HCF REWIND N0. 161: SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS, LA CORTA NOTTE DELLE BAMBOLE DI VETRO [Italy 1971]
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 91 min
REVIEDWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In a park in Prague, the body of a man is found, that of Gregory Moore, and taken to the hospital, where he is pronounced dead and taken to the morgue. However, Gregory is not actually dead. He is alive and suffering from catalepsy, where everyone considers that you are dead but you are not, just unable to move and speak out to tell them. He decides that the best course of action is to remember how he ended up paralyzed but conscious. He flashes a few days back to when he was a journalist about to be posted to London. His Czech girlfriend Jessica comes over to stay, but upon returning to his apartment from work, she has disappeared, with all her clothes and belongings untaken or untouched….
Short Night Of Glass Dolls is a very unusual giallo, and though it always seems to be classed as one, I’m not sure I would call it as such. It was made in the most productive year of the giallo, 1971, and features a man trying to solve a mystery, but doesn’t contain many of the expected elements such as a black-gloved killer and gruesome murders: out of the two kills in the film, one is totally bloodless and shown from a distance, while the other one we don’t even see and just get shown the body. Despite its arresting opening of a man talking to himself/us even though he seems to be dead, it’s quite a slow affair, at least for its first two thirds, and I imagine it disappoints many who are after the usual giallo thrills, but if you allow yourself to be sucked into its powerful atmosphere of dislocation and paranoia, it’s very rewarding, and it builds up to a very frightening final half hour with an extraordinary revelation at its core.
This was the first film to be directed by Aldo Lado, and my feeling is that he never really matched it despite some good efforts in various genres like Night Train Murders and The Disobedient. He was inspired to make it by hearing about a judge who spoke out against government corruption and got ‘moved’ to a remote part of Sicily, therefore virtually burying him alive. His original choice for the lead role was Terence Hill, who had just become a hugely popular comedy western star. Hill wanted to do the role but his agent demanded that the ending be changed, so Jean Sorel played the part instead. It was filmed in Prague with a largely international cast and crew, and Lado came to blows with his cinematographer Guiseppe Ruzzolini, who thought the film was “ a piece of shit” . The title was meant to be Malastrana, the name of the area of Prague where much of the film is set, but it was deemed too obscure so The Short Night Of The Butterflies [a good title which actually relates to things in the film] replaced it, until the giallo The Bloodstained Butterfly came out and the title had to be changed again. I don’t know what ‘glass dolls’ is intended to relate to, and the film, while successful in Italy and released theatrically in most European countries [some heavily ‘political’ lines attacking the ruling classes were removed from some versions], though it didn’t come to the UK or the US.
The basic premise had already been used in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and would go on to appear in an episode of Tales From The Crypt, while of course it was itself taken from an EC comic. Catalepsy, which may have led to the European belief in vampires after people would be mistakenly buried alive and try to claw their way out of their coffins, is a truly horrifying thing to imagine. Just think of being considered dead when you are really alive but are paralyzed so you can’t move or speak! The first moment of the film recalls the beginning of Sunset Boulevard as a man lies dead but speaks to the audience, only in this case he’s not dead and is trying to speak to those around him, though no words come out and nobody can hear him. A squawking crow alerts the park keeper to the supposedly lifeless body lying in the bushes in an extremely atmospheric opening. Then a heartbeat starts on the soundtrack when Gregory is taken in an ambulance to the centre of the city and we adopt the view of the front of the vehicle as it drives around the street as Ennio Morricone’s music, anguished and panic-filled, begins. What a striking opening this is!
Now you need to be patient for the next hour or so, because things unfold very slowly. As Gregory tries to recall events, the main plot takes place in linear flashbacks, each flashback proceeded by almost subliminal shots taken from later events, along with reoccurring motifs like butterflies and chandeliers, which initially seem confusing but add immensely to the uneasy feel. Gregory spends much time romancing his girlfriend and chatting to his best friend, and they all attend a snobbish social function in a scene which seems dull and pointless but which by the end can be seen to be essential to the film’s social commentary. We seem to linger on certain things, like the chandelier, with the score even approximating the sound of the chimes blowing under it, and an odd woman who doesn’t move or speak at the party but who later dances crazily at a cafe. Then Jessica is kidnapped, and Gregory begins his investigation, an investigation which reveals other young women have been kidnapped and the possible existence of a bizarre conspiracy which removes anyone who gets close to the deadly secret of the mysterious Klub 99, a club whose tentacles seem to be spreading all over the city. The final revelation is maybe rather heavy handed in its political commentary and introduces a slight element of fantasy which is perhaps jarring, but is brilliatly audacious nonetheless. The final scenes really pack a punch and the last moment truly upsetting [imagine what one of the most horrible things to a cataleptic would be?] even if the film stops before it can show us the gory details.
In terms of what you see on the screen, this movie is quite tame, a weird orgy involving old people [where, after the younger cast members had been very coy about enacting their portion, the old folk ‘rediscovered’ their sexuality and went mad!] notwithstanding. The decision to hold back on the graphic aspects actually allows Lado to be more imaginative sometimes. The one murder you see is staged in a way directors in the 30’s and 40’s may have done and even has a fantastic feel of film noir, or perhaps Cold War spy thriller about it. The victim stands on a bridge as the killer walks up to him from behind. A train speeds by and envelopes the victim in smoke, and it’s now that the killer pushes him over the wall to his death. Despite the reticence the film really looks into the abyss of true darkness and is very disturbing. It is helped immensely by the score by Morricone, who was probably at the height of his creative powers and often allowed the giallo format to let him experiment. The score is a master class in building tension, with even the ‘love’ theme heard a lot in the first third having an undercurrent of unease about it. As the story gets darker the score follows suit, with even the normally beautiful sound of Edda Dal ‘Orso, who provides the wordless female sounds in his scores, coming across as scary in one particular point.
Sadly the English dubbing [as usual, Short Night Of Glass Dolls was shot silent and dubbed into various languages] is not too good. Gregory’s friend sounds like someone doing a very bad imitation of an Irish accent. The quality of the performances, which include an early appearance by Barbara Bach [straight from another giallo Black Belly Of The Tarantula] just about shines through. Then there’s Giuseppe Ruzzolini’s cinematography: he may not have liked the film, but his work superbly evokes the grey beauty of Prague, back in the days when it didn’t constantly double for another city and still looked very old. In the end, you could say that Short Night Of Glass Dolls gets rather daft, but the gradual, yet firm, way in which in unfolds, its unsettling atmosphere, and its just darn frightening final reels result in quite a unique offering that definitely stands out amidst the multitude of giallos coming from Italy in the early 70’s. Closer to Roman Polanski than Dario Argento, it will stick with you and haunt you for ages. A shame it isn’t more widely known and seen.