Monday, April 30, 2007

Review of Short Night of the Glass Dolls

Imagine you are found lying prone in a park. As you come to your senses, you realize that you are utterly paralyzed, unable even to blink, breathe or twitch. You are mistaken for dead. You watch in horror as you are taken to a hospital, your vitals are read and come up blank and you are then transferred to a morgue. Only your anomalous body temperature and absence of rigor mortis gives the doctors any clue that you are not yet ready to be buried. Will it be enough to save you? As you scream within your head to be acknowledged as alive, you cast back into your memories. How did arrive here? How did you come to be this way?

This is the horrifying position that Gregory Moore (Jean Sorel) is place into during “Short Night of the Glass Dolls” (1971). Giallo director Aldo Lado takes the “Sunset Blvd.” (1950) device of a man narrating his story from the recent afterlife and gives it a tense and compelling twist, relating a mystery through flashbacks even as the protagonist creeps ever closer to a hellish fate: an autopsy while he is still conscious! The key to Gregory’s future, so he believes, is lies in his past.
[Image: For the proper effect of traveling into your past, zoom in on this picture and then hold up your monitor to your face while rotating it.]
Several days earlier Gregory, a reporter in communist Prague, had met Jessica (Barbara Bach). After quickly falling in love, he promises to help her escape to the west, but Jessica suddenly disappears without any warning. Angry at the police’s lack of progress or commitment, Gregory begins an investigation of his own and soon new bodies are piling up.

“Short Night of the Glass Dolls” has one absolutely incredible premise. Where it bogs down is in the flashback mystery investigation that crawls along dryly as one red herring and minor leads stretches into the next. Similar to Lado’s other well-known giallo, “Who Saw Her Die?” (1972), the one-man investigation with its interviews, false starts and rising conspiratorial opposition plays out like mildly entertaining filler material. The problem is that Lado treats it like its well worth our time (as opposed to a skeleton from which to hang an elaborate story, gruesome deaths and tense action pieces) and has a rather sincere love of realistic gumshoe tactics like exhaustive determination and footwork. We do witness two murders/attempts that involve fairly pedestrian falls, but most of the deaths take place off-screen.

The full story, once revealed, leaves us begging for more. There is a surprisingly patriotic message to be found in the heavy-handed finale, that works due to surrealism if not realism (or explanation). It’s tough to deny that the ending is powerful, but I was left wishing the full 92 minutes had the same impact.

[Image: The next time you see this room, it will have a lot more crazy.]

The acting isn’t bad, with Jean Sorel putting in a good turn as the handsome protagonist. As a real, legitimate actor it’s kind of a shame that he lies comatose for about 1/3 of his performance, but what can you do? Barbara Bach fares fine as the love interest, but she’s more a pretty MacGuffin for driving the plot than a real person. Gregory’s friend and investigative ally, Jacques (Mario Adorf), is difficult to take seriously with his white-suit-over-magenta-shirt and dubbed voice with an accent that can’t make up its mind between German, Irish or English.

Lado’s direction is not exceptional and it isn’t hard to see why he never made it to the ranks of Argento, Bava, Fulci or Martino, although it does have moments of insight. Pacing and editing aren’t really Lado’s weapons of choice, but one edit worked for me brilliantly: A hospital scene ends with doctors discussing Gregory’s body and the chilling possibility of dissecting it in front of a medical class. The camera slowly zooms in on Gregory’s feet, visible in the background, before cutting to a matching flashback shot of his feet when he was alive and, indeed, having sex. The death/sex juxtaposition has rarely been so efficiently, and so ironically, posed.
[Images: Mastershot, zoom and then cut on graphic match. Death to sex in under ten seconds.]

Some visual elements that stick out in memory are the POV shots that appear throughout the film, staring up at the ceiling into the faces of doctors or the spinning crystals of chandeliers. Another scene (shown in a previous screenshot) takes place with the nourish lighting of window blinds taken to the ultimate extreme. Eloquently long shots and glutinous pans over the Prague cityscape do help pass the time, although this could just be my bias towards all things Czech. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack is also there to stir the mood, but this isn’t his best work.

As regular giallo watchers will know, or those who read the Film Walrus, there are often fun connections between great paintings and giallos. I enjoy pointing them out when I catch them or making them up when feel like it. “Glass Dolls” has a quite explicit example (for those with sharp eyes or good memories), but I’ll save it for the end since it constitutes a spoiler of sorts. Let’s get the Walrus Rating out of the way first:

Walrus Rating: 6.0
(An impressive directorial debut that many will probably think better of. While definitely worth seeing, it is just as certainly second tier.)

[SPOILERS]
[Images: If only Gregory had looked a little closer at the painting above the fireplace (click the image to zoom in). Is art imitating life or vice versa?]

4 comments:

Kathryn said...

The art connections really astound me. I love to think of these directors (or their various henchmen) working in so many appropriate things.

We expect tons of that stuff from someone like Greenaway, but seeing others put in extra cleverness is always a pleasant surprise.



About this movie...I still don't really know what to think. I agree that the sort of last 10 minutes or so are full of awesome. Where was that awesome earlier? Why couldn't we have gone into greater detail about that...? (WHAT WAS SHE DOING ON THAT TABLE, FOR CHRISTSAKES?!)

Mad Dog said...

Some interesting photography going on in the screencaps. I especially like the one with all the graves.

Walrus said...

The Czech Republic is known for their graves. There is Sedlec Ossuary, a cathedral built out of some 40,000 dead skeletons (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sedlec) as well as a cemetary in the Jewish quarter that is close to a thousand years old. Consecrated land was so rare, that the coffins were stacked six to seven deep, and a new tombstone was wedged onto the same lot each time. I'm guessing that is probably the site where their shot was taken.

Mad Dog said...

God, that's depressing.