Sunday 7 December 2014

Short Night of Glass Dolls (Aldo Lado, 1971) Review

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“Don't leave me like this! Help me! Help me!” In amongst the quiet cityscape of Cold War era Prague, a street sweeper swats a crow away from a piece of rotting fruit, only to discover a dead body dumped in the undergrowth. The corpse is that of Gregory Moore, an American journalist working for a foreign paper in the city, and he isn't dead. Somehow he's been paralysed and shows no clear signs of life to the indifferent pathologist and, as he lies there waiting for his autopsy, he must recall the events that lead him to this terrible potential fate.

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“I always have this uneasy feeling that every time we meet it's only for a moment or two.” Written and Directed by Aldo Lado (Night Train Murders), this is one of the most political examples of the giallo movement. Eschewing black-gloved killers with straight razors for paranoia and conspiracy behind the Iron Curtain, Short Night of Glass Dolls (aka Paralyzed) paints a bleak picture of a society buckled under fear of the powerful elite who rule in the shadows.

“Even chickens in the frying pan are called political suicides here, what a place.” Opening with a tour through the ancient streets of Prague, accompanied by the haunting music of Ennio Morricone (all tinkling crystal and breathy sounds), things get off to an ominous start. Is this the sound of someone slowly dying, or gasps of ecstasy, or both? Reporting on the death of yet another member of an anti-government movement, Gregory (Jean Sorel, Lizard In A Woman’s Skin) has seen it all before and just wants to get to the train station to pick up his beloved Mira (Barbara Bach, The Black Belly of the Tarantula).

“You make me feel there's nothing to fear.” Speaking of high walls and a sense of hopelessness, Mira is hoping to soon be smuggled out of the country with Gregory and make it to the free world. However, after attracting a lot of elder attention at a classy party where well-fed politicians and artisans rub shoulders, Mira goes missing. Leaving her clothes, money, and even passport behind, Gregory's suspicions run high from the get-go, having been called out to work by an anonymous tipster. A story of a political suicide was false and now the leather-clad Kommissar Kierkoff (Piero Vida) is involved in the investigation, warning Gregory to stay out of his way in no uncertain terms.

“Press immunity to police arrest has been suspended.” As the search for Mira becomes evermore desperate and frustrated by people refusing to talk, the stench of a dark and twisted cover-up ascends from the river where beautiful-but-dead young girls routinely wash up. Can Gregory find out what happened to Mira in the past, can he show signs of life in the present before it's too late, and what goes on in Klub 99?

“All our youth must eventually be sacrificed.” The establishment is a closed door in Lado's film, behind which corruption, hypocrisy, and conspiracy are rife. Sleazy politicians promise exclusives to female journalists in exchange for sex, morgue attendants rifle through personal possessions as if shopping, and the offspring of millionaires are content to lose themselves in spaced-out ignorance. Those in power secretly import art for their own private gain, spies stalk the streets, and bureaucrats trade secrets for dollars. An air of noir-like cynicism hangs low over the city where death comes cheap and trust is at a premium.

“I can't tell if you're friend or foe.” Rich with foreboding and symbolism, Short Night of Glass Dolls is far more concerned with savaging political reality than the voyeurism and blood-soaked deaths that are traditionally associated with gialli. It's telling that Mira gifts Gregory a case of mounted butterflies that have no instinct to fly and merely flutter about on the ground. The subtle pacing and dry tone will be a turn off to those expecting gleaming knives and gorgeous kills, but Lado frequently makes a grand show of clandestine events. A dream-like orgy is driven by delirium and madness, while a midnight meeting climaxes in tragedy under the cover of a passing steam train.

“Everything alive has its senses. Its own vitality.” Without knowledge of the political history of the time, Short Night of Glass Dolls can appear obtuse to today's audiences, but patience is rewarded with a chilling sense of Cold War fear. Who can you trust, if anyone? Where can you go when you're in trouble? The youth – be they soldiers or rebels – are doomed to inevitable sacrifice, but how and for what ends? While several decades have passed, many of the themes remain as potent as they were when the film was first released, and that is perhaps the most chilling idea at the heart of this mystery thriller.

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