The Noir Vignette: “Don’t forget – your dead father was a ‘lousy foreigner’”

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

Cast:
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

Awards:
Locarno International Film Festival – 1953 – Maxwell Shane for Artistic Achievement

More than the Director: The Noir Writer

Dark Passage (1944) is one of the few Bogart pictures that disappoints.   Bogart goes through the motions of an escaped con on the run in Frisco trying to clear himself of a murder charge.  Bacall looks great, but for a thriller the whole affair is flat. While the screenplay by director Delmer Daves – from a story by David Goodis – relies on too many implausible coincidences, there is a particularly effective scene where Bogart hops a taxi late at night.

Bogart: Head down the hill. I’ll tell you where to go from there.

Cabbie: Mind a little speed?

I like speed.

Nice looking suit you’re wearing.

Thanks, and I don’t feel chatty.

Some fares like to talk.

I don’t.

You always that way?

Yeah, that’s why I don’t have many friends.

You know, it’s funny about friends.

It’s funny you can’t take a hint.

Brother, you never drove a cab. You got no idea how lonely it gets.

What’s lonely about it? You see people.

Sure, you’re right there. You should see the character I had for a fare yesterday. Picked him up at the Ferry Building.Standing on the curb with a big goldfish bowl in his arm, full of water. Two goldfish. Climbs in the back of the cab, sits down and puts the goldfish bowl in his lap. Where do you think he wants to go? To the ocean. Clean from the Ferry Building to the Pacific Ocean. But he doesn’t know that there’s seven hills. Seven steep hills in between. So we start off. Up the first hill, slippity slop, down the hill, slippity slop. Water all over the back seat, the goldfish on the floor. He picks them up, puts them back in the bowl… up we go again, slippity slop, water all over the… You never saw such a wet guy in your life when we got to that ocean. And two tireder goldfish. But I like goldfish. I’m going to get a couple for the room. Dress it up a little bit, it adds class to the joint. Makes it a little homey.

I thought you said you got lonely.

That’s right. I pick people up and take them places, but they don’t talk to me. I see them get out and go in spots, have fun… then I pick up another load coming out… and I hear them telling about all the fun they had. But me, I sit up here all alone, and it gets lonely.

That’s tough. You’re in a bad way.

You said it. Where are we going?

If I tell you, you’ll ask me why I’m going there… and what am I going to do there, and am I gonna have fun.  A guy gets lonely driving a cab,remember?

That’s right, brother. Lonely. And smart.

Smart in what way?

About people. Looking at them. Faces.

What about faces?

It’s funny. From faces I can tell what people think, what they do… sometimes even who they are. You, for instance, you’re a guy with plenty of trouble.

I don’t have a trouble in the world.

Don’t tell me, buddy. I know. She gave you plenty of trouble, that dame. So you slugged her…  Not now, not here, too many cops around. Don’t try to hit me in the back of the head… or I’ll run this crate up into one of those hotel lobbies.

I’ll give you $500.

Don’t give me nothing. Where do you want to go?

You might as well make it the police station.

Don’t be like that. You’re doing all right. You’re doing fine.

If it was easy for you to spot me, it would be easy for others.

That’s where you’re wrong.  Unless you’d be happier back in Quentin.

Sure, that’s why they sent us up there, to keep us happy.

I see what you mean. Let’s go up here and talk. Did you really bump your wife off?

No, I didn’t.

I don’t figure it that way. I figure you slugged her with that ashtray because she made life miserable for you. I know how it is. I live with my sister and her husband. Now, they get along fine. So fine, that one day he threw a bread knife at her. She ducked. That’s the way it goes. Maybe if your wife had ducked… there’d be no trial, no Quentin, no on the lam.

That’s life.

Smoke?

All right.

Light?  What was she like?

She was all right.  Just hated my guts.  For a long time I tried to find out why, then I didn’t care anymore.

I know. Nice, happy, normal home. I almost got roped in a couple of times myself. If you find the right girl, it’s okay.

What’ll I do?

You won’t listen.

I’ll listen. I want ideas.  That’s what I want more than anything else. I didn’t kill her.  Why should I go back to San Quentin for the rest of my life if I didn’t kill her?

I wonder what he could do with your face?

Who?

A friend of mine. Knows his stuff.

How much would he want?

How much you got?

$1,000. That’s all I’ve got.

He’d take $200.

And keep after me from then on.

No, he’s a friend of mine.

What’s your charge?

Nothing. I’ve seen him work.  He’s great.  I wouldn’t know my own mother after he got through with her.

How long would it take?

Maybe a week, if he doesn’t have to touch your nose.  I don’t think he will.  Just a little around the eyes and here and there.  Got a place to stay? We’re right near the place.

A friend.

Dependable?

The only close friend I’ve ever had.

Let’s see, it’s 2:00 a.m. Now. I’ll go up and see the doc and make a date for you for 3:00 a.m.

Nice safe hour.

