starring: Ingrid Thulin, Jean Sorel, Mario Adorf, Barbara Bach, Fabian Sovagovic, Jose Quaglio, Relja Basic, Piero Vida, Daniele Dublino, Sven Lasto, Luciano Catenacci
"Dead? ... I'm dead?! ... Can't be, I'm alive! ... Can't you tell- I'm alive!"
- Gregory Moore (Jean Sorel) tries to come to terms with his predicament
Slash with panache?:
Once in while, especially since I've sat through so much drek in my time, it's nice to sit down to watch a film I know precious little about and be thoroughly blown away by it. Aldo Lado's SHORT NIGHT OF THE GLASS DOLLS is a case in point.
This early 70's giallo is set in a perpetually overcast but picturesque Prague (in a time before McDonalds had stuck a fast food joint on every Art-deco corner), when Czechoslovakia was still under the vice like grip of Communist rule.
On a cold grey morning a park keeper is alerted, by a squawking crow, to the apparently lifeless body of a man sprawled amongst the shrubbery. The man is lying on his back- his eyes unflinching, staring up at the sky. The park keeper puts his ear to the man's chest and although a heart beat starts on the film's soundtrack it is evident that he believes the man is dead. The heartbeat continues as the man's body is carried to an ambulance and continues as the vehicle weaves its way through streets of the city, and is joined by an achingly beautiful score by Ennio Morricone as the film's opening credits roll.
At the hospital two nurse discuss the identity of the new admission- who continues to lie prone and still on a slab. From his papers they conclude that his name is Gregory Moore (Jean Sorel)- an American journalist. … It is at this point we hear Sorel's voice pleading with them to help him- a voice they evidently cannot hear. He is suffering from a condition known as catalepsy (where everyone considers you are dead when in-fact you are not, just unable to speak out and tell them- the condition that is widely believed to advanced the belief in vampires in Medieval Europe after victims would awaken from their catatonic slumber to find themselves buried and attempt to claw their way out their coffins). One of the nurses, despite commenting on the fact that the body was suffering from surprisingly little rigor mortis, declares it as DOA and orders it to be sent to the morgue, where Sorel is placed on a rack and wheeled into a confined and claustrophobic cold storage.
At first what isn't clear is why Sorel is suffering from this malaise. He decides the only way he can help himself is to remember the events that led up to him being discovered in the park, which he does in the manner of flashbacks which neatly follow a progressively linear narrative structure. These flashbacks take the shape of larger snips of the emerging story signalled by a series of seemingly abstract, almost subliminal, images, and are intertwined with scenes from the present as he continues to get inexorably closer and closer to the autopsy table…
Without giving too much away, Sorel eventually remembers his girlfriend, Mira (Barbara Bach), whom he'd promised to help escape from the Communist state. She had given him a present- a display case of mounted butterflies- unique because of their dazzlingly beautiful wings which are, ironically, useless because they cannot use them to fly and are condemned to flap around amongst the undergrowth (it's worth noting that the film's alternate Italian title- LA CORTA NOTTE DELLE FARFALLE, translates as THE SHORT NIGHT OF THE BUTTERFLY). She vanishes, mysteriously, after being unanimously admired at a snobbish social event. Sorel joins forces with colleagues Jessica (Ingrid Thulen) and Jack (Mario Adorf) in an effort to find out what happened to her. They uncover a list of girls that have disappeared under similar circumstances to Mira, but are met with resistance and threats at every turn by officials who plainly want to keep something under wraps. Eventually Sorel finds himself drawing nearer the truth which turns out to be more horrible than he could possibly imagine…
Lado's film is beautifully sombre. Sorel's waking dream is literally that, the striking flashes of imagery (a chandelier chiming in a breeze is intercut with grotesque and twisted faces) are like the stuff of disturbed slumber. The film's ethereal ambience (ably complimented by the wonderful Morricone score), slowly turns resolutely funereal as Sorel descends further into his nightmare in an effort to eventually escape it. Progressively, he is transformed from the cocky foreign journalist shown in the first flash back, untouchable because of supposed immunity to prosecution, to a man who is haunted and hunted. The paranoia is palpable (gargoyles watch over the city from their turrets) as Sorel slowly realises that not only is his political protection flimsy at best, but the shadowy police are the least of his worries.
As the film moves towards its conclusion Sorel's flashbacks become less and less abstract as they begin to form a coherent whole, but paradoxically they become even more nightmarish, in a way that reminded me of Roman Polanski's later masterful essay in paranoia, THE TENANT (1976).
Despite taking its central plot device from an old episode of the TWIGHLIGHT ZONE (I'm pretty sure one of the series' original stories had a man suffering from the same condition after a car smash and was taken as dead by those around him), the film builds to a sustained, nail-biting conclusion which doesn't do what you perhaps think that it will and left me shattered.
THE SHORT NIGHT OF THE GLASS DOLLS is an unusual giallo, but it is also one of the genre's very best. Excellent in every way, perhaps bar the hideous song three quarters of the way through where a grinning loon of a hippy sings an interminable song about butterflies- but I guess you can't have everything!
BODYCOUNT 5 female:2 / male:4
1: Male falls to his
death (not shown)
2: Female found dead next to river (method unseen)
3: Male pushed from bridge into oncoming train
4: Female body glimpsed covered in flowers
5: Male stabbed to death (off-screen)
6: Male stabbed through heart