The Glass Tomb (released in the US as The Glass Cage) is one of the more offbeat of the early 1950s Hammer film noir offerings. And it’s reasonably entertaining.
Made in 1955 and directed by Montgomery Tully, it really hasn’t very much claim to being a film noir but it is a competent murder mystery with a sideshow background.
Pel Pelham is a carnival impresario who desperately needs a new act. He thinks he’s found it but it will require money, a commodity he is sadly short of. Luckily his rich bookmaker friend Tony Lewis (Sid James) is happy to lend him the money. The act is to be a Starving Man act. The idea is that a man is locked inside a glass cage for an extended period of time without being able to eat. And Pel has exactly the right Starving Man, a veteran of such acts. Henri Sapolio (Eric Pohlmann) in fact holds the world record for such feats - sixty-five days without food. This time he will attempt to go for seventy days.
Pel is a smoother talker and manages to convince a real estate agent to lease him a property in which to set up the carnival tend and the glass cage in which the Starving Man will be imprisoned. He persuades the agent to rent him the property for nothing, just for the publicity value. Anyone who can persuade a real estate agent to give them something for nothing is obviously worthy of respect.
The act is going very well and Pel and his friends are celebrating the novelty of actually having money when tragedy strikes. Tony Lewis’s girlfriend is found murdered in the flat upstairs. She had been blackmailing Tony, who had persuaded Pel to talk to her to try to get her to drop her demands for money.
Tony Lewis is the obvious suspect, having an excellent motive for murder, but are things really as clear-cut as they seem? And where does the second murder, that soon follows, fit in?
Such noirness as this movie has comes mostly from the carny background, a seedy glamorous setting which always lends itself well to noir. But it misses out on being truly noir because none of the characters could really be described as losers, nor do they give any impression of being doomed. To the outside world they might be freaks and misfits but they love the carny life and they look after each other. The movie portrays this world in a rather romantic light and most of the characters are sympathetic.
Pel Pelham is certainly not a noir hero. He has his ups and downs and often he’s flat broke but he’s a gifted showman and always bounces back. He can sell an act like the Starving Man with flair and with considerable success. John Ireland’s performance isn’t stunning but it’s very competent.
He gets good support from Honor Blackman as Jenny Pelham, from Geoffrey Keen as a showbiz kingpin and from Eric Pohlmann as Henri Sapolio, a remarkably well-fed and jovial Starving Man. But then I guess for anyone who is supposedly going to go for seventy days without food carrying a few extra pounds to begin with is a big advantage! Sid James is particularly impressive as Tony Lewis. Before he found lasting success as a comic James mostly played heavies and tough guys, and did so rather successfully. He doesn’t exactly play Lewis as a bookie with a heart of gold, but he’s generous to his friends and he’s difficult to dislike. There’s always a bit of a twinkle in his eye, which perhaps gives us the clue that this was an actor who would find his real métier in comedy. The performance works very well in the context of the movie - we’re supposed to find it hard to believe that he could really be a murderer (if he is the murderer, and to find out if he is you’ll have to watch the movie).
VCI’s DVD, like all their Hammer Noir releases, is a double-feature (this one is paired with Paid To Kill which I haven’t yet viewed, and offers an excellent transfer.
Like most of the Hammer noirs this is a fairly solid offering, well-made and benefiting from some fine character actors, and generally entertaining. It possibly gives away the identity of the killer too soon but the setting, in the world of sideshows, is a bonus and makes this movie worth recommending.