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The Glass Wall (1953) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

peter bailey immigration maggie

Principal social themes: immigration, homelessness/poverty

Columbia. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Vittorio Gassman, Gloria Grahame, Ann Robinson, Douglas Spencer, Robin Raymond, Jerry Paris, Elizabeth Slifer, Kathleen Freeman, Richard Reeves, Joe Turkel, Ned Booth, Michael Fox, Else Neft, Jack Teagarden. Written by Ivan Tors and Maxwell Shane. Cinematography by Joseph F. Biroc. Edited by Herbert L. Strock. Music by Leith Stevens. Produced by Ivan Tors. Directed by Maxwell Shane. B&W. 80 minutes.


This minor film noir effort centers on a sensitive issue, the horde of refugees known as displaced persons or “DPs” resulting initially from the upheaval of World War II and further propelled by the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe. In this story, a Hungarian stowaway jumps ship in New York City in a desperate attempt to locate the American soldier whose life he saved during World War II, an action that would give him priority status for immigration to the United States.


The Glass Wall opens in semidocumentary fashion as the plight of “displaced persons” is described. A shipload of immigrants enters New York harbor. As the new arrivals joyfully disembark, one man, however, remains on board, a stowaway named Peter Kuban (Vittorio Gassman), who speaks fluent English. Inspector Bailey (Douglas Spencer) of the American Immigration Bureau interrogates him, learning that he has been imprisoned since he was fifteen and his family was murdered in a Nazi death camp. Since the war, Peter has lived in one refugee camp after another. He escaped from Hungary and walked hundreds of miles to Triste to hide on the America-bound ship. Peter believes he should be entitled to immigrate to America because of Statute Six of the Displaced Persons law passed by the U.S. Congress. Since he took up arms against the Nazis and rescued an American soldier, he has the right to enter America without a quota number. As Bailey continues his questioning, he learns that all Peter knows of this American is his first name, Tom, and that he is a professional clarinet player, who usually works in the area of Times Square. With such sketchy information, Bailey has no choice but to refuse entrance to Peter, who then jumps ship, hurting his ribs in the fall. Despite his injuries, he gets to his feet and runs off, pursued by the immigration authorities. The newspapers soon get word of his plight, and his story and photograph appear on the headlines of the evening edition. Bailey concludes that if Peter is telling the truth, he would probably go to the Times Square area to search for his American friend. He advises that the search for Peter be concentrated there.

That evening, Peter searches every nightspot and bar in the area, anyplace with musicians, hoping to find Tom. He has only eight dollars, and he stops in a cafeteria to eat a small meal. He notices a young woman, Maggie (Gloria Grahame, who steals the coat of another customer. He follows her outside into Central Park. He helps her elude the police and she takes him back to her apartment. When her landlady starts pestering her for her past-due rent, Peter gives her his remaining few dollars. He tells her about his ordeal, and she has an idea to help. They could visit the musician’s union the next day to track down all clarinetists named Tom. The landlady’s grown son, however, comes to her room and starts to pester Maggie. Peter defends her, and they both run off. The landlady calls the police, and Peter is now wanted by the police on an assault charge. Maggie steals some coins from kids raising money by street dancing, and gives the money to Peter to hide in the subway. The police spot them. Peter escapes, but Maggie is captured. She asks to be taken to the immigration authorities to explain Peter’s plight.

Meanwhile, Tom (Jerry Paris) recognizes Peter’s picture in the paper. He is auditioning for a spot in Jack Teagarden’s jazz band, but leaves early. He also goes to the immigration authorities to back up Peter’s story and act as his sponsor. Bailey now believes Peter, but insists that he must be captured or surrender by 7 A.M. (the hour the boat leaves) or he will be classified as a fugitive, forfeiting his right to immigrate. Peter is picked up by a Hungarian stripper who feels sorry for him. She wants to offer him shelter for the night, but her brother wants to throw him out. Not wanting to make trouble between them, Peter slips out the window and runs off. Following the stripper’s advice, he decides to head for the United Nations building and appeal to the office for displaced persons. He is spotted entering the building, and Bailey, Tom, and Maggie head there at once. Peter slips into the completely deserted office of the Human Rights Commission and starts to plead his case to the empty chamber. He then observes police entering the building and he flees to the roof. He almost falls over the side when he hears Tom’s voice calling him. He is rescued, and Bailey tells him that he will be able to stay in America because he was located before the legal deadline when the ship was due to depart New York harbor.


The various difficulties faced by immigrants, particularly those classified as displaced persons, are well illustrated in The Glass Wall . Using actual footage of refugees disembarking and being greeted by their sponsors and relatives, the promise of liberty and a new beginning is dramatically portrayed in the film’s opening minutes. The script shifts from this background to the individual case of Peter Kuban smoothly, cataloging his years of misery at the hands of the Nazis, including the gassing of his family at Auschwitz, to years of stagnation at one refugee camp or another. Kuban, of course, represents “Everyman” in this scenario, skimming over many horrific details of his past, only to be stymied by red tape and legal technicalities on the doorstep of his goal. Inspector Bailey represents both the best and the worst of the immigration system. In spirit he may be with immigrants such as Kuban, but he is an absolute stickler for the letter of the law. Viewers might wonder if he would have actually rejected Kuban if he were apprehended one minute past 7 A.M., as the plot suggests. Bailey is also a skeptical man, having heard his share of lies by immigrants hoping to skirt the law. Yet when he receives confirmation of Kuban’s story, Bailey does go all out in the search to locate him. Of course, in Kuban’s case, his potential sponsor Tom is on hand. If Tom had moved to another city or had been on tour, the results of the case would have been different, as Kuban was prepared to die rather than be returned to Communist hands. Of course, the script does contain some far-flung exaggerations. For example, it had to have been an incredibly slow news day for Kuban’s story to make the headlines of the New York Daily News . Likewise, it is ridiculous to see the city police call out a dragnet of dozens of men to block off all the entrances to Central Park to apprehend a woman who snatched (and dropped) a plain cloth overcoat. On the other hand, the film provides magnificent location footage of New York City, particularly Times Square, the subway system, and the United Nations building. The scene of Kuban pleading to the empty chamber of the Human Rights Commission is a memorable one. In addition, the film has some powerful observations about homelessness and poverty. Maggie, a decent girl, is at the end of her rope, her savings wiped out when she had an appendectomy. She now has to resort to stealing to try to make ends meet. The scene in which Gloria Grahame places her foot over two coins among the money tossed in the street for the dancing boy and his companion is a poignant one, an unexpected episode in a basic “man on the run” thriller. The conversation between Maggie and Peter about the various degrees of poverty is another unusual, and enlightening, touch. In addition to being a good film covering the issue of immigration, The Glass Wall is a very well-structured production, making the most of a modest budget. One special highlight is the wonderful audition interlude featuring jazz great Jack Teagarden in one of his rare screen appearances, the perfect touch to balance the intense search scenes.

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