In the early seventies, producer Ely Landau had the idea of filming major plays of the 20th century with celebrated film actors, in an attempt to bring these works to wider audiences. These films from The American Film Theatre are now getting released on DVD in the UK by Fremantle Media – and very welcome they are, too.

The Man in the Glass Booth is based on a play by Robert Shaw, adapted by Edward Anhalt (Becket) and directed by Arthur Hiller (more about him in a minute). It’s the story of Arthur Goldman, a wealthy Jewish industrialist living in penthouse seclusion overlooking Central Park. When we meet him, he’s a paranoid personality, with his rants and raves, repeated sightings of a blue car down on the street which he feels is waiting for him, and conspiracy theories. Then one day men with guns burst into his apartment and announce that they’re arresting him for Nazi war crimes. Taken back to Israel, it turns out that he’s believed to be Colonel Dorff from the SS, and that he played a key part in the extermination of the Jews. He’s put on trial – and, refusing legal aid, defends himself from a glass booth in the middle of the courtroom, into which he has been placed supposedly for his own protection. As the trial progresses, revelations build to a stunning climax.

I had no idea when I started watching this how good it was going to get. The first half of the film is set largely in Goldman’s Manhattan apartment, and is basically a filmed play. This was part of The American Film Theatre’s strategy – not to try too hard to disguise the stage roots of the work being filmed. That’s fine – and Hiller directs it with elastic pace and facility – but some of the dialogue felt blatantly expositional (as is often the way with plays). Once events move to Israel, though, the level of intrigue is so high that the movie becomes gripping – and remains so right up to the end. Along the way we’ve engaged with issues of who exactly is to blame – and Goldman/Dorff’s speech about Hitler is disturbing in its passion and argument. I wish I could discuss the final few minutes here, but it would be a shame to spoil the surprise of how superbly they are carried off.

What kept me watching with interest in that heavy-going first half was the intrigue of being in the presence of a character with memories of the Holocaust, and the fact that Goldman is played by Maximilian Schell. Schell is always worth watching – his Oscar-winning performance as the defence attorney in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) is on a different level than the rest of that overblown piece of Stanley Kramer liberalism, while in more recent years he’s brought unforgettable gravitas to the likes of Little Odessa (1995), and even his appearance in Deep Impact (1998) escapes with dignity intact. His performance in The Man in the Glass Booth is captivating in its intensity, and also its actorly craft. He really does carry the picture. And yet, for all his bombast and frankness and way with speeches, it is also in the smallest details that his talent is revealed. Consider an early scene in his apartment: he’s had a collapse, and his aides are round his bed checking up on him. Eventually they leave the room, thinking him asleep. Once he’s alone, he opens his eyes – he was feigning sleep, the kind of wily thing that we’d expect Goldman to do. But when he wakes up, he squints, as his eyes adjust to the light. This is in a way an ‘unnecessary’ detail for an actor to include, but it puts a human, reactive moment into Goldman’s masquerade. Another such moment occurs later, when he’s in the booth, and he thinks of something to write down, he picks up the pen and starts to write with it. But the nib is not extended, and so he pushes the button on the end of the pen to get the nib to extend. As this takes place in the background of the shot it’s a particularly great moment of life-like business. Schell was Oscar-nominated for this performance, and it’s the kind of performance that Oscar nominations should be reserved for.

The DVD contains some very good extras too. There’s an onscreen article, ‘Robert Shaw and The Man in the Glass Booth’ by Michael Feingold, a filmed message from Landau, made to cap the end of the first season of American Film Theatre productions, and an interview with Hiller. What is it with Arthur Hiller? He has managed to turn out a career full of undistinguished movies, which at their best are popular (Love Story, 1970) or mildly entertaining (Silver Streak, 1976). And yet twice in the seventies he helmed terrific, bruising films featuring superb performances – The Man in the Glass Booth and The Hospital (1971). The latter has a screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, basically doing to the medical profession what he did to television in Network (1976), and at its centre is an immensely touching performance from George C. Scott. If they had been Hiller’s only two films, he would have been hailed like Terrence Malick. Add to this his intelligence and insight evident from the interview and we are left to wonder, can’t he generally be bothered? Or was it just good luck striking twice?

In any event, all credit to Fremantle for this release. The movie looks fine – it’s a little soft, but that might be due to shortcomings in the source material – and it’s anamorphically enhanced, which is (as ever) a big plus. It’s a hell of a play, a terrific role for Schell (and any other actor who gets the chance to play it) and a movie to savour.