The Glass Web

There’s something interesting about looking at the shape of a filmmaker’s career, what they were doing at certain points, whether there were overlaps or complementary features to be discerned, or perhaps exploratory forays into entirely different areas. It’s educational too to note how the extraordinary can cozy up comfortably next to the ordinary. This is something that struck me while looking at some early work by Jack Arnold. In the same year he made the quite extraordinary It Came from Outer Space, he also directed the much more conventional noir/mystery The Glass Web (1953), although that’s not to say this latter title is without interest.

I tend to think of the desert when a Jack Arnold film comes to mind, and The Glass Web opens with a car coming to a stop in just that location. A couple get out and move into the foreground, the wife briefly bemoaning the isolation and discomfort before her husband does away with her and drops her body down an abandoned shaft. Stark and dramatic stuff, but as the camera pulls back it’s also apparent that it’s a studio set, a mock-up used in the shooting of an episode of a TV show. The actors dust themselves off and the all-important advertising message takes over. The actress who has just been swallowed up by the  desert sands is Paula Ranier (Kathleen Hughes), and in some ways this can be seen as a dry run for her  eventual fate. Without getting into too many details here, and the consequent risk of spoiling things for those unfamiliar with the film, we’re looking at a solid whodunit (although the actual “who” isn’t that difficult to work out) with a dark noir heart beating at the center. Everything hinges on a classic triangle involving Ranier, writer Don Newell (John Forsythe) and consultant Henry Hayes (Edward G Robinson), and it’s gradually revealed as a complex affair encompassing jealousy, betrayal, blackmail, guilt and humiliation.

As arguably befits a movie concerning itself with entertainment industry figures, the bulk of the action is shot on sets and in the studio, where the characters themselves spent most of their own lives. There are a handful of occasions where events do move outside on location, something I think Jack Arnold usually made good use of, but seeing as the whole story is an insular one centered on a fairly tight group of individuals the internalized feel works quite well. In terms of noir, the movie doesn’t break any new ground, focusing on those themes that had become staples of the form by then. I suppose the 3-D shooting was still innovative at the time but I’m not sure it would have brought a lot to proceedings here. Now I’ve only seen it flat but it doesn’t seem like one of those movies where the extra depth would have added much, and the fact there is a short sequence – as Forsythe roams the streets in a despairing mood at the thought of the hole he’s dug for himself – where a series of objects are essentially flung at the camera gives the impression the producer felt it necessary to artificially highlight this aspect.

On the other hand, the setting is of interest. The fact TV was very much in competition with, and indeed seen as a threat to, the movies at this stage is of note. Hollywood has always indulged in some inward-looking self-criticism and some of that approach is adopted. There is a particularly cynical view of the role of advertising in TV production – in fact it’s rather scornful, with characters commenting how the ads are the most important part of the finished show. Then again, there is also an implied acknowledgment of the power and immediacy of the new medium in the climactic scenes, the culprit carelessly making a confession on a deserted sound stage while the cameras surreptitiously roll and pick it all up. Just as TV  in reality could claim to show the viewers events as they happen, so we the audience (and the on screen cops too) get to view this drama unfold via a live feed.

I tend to think of John Forsythe mainly in terms of his television roles, where he was both a familiar face and voice for many years. Having said that, he made a number of memorable big screen appearances too, getting important roles in films by John Sturges and Alfred Hitchcock. His role in The Glass Web has enough complexity to make it satisfyingly unsympathetic and he plays well against the ever impressive Edward G Robinson. By all accounts, Robinson was a cultured man, an trait that often appears at odds with the kind of heavies he was often cast as in the early part of his career, and it’s enjoyable to see him as a character with a passion for art and the finer things.

Not for the first time, I  find myself writing about a Universal-International movie which remains commercially unavailable, and it pains me particularly to note yet another Jack Arnold title languishing in this fashion. The Glass Web pops up from time to time online, but it’s in the usual weak and compromised form. One can only hope that the movie, not to mention a number of others from the same studio, will eventually be afforded a release that allows more people to see it and form their own opinions about its merits.

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16 thoughts on “The Glass Web

  1. Thanks Colin. Real shame it is not out there in a decent edition. Once upon a time an Arnold or Robinson DVD set would have been a genuine prospect. Let’s hope the 3D leads to some future interest.

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    • Yes, it’s very disappointing, but the fact remains there are movies I thought a few years ago would never see the light of day getting unexpected releases all the time. Much depends, I think, on what kind of masters the studios have to hand.

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      • Yup – streaming makes it a lot cheaper but there is an issue with 3-D in particular in that the flat versions, apart from anything else, often can look quite poor so probably got overlooked even int he heyday of DVD.

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        • There had been a little burst of activity a few years ago with a number of vintage 3-D films getting Blu-ray releases, tied in with the mini boom in 3-D TV sales at the time, in turn coming off the back of a raft of 3-D movies in the cinema. That peaked pretty quickly though and seems to have declined quite sharply.

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  2. I haven’t seen this in years but remember it as sturdy and engrossing.

    Beverly Garland as the drunken neighbour complaining about the easy listening or smooth jazz record “I like classical music, but this is too much”. Ha! Am I even close? Whatever she said, it tickled me greatly and I would really enjoy seeing this again.

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  3. Although you already know this, I will say it anyway. I feel profound empathy with you on so many Universal-International movies still unreleased (and never have been) on any home video format. They have over time released a fair number now but kind of haphazardly and arbitrarily and so it’s hard to understand what their attitude really is about it. And far more just can’t be found now it seems (OK, they might come up on YouTube but personally I find it very hard to watch, and a well produced studio film deserves better). The audience is certainly there–those movies have fared better in European releases, especially all the Westerns that have come out there but not here in America where they were made.

