Tomatoes Feel Pain When You Poke Them: An Appreciation of “Short Night of Glass Dolls”

Greetings once again, my creepy companions! If you read my last post on The House with the Laughing Windows, you will perhaps have surmised that I’ve gone off on a bit of a giallo kick lately. Sure, I’ve always been a big fan of the best-known films in the genre, your Argentos and your Bavas, but recently I’ve gotten a bee in my bonnet about writing my own giallo-type story as a lark, and as such I decided to seek out a few of the lesser-known examples of the genre that I hadn’t seen, just to give me some additional inspiration. (And speaking of which, do you guys know about this random giallo generator? Because it is delightful.)

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So today I chose a 1971 film that has appeared on a few lists around the internet as one of the classics, though I admit I had never heard of it before I went hunting around. Originally known as Short Night of the Butterfly (which actually makes more sense to the plot), 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. It was the directorial debut of Aldo Lado, who also directed another classic giallo, Who Saw Her Die? (which I might do a post about one of these days).

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In the film, an American journalist named Gregory Moore (Jean Sorel) has been covering political unrest in Prague, and is planning to pull some strings to smuggle his smoking hot Czech girlfriend Mira (played by a very young Barbara Bach) out of the country and back to London with him at the end of his assignment. But one night after a party, he is called away on a story tip which turns out to be a distraction, 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. The remainder of the main plot is Gregory’s investigation into what happened to Mira, which of course involves a bevy of shady characters who either stonewall him completely or mysteriously end up dead shortly after giving him information; police hostility and suspicion about his role in the disappearance; the discovery that Mira’s odd vanishing act isn’t the only such case by a long shot; and troubling hints at some pretty sinister forces lying just beneath the veneer of Prague’s supposedly respectable ruling class.

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I also neglected to mention that this film has an unusual conceit: The entire search for the lost Mira is detailed in flashback, as Gregory lies in a morgue awaiting autopsy. See, at the very beginning of the movie, he is found, apparently dead, in a public park, but a voiceover lets the audience know that he’s actually still very much alive, but frustratingly unable to let anyone else know about his terrifying predicament. The film flips back and forth between the doctors’ fruitless attempts to revive him and his memories of looking for Mira and falling into the big conspiratorial clusterfuck that led him to the sad state of affairs he finds himself in. It’s actually a great plot device, as not only is the viewer intrigued by the mystery of the missing girlfriend, but 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.

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Like The House With the Laughing Windows, Short Night of Glass Dolls has a definite political undercurrent, though it is much more overt than the former film, so much so that I would classify it less as an undercurrent and more as a pretty obvious allegory, which is why I believe its original title was more relevant. In the resolution if its mystery, I would actually hazard a guess that it was a precursor and/or inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, as it exposes the perverse and almost vampiric nature of those in society’s top echelons, as they drain the life, both literally and figuratively, from those unfortunate souls beneath them.

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Also like the formerly discussed film, the pace of the movie is rather slow, but there is a much more lurid sexual nature to the crimes than House with the Laughing Windows had. The Prague backdrop is also a highlight, oppressive and beautiful at the same time, which handily ties in with the movie’s themes. 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 liked some of the seemingly random, unsettling details, like the scientist who was experimenting on plants and trying to determine if they could feel pain. And as I mentioned before, the suspense throughout the film is fantastically well-done, as the whole story becomes something of an unbearable race against time. And I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that it was quite wonderfully cruel and shocking, and something I really didn’t expect. Highly recommended.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

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