Movies: Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971)

This 1971 film appears on several lists around the internet as one of the classic giallo movies, though I feel like it doesn’t get as much attention as some of the other, more beloved works of the subgenre. That’s really a shame, because this is a brilliant giallo, and even though I loved it the first time I saw it many years ago, I enjoyed it even more the second time around. It’s not only an intriguing mystery with a really tense, flashback structure, but it’s visually beautiful, skillfully written, and has an amazing score by Ennio Morricone.

Originally known as Malastrana (after a district in Prague, where the story takes place) or Short Night of the Butterfly (which actually makes more sense to the plot, as there are numerous symbolic references in the film to a particular kind of flightless butterfly), the film was eventually released under the title Short Night of Glass Dolls (or La Corta notte delle bambole di vetro, if you prefer) due to another movie with “butterfly” in the title being released around the same time. I’m guessing the “glass dolls” refers to the fragility and youth of the movie’s victims, but I admit it’s a pretty tenuous connection; then again, giallo titles don’t always make complete sense, so I’m not really complaining. It is an evocative title, even though it doesn’t really have anything to do with the story. Regardless, it was the directorial debut of Aldo Lado, who would go on to direct another classic giallo, 1972’s Who Saw Her Die?

Short Night has an unusual and pretty creative conceit, one that’s sort of similar to Sunset Boulevard, and also to an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents called “Breakdown” from 1955. Our main character, an American journalist named Gregory Moore (played by Jean Sorel, a prolific French actor who I recognized from the excellent 1967 film Belle de Jour) is found, apparently dead, in a public park at the beginning of the movie. However, a voiceover lets the audience know that he’s actually still very much alive, presumably suffering from some type of catalepsy, and frustratingly unable to let anyone else know about his terrifying predicament.

So the entire mystery of how he ended up like this is detailed in flashback, as Gregory lies in a morgue awaiting autopsy. The film flips back and forth between the doctors’ fruitless attempts to revive him—Gregory happens to have a doctor friend who spends longer than usual trying to resurrect him because he can’t understand why the body temperature of the “corpse” refuses to drop below that of a living person—and Gregory’s memories of getting involved in the big conspiratorial clusterfuck that led him to this sad state of affairs. It’s actually a great plot device, as not only is the viewer intrigued by the main mystery of the film as it unfolds, but we’re also held in nail-biting suspense over whether Gregory will be snapped out of his deathlike trance before the autopsy knife ends his life for real.

Gregory slowly reconstructs the story for the audience. As I mentioned, he’s a journalist, and has been on assignment covering political unrest in Prague (and particularly the Soviet crackdown that occurred in the wake of the Prague Spring in 1968). He’s also met and fallen in love with a young, beautiful Czech woman named Mira (played by Barbara Bach, who was also in Black Belly of the Tarantula, starred as a Bond girl in The Spy Who Loved Me, and is married to Ringo Starr), and is planning to pull some strings to smuggle her out of the country and back to London with him at the end of his assignment.

The pair seem very much in love, and Mira is apparently hopeful that their plans will be successful. But late one night after a party—at which scores of creepy old dudes hung around Mira, trying to strike up conversations—Gregory is called away on a story tip which turns out to be nothing, and when he returns to his apartment, he discovers that Mira is missing. The weirdest thing about her disappearance is that she didn’t take her handbag, her passport, or apparently any of her clothes; even the dress she wore to the party is still in the apartment, flung over a chair as if she had just taken it off and then gone parading out into the night stark naked.

As is usual for giallo films, the police are dismissive, and not only useless, but actively hostile toward Gregory’s efforts to track down his girlfriend. You get the impression pretty early on that the cops are part of a larger conspiracy, and at every turn, they try to discourage or threaten Gregory for pursuing his own investigation, either by openly accusing him of killing her, or trying to convince him that Mira simply took off of her own volition.

Of course Gregory isn’t buying that, though, and with the help of two of his colleagues (chummy Jacques, played by Mario Adorf; and scaldingly jealous and lovesick Jessica, played by Ingmar Bergman regular Ingrid Thulin), Gregory begins to uncover a series of similar disappearances of young women in Prague, all of whom vanished from their homes without any of their clothes or belongings. Oddly, all of them also seem to have been somehow involved with chamber music, either as musicians or devotees.

It soon comes to light that the epicenter of the mystery resides in a mysterious chamber music venue known as Klub 99, and as Gregory probes deeper into its true purpose, he encounters a bevy of shady characters who either stonewall him completely, or inexplicably end up dead shortly before or after giving him information.

In a similar vein to Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark, the sinister forces operating behind Klub 99 appear occult or Satanic in nature, and Short Night also weaves in a pretty overt political statement about the elderly ruling class in society’s top echelons being essentially these perverse and vampiric creatures who drain the life, both literally and figuratively, from those unfortunate young people beneath them. It’s here that the original butterfly metaphor is relevant, as a plot point in the film centers around a species of butterfly that has gorgeously colorful but useless wings; the obvious symbolism being that the beautiful young people of the Czech Republic are being held down and exploited by the oppressive regime that maintains a stranglehold on the nation. Incidentally, in the resolution if its mystery, I would actually hazard a guess that Short Night was a precursor and/or inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut; thematically, it’s fairly similar.

The Prague backdrop of the film is a real highlight, dispiriting and elegant at the same time, which handily ties in with the movie’s subtext. In addition, there is some lovely imagery of butterflies and glass chandeliers and those gorgeous baroque interiors that are often a fixture of these movies. I also enjoyed some of the seemingly random, unsettling details, like the man who was experimenting on plants and trying to determine if they could feel pain; this sequence not only neatly mirrored Gregory’s cataleptic situation—where he was internally screaming that he was still alive, but no one could hear him—but it also ingeniously foreshadowed the ending.

I could have done without the scene of the hippie guy singing the cringeworthy and seemingly endless song about butterflies, but you can’t have everything, and really, that’s the only sour note in the whole film, which is otherwise an impeccably realized, suspenseful mystery with a wonderfully shocking and cruel resolution that I totally didn’t see coming. If you’re into giallo movies and somehow haven’t had a look at this one, I recommend it very highly; it’s one that often seems to get overlooked, but it absolutely needs more love.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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