Aldo Lado’s directorial debut Short Night of Glass Dolls is a bleak and brilliant foray into giallo territory that doesn’t seem to get as much love as many of the better-known titles of the early 1970s. This time we are in Prague, following Jean Sorel around again either as a risky investigative reporter or a seemingly dead body, silently crying out from an inanimate state, being carted around, anxiously anticipating true death. Ennio Morricone is back at it again with a great musical score, and high art Ingmar Bergman regular Ingrid Thulin gallivants around the screen, seething with jealousy. This article contains spoilers, for your information.
Gialli often thrive on contradictions, in this case as a film that is quite unique but also highly derivative of other films and stories. The biggest cornerstone of Short Night of Glass Dolls is an early Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode starring Joseph Cotten called “Breakdown” from 1955. Cotten plays a relatively carefree man named William Callew who gets into a car accident far from any kind of help. He is left paralysed and unable to communicate, although the audience is able to hear a voice over of what he is thinking. The episode becomes increasingly suspenseful as he is discovered, but believed dead. It is one of the best Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes, furthermore because the screen time is increasingly taken up by long, basically still shots of Cotten’s unmoving face. It verges on experimental cinema.
In Short Night of Glass Dolls, Jean Sorel plays an American journalist named Gregory Moore, who’s seemingly lifeless body is discovered at the beginning. Through flashbacks, we find out how he got there and what it means. The story gets stranger and stranger as occult themes enter into the picture, and we wonder if our hero will be saved from his inanimate hell. This inverts a common giallo plot formation, where a character dies and comes back to life, seeing as how now we know he is alive the entire time, and we just don’t know if that will be revealed to the other characters. Either way, the film operates exactly like the “Breakdown” episode, with Gregory’s voice over haunting the vocal track.
The film is one of the more overtly political compared to other gialli of the time. The Prague Spring occurred in 1968, and as Czechoslovakia began getting over communism, Short Night of Glass Dolls happened a few years later. It is a movie that challenges the governmental domination of elderly elites who exploit the virility of younger generations. It is critical of communism, but doesn’t show capitalism as the answer, just another oppressive system out to smash the people.
Sorel’s Gregory–which he believed to be one of his best acting performances–is a journalist who must be silenced after disregarding the warnings of leather-trenchcoated police bullies. His beautiful, young Czech girlfriend Mira Svoboda (Barbara Bach) disappears and he needs to get to the bottom of what is going on. His colleagues Jessica (Ingrid Thulin) and Jacques (Mario Adorf) dwell in the background of the story, creating sexual and platonic tension and service to the developing plot. Eventually, we find out that the disappearances of Mira and other young women have to do with a private group of devil-worshipping chamber music enthusiasts called Klub 99, which crosses over with the wealthy political elites.
Swedish actress Ingrid Thulin as the aging and jealous newswoman Jessica is a force to be reckoned with. Her presence in Short Night of Glass Dolls is an indicator of how European talent often appeared in both reputable high art and content considered more trashy and thrilling. Thulin has a place in film history playing many parts for Ingmar Bergman, including roles in Wild Strawberries (1957), Winter Light (1963), Hour of the Wolf (1968), and my personal Bergman favorite The Silence (1963). A couple years before Short Night, she appeared in Vittorio de Sica’s decadent Nazi tale The Damned (1969), and afterwards showed up in the later Bergman picture Cries and Whispers (1972). Short Night certainly isn’t the only (sub)genre fare Thulin acted in, seeing as how she also shows up in the infinitely trashier Nazisploitation epic Salon Kitty (1976).
The German/Italian Mario Adorf is another curious supporting player who is memorable in the film. He plays Jacques, something of a sidekick to Sorel’s Gregory–Jacques is just a confusing creation. I think he is supposed to be an Irish alcoholic, although the English-dubbed voice has an atrocious accent. Also, his French name just doesn’t seem to fit. Nevertheless, he is a likeable character who might even steal one or two scenes. In addition to a bit part as the eccentric artist Consalvi in Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), he also appeared in a number of poliziotteschi of the time, like What Have They Done to Your Daughters, Caliber 9, and The Italian Connection (all 1972). I will always remember Adorf as the evil capitalist Schuckert in Fassbinder’s Lola (1981).
While not necessarily falling into the giallo fantastico sub-sub-genre, which implies a level of supernatural happenings, Short Night of Glass Dolls definitely crosses the line into occult inquiry, similar to other more famous titles like Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark and Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling (also both 1972). I discuss these titles at length in the most recent print issue of Diabolique (#28), if folks are interested in going down that rabbit hole. It is a great angle for the genre, and it is a thing most definitely influenced by Polanski’s classic Rosemary’s Baby of 1968. Both that film and Short Night of Glass Dolls feature hallucinatory scenes involving elderly cult members in the nude, going wild sexually and reveling in it. It is kind of amazing, and not something one often sees in a culture that is fixated on the eroticism of youth, which happens to be a direct topic of the film. About halfway through, Gregory questions a blind man while trying to crack the case, who says dramatically–“All our youth must eventually be sacrificed, preserving those in power.” Indeed, too true.
About twenty minutes before the conclusion of the picture, we come upon an extended scene of youth culture in action, as some hippie busker strums his guitar, singing a song about butterflies spreading their wings and flying, and every time I see it I just can’t deal. There are a few gialli where hippies suddenly just appear, as if they are hanging out off-screen in the periphery, which I guess they were at the time. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) has a whole plot that hinges on the “two hippies” who may or may not have witnessed the murder in question, but may or may not have been tripping balls way too hard to remember. Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) starts off with drunk love children dancing on the dining table as Luigi Pistilli looks on, clearly pissed off. And in Short Night of Glass Dolls we have this fucking busker. This musical display might be even more ridiculous than the “Venus in Furs you’ll be smilin’” refrain that haunts and plagues Jess Franco’s 1969 psychedelic freak out Venus in Furs.
One of the many interesting nuggets of information gleaned from Kat Ellinger’s recent book All the Colours of Sergio Martino is that, according to the director, “Italians didn’t think giallo were “believable” unless they were set outside of Italy.” Admittedly, I don’t understand why this is the case, probably because I am not Italian, but perhaps it has to do with the foreign nature of many original gialli that were in print. So far, the three films I’ve covered for Gialloween have taken place elsewhere–San Francisco, Vienna, and now Prague. This says a lot about how nationality is constructed, as well as how foreignness is perceived, and makes one think about what Roland Barthes called “Italianicity” in “Rhetoric of the Image.” As much as viewers enjoy thinking of gialli as a prime Italian product, it is always crossing borders, bringing folks together for insane cinematic scenarios.