    Still, I’ve seen THE GLASS WEB a few times going back to its first release. It never was actually released in 3D but they did keep that version and it turned up at a 3D expo–as you suggested would be the case, it did not gain from this and I expect it was marked for 3D originally because Jack Arnold had pioneered the process for the studio with IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, a great commercial success for them–and, I might add, the single movie that I felt best used the process (I did see it that way too, finally), Arnold being very creative and imaginative with it and arguably enhanced that movie and it’s a process I usually can live without. The sequence with Forsythe wandering the streets and all those 3D effects feels very calculated–as if when it was made they belatedly felt they had to have something like this, and it hurts the film in 2D because of that but really in 3D too because it’s like shouting “Hey, we made this in 3D for a reason.”

    Anyway, I like the film OK; Arnold’s style was spare and unmannered and that benefitted just about anything he did during his U-I contract because it also worked well with a studio that was resourceful and had such wonderful art directors and cinematographers who could do a lot economically. It’s not great but the TV background adds a little to the pretty familiar crime story. And on his own, Edward G. Robinson makes just about anything watchable.

    My view of Jack Arnold, a director I care a lot about, isn’t much different from most people. The science-fiction movies were special–he’s the best director the genre ever had in my humble opinion–and my three favorites of his are all in that genre; but along with some of his other sci-fi, he does have some very strong films in other genres, especially the Westerns RED SUNDOWN and NO NAME ON THE BULLET and late 50’s noirish crime drama (set in the desert!) THE TATTERED DRESS, which I remember you wrote about. Not as many good years for him as one might like but there are reasons for that, and he certainly made an indelible contribution then.

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    • Blake, I don’t rule out the possibility of this movie, or other missing titles, turning up at some point. I also feel the frustration that some very worthy pieces of work get this kind of piecemeal treatment though.

      Arnold will always be best known for his Sci-Fi work and I have no objection to that as I agree too that it represents the best of his output. His work overall remains interesting (that spareness you mention goes hand in hand with honesty, in my opinion) and I enjoy exploring his entries in other genres.

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  4. Another Arnold fan here. I have to concur with all the comments above that the films he made during his time at U.I. were among the finest of their genre.
    I have a copy of this film, albeit not a particularly great copy, but regret I cannot clearly recall it at all. Now I am not suggesting that has anything to do with the quality of the film so much as the result of my overloaded old brain! Seems like the perfect excuse for a rewatch.

    I would completely agree with the titles of the 2 westerns mentioned by Blake as well as the classic sci-fi titles especially that point Arnold as a leader in that genre. Never bettered, for me.
    I would also mention “THE MAN FROM BITTER RIDGE” & “MAN IN THE SHADOW” as perhaps lesser films but nonetheless very good and very enjoyable examples of Arnold’s work during this period.

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    • I remember the last time I saw Man in the Shadow was a few days after a rewatch of Bad Day at Black Rock. While different, the fact both were modern day westerns dealing with small town racism and cover-ups meant I came away from Arnold’s movie feeling it hadn’t brought something new to the table. On reflection now, I’d say that was a bit unfair and I should give it another go under different circumstances.

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  5. I think it would be worth another look, Colin. Same issue with “JOE DAKOTA” of course where the plot so resembles “BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK”. I manage to view them for their own, more limited, merits and I guess really one can see how patterns go after a major trendsetter and “BAD DAY….” was certainly that. BIG hit!! For years afterwards people would describe their bad day as “Bad Day At Black Rock”. No wonder it got copied.

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    • Yes, I knew my timing wasn’t the best – even though I try to make a point of viewing everything on its own terms, watching films where there are certain thematic similarities still tends to provoke a kind of reflex reaction. I liked Man in the Shadow well enough but I think I would have enjoyed it more had I not seen it so close to the Sturges film.

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  6. Good work Colin, on another half-forgotten curio. Sadly I’ve only ever watched it online, mainly suckered in by an Edward G Robinson performance that I had never heard of, and he doesn’t disappoint with his turn a great mix of DOUBLE INDEMNITY’S Keyes and the beaten down hangdogs he played for Ftitz Lang. I can’t claim to be a great John Forsythe fan, but he’s fine enough and wrings some very effective tension from the scene where he’s waiting around to access Paula’s apartment. While the final act is a little too neatly wrapped up for me, the film’s subtle comment on the power of television is nicely made, and it’s this that sticks in the mind long after the gimmicky use of 3D, which was something I didn’t know was part of the cinematic experience of watching it until a few set pieces made it obvious!

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    • Mike, Robinson and Arnold were the main draws for me and I can’t say I was disappointed, but I’d like to see the movie in better condition. I think Forsythe was fine in his part here – there was generally a restraint to most his work (or what I’ve seen of it anyway) and I feel that works in this movie as it keeps a bit of distance between viewer and character. The way viewers’ sympathies are manipulated or encouraged in different directions is quite important, in my opinion.

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  7. Unfortunately I haven’t seen The Glass Web but I really like Jack Arnold as a director. It’s hard to beat his sci-fi classics. His Westerns are quite good with No Name on the Bullet being an absolute standout. One of my favorites. I love the campy sensibilities of The Tattered Dress but was always wondering what he was smoking when he made High School Confidential. A strange one-off.

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    • I’ve not seen High School Confidential so I can’t comment on that. If you like the rest of Arnold’s work that you’ve seen, then I think you would enjoy this one too.

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