March 20, 1953, release date
Directed by Maxwell Shane
Screenplay by Maxwell Shane, Ivan Tors
Music by Leith Stevens
Edited by Stanley Frazen, Herbert L. Strock
Cinematography by Joseph F. Biroc
Gloria Grahame as Maggie Summers
Ann Robinson as Nancy
Jerry Paris as Tom
Douglas Spencer as Inspector Bailey
Robin Raymond as Tanya/Bella Zakoyla
Elizabeth Slifer as Mrs. Hinckley
Richard Reeves as Eddie Hinckley
Joe Turkel as Freddie Zakoyla (as Joseph Turkel)
Else Neft as Mrs. Zakoyla
Ned Booth as Monroe, the cab driver
Michael Fox as Inspector Toomey and the film’s narrator
Kathleen Freeman as Zelda
Musician Jack Teagarden as himself
Musician Shorty Rogers as himself
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Produced by Columbia Pictures
Every once in a while, I see a film noir released decades ago whose theme seems oddly contemporary, and The Glass Wall is one of those films. It is the story of a refugee, a displaced person, from war-torn Europe who seeks asylum in the United States and is denied entrance because of a technicality. The details of The Glass Wall could be updated from March 20, 1953 (the film’s release date almost exactly sixty-five years ago), to current events of today (think the immigration debate in general and the Dreamers’ dilemma in particular) and the story would resonate with today’s viewers.
Click here for more information about displaced persons (DPs). Click here for more information about the U.S. executive branch policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
The opening credits start over an expanse of sea. The screen is split by the horizon line between the sky and the sea. As the credits progress, the film cuts to a ship in the distance and then to subsequent shots of the ship coming closer and closer to viewers. A voice-over narrator starts a description of the ship arriving in New York Harbor: 1,322 displaced persons were rescued by the International Refugee Organization of the United Nations. They had escaped the war (World War II) and concentration camps.
One of those displaced persons is Peter Kuban. He is denied entrance to the United States because he stowed away on the ship, an illegal act that disqualifies him from entry to the United States. He protests the decision of the immigration officers on board the ship, telling them about his wartime experiences of torture in concentration camps. Peter Kuban is no slouch. He invokes Statute 6, the Displaced Persons Law:
A person bearing arms for the Allied cause in World War II has the privilege to come into America without a quota number, before others.
Peter had escaped Auschwitz and found an American parachute soldier during the war. He saved the American from pursuing Nazis and took the soldier to an Allied hospital so that he could recover from his injuries. All Peter knows now is that the soldier’s name is Tom; he is a musician who plays the clarinet; and he works in New York City, in Times Square. Tom is the person who can prove Peter’s story and vouch for him.
(This blog post about The Glass Wall contains spoilers.)
Rather than face being sent back to Hungary, his home country, Peter jumps ship. He is injured in his fall to the dock, but he makes it to Times Square. Immigration sends out officers looking for Peter in Times Square, in case his story is on the up and up. From this point onward, viewers follow Peter as he struggles to find Tom and to evade the authorities.
I had seen bits and pieces of The Glass Wall on television and I have to confess that I wasn’t very impressed at first, maybe because I usually caught the last scenes and thought the film seemed awfully melodramatic. But judging a film after seeing a few scenes here and there is not very credible or accurate, so I decided to see the entire film. Besides, Gloria Grahame costars, and Jerry Paris (of The Dick Van Dyke Show fame) does, too. Jerry Paris in a film noir?
Gloria Grahame plays Maggie, who helps Peter. They meet when he observes Maggie taking a table that someone just vacated in a coffee shop and eating the leftover food on the table. Then he watches her steal someone’s coat. Maggie runs out of the coffee shop, and Peter follows her and helps her escape. Jerry Paris plays Tom, the musician Peter helped during the war. Tom is a man with a conscience who feels that he must help Peter once he reads about his plight on the front page of a New York City newspaper. Grahame was great, as I expected; Paris was better than I expected in a noncomedic role, although I didn’t believe for a minute that he actually played that clarinet!
Near the end of the film, Peter decides to seek asylum at the United Nations. (The title of the film refers to the glass façade of the UN headquarters in New York City.) By this point, he has become thoroughly desperate (this is probably the point in the story where I started watching the film on television). Peter delivers an impassioned plea to an empty room at the United Nations, which is apparently not in session on the day that Peter enters the building:
Somebody. Somebody listen. You . . . you come here to bring peace to the world. But what is the world? As long as there is one man who can’t walk free where he wants, as long as there is one displaced person without home, there won’t be peace! Because to each man, he’s the world! . . . Nobody listens!
After watching The Glass Wall from beginning to end, Peter’s plea and his desperation are perfectly understandable. In context, his actions and his words are moving, not melodramatic. His words could apply to people struggling—after World War II, in 2018, or at any point in history—to make their way to a safe place in the world.