Shane
Screenplay – Ivan Shane, Maxwell Shane, and Ivan Tors
Cinematography by Joseph F. Biroc
Vittorio Gassman – Peter Kaban
Gloria Grahame – Maggie Summers
Robin Raymond – Tanya aka Bella Zakoyla
Joe Turkel – Freddie Zakoyla (as Joseph Turkel)
Else Neft – Mrs. Zakoyla
Locarno International Film Festival – 1953 – Maxwell Shane for Artistic Achievement