Monday, September 14, 2020

Gloria Hides a Refugee

Peter Kuantan’s (Vittorio Gassman), a refugee who has been in concentration camps for 10 years, stows away on a U.S. bound ship.  Immigration authorities have no options except to send him back to Hungary. In desperation, Peter jumps from the ship, breaking a rib, and runs, hoping to find the soldier he saved while working for the Underground. All he knows is that the man is named Tom (Jerry Paris), plays the clarinet, and worked in Times Square. Unbeknownst to Peter, there is a clock ticking - if he is not located by 7am, he will be barred from entry to the U.S. forever.  Our film is The Glass Wall (1953). 

Vittorio Gassman was new to American films (AFI catalog), though he had had starring roles on stage and in films in his native Italy.  His recent marriage to Shelley Winters brought him to the U.S. and his role in this film. He’s impressive as Paul, a man with nothing to lose if forced back to his native land. In Mr. Gassman’s hands, Paul is an intelligent man who has seen too much in his lifetime. He knows his rights - he quotes The Displaced Persons Act, which states that “priority in the issuance of visas shall be given first to eligible displaced persons who during World War II bore arms against the enemies of the United States and are unable or unwilling to return to the countries of which they are nationals...” (UCLA Film and Television Archive article). His problem is, he has so little information that the government officials determine he must be sent back. Gassman’s Paul is determined, but desperate. He’s trying to save his own life - returning to Hungary is a death sentence.
Gloria Grahame is excellent as the down-on-her-luck lady who is befriended by Paul. Fired from her job when she became ill, sexually harassed by her work supervisor and by the landlady's son, Maggie Summers is a woman who is literally down to her last teabag - she goes to a restaurant to get a free cup of hot water for said teabag, and to eat the remains of someone else's lunch. It's when she attempts to steal a coat that Paul becomes involved. Her affection for this man who is the only decent person she's met is palpable. Shelley Winters wanted the part, but her studio (Universal) would not allow her to go to Columbia (Gloria Grahame: Bad Girl of Film Noir by Robert J. Lentz). We sincerely believe this was a very good thing. It's hard to picture anyone else but Ms. Grahame explaining how she came to be broke and friendless.
Another characterization that impresses is that of Tanya aka Bella Zakolya, an exotic dancer played by Robin Raymond. Like Maggie, Bella has to deal with sexism on a daily basis. A working mother, and the primary support for her widowed mother, she has learned to cope with the indignities of her job. She's still a caring human being; she's not stupid, as we quickly learn, but she has a good heart.

Likewise, Tom (Jerry Paris) is a decent man, who is torn between his desire to marry his fiance, Nancy (Ann Robinson) and what he feels is his duty to assist the man who saved his life.  Mr. Paris had a long career in films as a character actor - you might remember him as Marty's (1955) cousin. In television, he's remembered as Dick Van Dyke's next door neighbor, Jerry Helper. Mr. Paris also had a career as a television director (TCM article). He died in 1986.
It's a delight to see New York City, primarily Times Square circa 1952 through the film's lens. You also get a tour of the newly opened United Nations Building - the first film to use it as a location.  Brian Camp's blog  outlines many of the film's locations (using screen shots), as well as some notes on the many film titles we see on marquees.

The reviews for the film were decent though not over the moon (Columbia Noir: A Complete Filmography, 1940-1962 by Gene Blottner). Regardless, this is a fast-paced, suspenseful, and thoroughly enjoyable film. If the ending of the film is a trifle abrupt, it still is a satisfying movie with an excellent cast, and still so very topical.

We'll leave you with the trailer and the suggestion that you add this to your viewing queue:

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