Prefiguring Postmodernism: Flashback in Film Noir

I am currently reading a fascinating book on the career of activist Hollywood writer and producer,  Adrian Scott,  ‘Caught in the Crossfire: Adrian Scott and the Politics of Americanism in 1940s Hollywood’,  by Jennifer E. Langdon (2008 Columbia University Press),  which focuses on the production by Scott of three seminal RKO noirs, Murder, My Sweet (1944), Cornered (1945), and Crossfire (1947).

In a chapter on the making of Crossfire, Langdon relates that one of the most radical changes Scott and screenwriter John Paxton made in the adaptation of Richard Brook’s source novel, ‘The Brick Foxhole’, was the use of flashback.  Langdon goes on to expound a profoundly interesting take on the nature of the flashback in film noir:

flashbacks are a key narrative strategy in film noir, contributing to the genre’s existential exploration of truth and falsehood.  Historian William Graebner, suggesting the ways in which film noir prefigured postmodernism, explains, “By interrupting a traditional, linear narrative, the flashback challenged the form strongly identified with progress: the story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and open to all possibilities.” Explicitly connecting the ruptured narrative strategies of film noir to the pervasive postwar sense of contingency and doubt, he argues:  “In the context of a military victory that seemed to have been won at the cost of demonstrating the inhumanity of humankind, and of a cold war that called for eternal vigilance, the ability of a cultural text to produce a conclusion consistent with, and implied in, everything that had gone before—what literary scholar Frank Kermode calls ‘the sense of an ending’ —withered and died.” * (p 85)

More on Langdon’s book in a future post.

________
* William Graebner, The Age of Doubt: American Thought and Culture in the 1940s (Boston: Twayne, 1981), 54, 145.

New York Noir: The Heart of Darkness

Hudson River - New York

Orson Wells in 1939 under contract to RKO developed a screenplay for a film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘Heart of Darkness’ (1899) , which sadly was never made.

Film scholar James Naremore in an on-line article discusses the book and the development of  Welles’ script, which sets the  story in the present day and makes Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, an American.

“The screenplay opens in New York on the Hudson river, with Marlow’s voice speaking of a ‘monstrous town marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in the sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars’, while a series of lap dissolves show lights being turned on across Manhattan at dusk—the bridges, the parkways, the boulevards, the skyscrapers. The camera tours the length of the island accompanied by a montage of sounds—snatches of jazz from the radios of moving taxis; dinner music from the big hotels; a ‘throb of tom-toms’ foreshadowing the jungle music to come; the noodling of orchestras tuning up in the concert halls; and finally, near the Battery, the muted sounds of bell buoys and the hoots of shipping. Next we enter New York harbor, where we find Marlow leaning against the mast of a schooner, smoking a pipe and directly addressing the camera. ‘And this also’, he says, ‘has been one of the dark places of the earth‘.”

The Maltese Falcon: The beginning of noir

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

John Huston’s 1941 screenplay was the first serious attempt to bring the hard-boiled nature of Hammett’s fiction to the screen. The 1931 version may have more closely followed the story of the novel, but it did not carry the hard-boiled spirit of Spade to the screen, and the 1936 version, Satan Met a Lay, with Bette Davis played the story as broad comedy.

David Spicer wrote in his book Film Noir (2002) that Huston’s film “was much closer than previous versions to the cynical tone of Hammett’s hard-boiled novel, retaining as much of Hammett’s dialogue as possible”.  William Luhr, in his book on the 1941 version says that: “Spade does not happily juggle a plethora of women but is bitterly involved with only two… For him, sexuality is not carefree but dangerous and guilt-ridden. The mystery and the evil world it reveals dominate the mood of the movie, and this sinister atmosphere does not entirely disappear at the end. Such an atmosphere presages film noir.”

The Spade of Hammett’s novel is deeply cynical, and at the end of the novel, but not in Huston’s film, he is ready to resume his affair with Archer’s wife. Mayer and McDonnell in The Encyclopedia of Film Noir (2007), say this about the final scenes in Huston’s screenplay: “Huston replaces Hammett’s cynicism with a more romantic gesture from Spade as he tells Brigid, ‘Maybe I do [love you]‘. While Ricardo Cortez’s Spade in 1931 is more or less resigned to handing Wonderly over to the police, Huston extends this sequence by accentuating the psychological disturbance within the detective. His torment is palpable, especially when he shouts into her face that ‘I won’t [fall for you] because all of me wants to, regardless of the consequences’. While this is not an existential moment, as some claim, it does represent a significant moment in the development of film noir. Unlike the novel, where survival is all that matters to the detective, Spade’s torment in the 1941 film nearly destroys him.”

Val Lewton Screenplay Collection

I Walked With a Zombie (1942)

When researching my previous post on The Seventh Victim (1943), I came across the site The Val Lewton Screenplay Collection, which has many of the scripts produced by Lewton and other interesting Lewton resources.

A reminder too that on Amazon you can get the Val Lewton Horror Collection DVD Box Set with nine movies: Cat People, The Curse of the Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead, Bedlam, The Leopard Man, The Ghost Ship, The Seventh Victim, and Shadows in the Dark for only  US$37.49 new and from US$29.99 used.