Friday, January 26, 2018

The Glass Wall (1953)

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

Vittorio Gassman as Peter Kuban
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.

I’m so glad that I decided to watch the film in its entirety. The Glass Wall is a great film noir whose theme applies to events today.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Wind River (Part I) (2017)

January 21, 2017 (Sundance Film Festival), August 4, 2017 (United States), release dates
Directed by Taylor Sheridan
Screenplay by Taylor Sheridan
Music by Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
Edited by Gary D. Roach
Cinematography by Ben Richardson

Jeremy Renner as Cory Lambert
Julia Jones as Wilma Lambert
Teo Briones as Casey Lambert
Graham Greene as Ben Shoyo
Elizabeth Olsen as Jane Banner
Gil Birmingham as Martin Hanson, Natalie’s father
Kelsey Chow as Natalie Hanson
Jon Bernthal as Matt Rayburn
Martin Sensmeier as Chip Hanson, Natalie’s brother
Tyler Laracca as Frank Walker
Gerald Tokala Clifford as Sam Littlefeather
James Jordan as Pete Mickens
Eric Lange as Dr. Whitehurst
Ian Bohen as Evan, deputy officer
Hugh Dillon as Curtis
Matthew Del Negro as Dillon
Tantoo Cardinal as Alice Crowheart, Wilma’s mother
Apesanahkwat as Dan Crowheart, Wilma’s father
Althea Sam as Annie Hanson, Natalie’s mother

Distributed by Acacia Entertainment
Produced by Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, Savvy Media Holding, Thunder Road Pictures, Film 44

Wind River opens with the words INSPIRED BY ACTUAL EVENTS, which fade away to a black screen, and then viewers hear a woman’ voice-over reciting two and a half stanzas of a poem:
There’s a meadow in my perfect world
where wind dances the branches of a tree
casting leopard spots of light across the face of a pond.
The tree stands tall and grand and alone,
shading the world beneath it.

. . . It is here, in the cradle of all I hold dear,
I guard every memory of you.

And when I find myself frozen in the mind of the real—
far from your loving eyes, I will return to this place,
close mine, and take solace in the simple perfection
of knowing you.
Before reaching the end of the last line of the first stanza, the black screen lightens to show a woman sobbing and running across a snow-covered field. She stumbles and falls, and the last shot of the sequence is one from a distance: She continues running and crying.

My post title mentions that this post is Part I, and that’s because I intend to devote a second post to the poem and to the writing in Wind River. This post focuses more on the noir details of Wind River: grief, vengeance, murder, fate, violence, betrayal. Viewers learn that Emily Lambert, the daughter of one of the main characters, is the author of the poem, but I’m guessing that means Taylor Sheridan, the writer and director of the film, or someone he knows is the author.

Cory Lambert, a Fish and Wildlife Service agent, finds the woman’s dead body frozen in the snowy wilderness of the Wind River reservation. Because murder is suspected, and because it was committed on federal and tribal land, an FBI agent, Jane Banner, is called in to help the investigation. The film follows their joint investigation into the circumstances behind the young woman’s death.

(This blog post about Wind River contains spoilers.)

Cory Lambert leads FBI agent Jane Banner to the location where he found the woman’s body. Here is part of their conversation, in which Cory describes how the woman died:
Cory Lambert: “Now it gets 20 below here at night so if you fill your lungs up with that cold air when you’re running, you could freeze ’em up. Your lungs fill up with blood, you start coughing it up. So wherever she came from, . . . she ran all the way here. Her lungs burst here. And she curled up in that tree line and drowned in her own blood.”
Jane Banner: “Well, how far do you think someone could run barefoot out here?”
Cory Lambert: “Oh, I don’t know, I . . . . How do you gauge someone’s will to live? Especially in these conditions. But I knew that girl. She’s a fighter. So no matter how far you think she ran, I can guarantee you she ran further. . . .”
This conversation near the start of the film helps to introduce many details about the plot, and it also demonstrates the power of the landscape for this particular story. The landscape, the snow, and the cold are important details: They are powerful forces that can destroy, but they also provide guidance in the form of clues to help solve the mystery.

Everything about this film—the landscape, the weather, the soundtrack—contributes to the grief felt by the characters and to the sense of alienation. Most of Wind River takes place outside, in the grand landscape of the West, but the grandeur accentuates the alienation and loneliness of several of the main characters. The many shots of the expansive wilderness in winter make the humans seem small and inconsequential in comparison, even though their stories are full of heartbreak. The music on the soundtrack is especially effective in Wind River. It adds to the mood of tension and mystery, and it sometimes includes lines from the poem I mentioned at the beginning of the post. Muted color is used throughout the film, and it also accentuates the somber story.

There is only one flashback, but the way it is used and its placement late in the film make it very unsettling. The point where the flashback is inserted heightens its intended effect because viewers are not prepared for it. They are not expecting a flashback precisely because none have been used so far. The content of the entire flashback sequence shows the events immediately preceding Natalie’s run across the snow-covered field, and they are marred by violence and tragedy.

Fate certainly plays a large role for the female victims of the film. It plunks them into situations they never asked for and emphatically don’t want. The people who love them are set on a trajectory trying to cope with their respective losses as best they can. The threat of violence becomes more pronounced as the movie progresses, and the flashback showing the violent events preceding Natalie’s death is thus incredibly dramatic because of its content and because of its placement.

The film is about justice and vengeance. The boundaries between “good” characters and “evil” characters seem clear, but several characters on all sides are looking for justice in the form of vengeance, and vengeance is a central theme.

Wind River has been called a neo-Western (Wikipedia is one example), and I will not quibble with categorizing it as such. But I would also put the film in the category of neo-noir. As I have written in this blog before, I’m happy putting any film into more than one category. No matter what category you choose for Wind River, it is a powerful film, not easy at all on viewers. In fact, the violence against women that is presented so powerfully in one particular sequence, in the flashback, might upset survivors of assault.

But viewers can skip through the flashback and still understand the powerful message of Wind River. It’s worth seeing. There’s not a whole lot of dialogue in many sequences, and the visuals are full of clues about the characters’ travails and about Natalie’s death at the start of the film. In fact, Wind River is worth seeing more than once because of its complexity and the joy of seeing more and more details with each viewing.