Aldo Lado, 1971
Starring: Jean Sorel, Barbara Bach, Mario Adorf, Ingrid Thulin
Gregory, a journalist working in Prague, is found unconscious and is presumed dead… but he’s really just paralyzed, trapped within his body, and determined to figure out how he got that way. He desperately recollects the events of the past few weeks, which include the disappearance of his lovely girlfriend, who he was planning to sneak out of Eastern Europe and to safety in the West. His boss and coworkers include a number of potential suspects and he can only hope that the doctors won’t autopsy him before he remembers the truth.
Director Aldo Lado is certainly underrated alongside better known giallo auteurs like Mario Bava and Dario Argento, but he helmed some excellent films. His first, Short Night of the Glass Dolls, is among his best. It may be the only giallo — certainly the only one that I can think of at this moment — set in Soviet Europe with overtly political themes about repression and state control. Oddly, it would make a better double feature with Polanski’s The Tenant than it would with most giallo films — except perhaps Lado’s own Who Saw Her Die? With its moody, striking blue and gray cinematography and tense, gloomy tone, Short Night of the Glass Dolls is one of the best giallo films and deserves a wider audience.
A co-production between Italy, West Germany, and Yugoslavia, the film was shot in Slovenia, Croatia, and the Czech Republic. The film begins with a compelling noir trope — the dead man investigating his own crime — that can be found in classics like Sunset Boulevard and D.O.A. The Eastern European setting adds to the air of paranoia and surveillance. Though this is a common feature of giallo films, here it is somehow more believable. In addition to the Soviet backdrop, it seems that Gregory can’t trust any of his associates. His boss/colleague Jacques (played by the wonderful Italian-German actor Mario Adorf in everything from Fassbinder films to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) is just smarmy enough that he seems to be obviously guilty.
As does Gregory’s past lover, Jessica (Bergman regular Ingrid Thulin), who bears a grudge against him while still desiring him. She worms her way back into his affections by claiming to help him look for Mira (Bond girl Barbara Bach, looking particularly dazzling here), his beautiful, somewhat mysterious girlfriend who has disappeared. But after a time, she tries to persuade him away from his search in the hope that he will just forget about Mira and fall back in love with her. The love triangle is far from a new theme in the noir or thriller genre, but it becomes especially sinister when Jessica turns on Gregory, because up to that point, it seemed like she was the only one he could trust.
Giallo regular Jean Sorel — from Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, A Quiet Place to Kill, One on Top of the Other — is normally a bit on the bland side, but this actually works perfectly here. Like some Hitchcock’s leading men, Gregory is something of a blank slate and he falls somewhere between the (sort of) wholesome private detectives of the pre-noir years and Hitchcock’s wrong man. Because of his love for an enigmatic woman in trouble, he’s thrust into an increasingly menacing world. SPOILERS: I was certainly not expecting the film’s ending, which leads Gregory into a group of the city’s most powerful people engaging in orgies and sacrificing young women. Lado does a surprisingly great job making this incredibly uncomfortable rather than cheesy and, despite the odds, plausible — Gregory has gone down such a tormented rabbit hole that the ending almost wouldn’t have mattered. The orgy scenes are as de-eroticizes as they could possibly be and this makes Eyes Wide Shut seem even sillier than it did to begin with.
Despite the occasionally flimsy or absurd plot elements, there is a disturbing emotional resonance. Unlike most other giallo films, there is a slow burn with little obvious gore. The film is steeped with verbal and visual references to death and these are among the most effective moments — including a scene when Gregory hallucinates a dead Mira shoved in his refrigerator, and another when his body is wheeled into an autopsy room and is shot through a series of eerie specimen jars.
Also known as Malastrana, Short Night of the Glass Dolls comes with the highest recommendation. It’s available on DVD and includes one of Ennio Morricone’s best giallo scores. Though I find the title a little silly and nonsensical, it relates back to the butterfly theme that winds its way through the film. The producers wanted the title to reflect this, but The Bloodstained Butterfly came out around the same time, so for some reason they settled on Short Night of the Glass Dolls instead. Even though this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, you’ll forget about it alongside the film’s unforgettably bleak ending.