Malastrana, Short Night of the Glass Dolls, Paralyzed
Director Aldo Lado is hardly well-known in the United States. Though his colleague Dario Argento is gradually gaining a steady following in the US, the giallo genre as a whole is still very much an acquired taste, and some of its major talents have yet to be given the recognition they deserve.
And while it can be argued that no other Italian director has produced such a consistently remarkable body of work as Argento has, there are certainly isolated films by other directors that go far beyond what "The Genius" has ever achieved. Lucio Fulci's Non Si Sevizia Un Paperino/Don't Torture the Duckling is one of these. Aldo Lado's Corta Notte di Bambole di Vetro/Short Night of the Glass Dolls (Beads?) is another.
Part thriller, part horror film (imagine Rosemary's Baby without the supernatural overtones!), part political allegory, Lado's movie is devastating. The film's characters and situations are scarcely more believeable than those of any other Italian genre film; however, it's the emotional weight of the film that sets it far apart from the usual Italian thriller. Argento's bloody showpieces have no more emotional resonance in the face of death than porn films have in relation to sex in the real world. By contrast, La Corta Notte... conveys an overpowering sense of anguish. Its central character's sense of loss and helplessness is made even more overwhelming by his physical state: he is actually paralyzed, and believed dead.
Jean Sorel plays Gary, an American journalist living in early-seventies Prague. Gary is found lying behind a bush by a street sweeper. He is apparently dead; doctors can find no traces of vital signs. But Gary is not dead... at least he doesn't think he's dead, which is generally a pretty good indication.
His mind only slightly more awake than his paralyzed body, Gary lies in the morgue, trying desperately to remember how he came to this terrible situation. Fragments of memory come together, and he remembers his work, and his colleagues: a French journalist named Jacques, and Jessica, an old flame with whom he had parted rather callously.
Jessica's feelings are hurt still further by the arrival of Gary's newest girlfriend, a Czech girl named Mira Svoboda. Mira is a young, free-spirited beauty, and when Gary brings her to a party for some of Prague's most powerful men, Mira makes quite an impression...
Then, late one night, Jacques calls with a lead on a story. Gary leaves Mira asleep and rushes to the scene, only to find that the story was a false alarm. Returning to his flat, he discovers that Mira is gone, though her clothes, her ID and her money are all still there.
Gary is desperate to find her, but his attempts to bully action out of the Party Commisar doesn't help his case. Worse yet, Gary's premonitions of Mira's death turn the Commisar's suspicions onto the American himself.
A girl is discovered drowned in the Moldau, but it turns out to be a different naked young girl. Gary's investigations uncover a history of similar disappearances, but no one will talk about the cases. One man, a blind dog breeder, makes grim comparisons to the brutally surpressed student uprisings of 1968, muttering about the destruction of youth and idealism. Another man, who tries to confide in Gary, meets a horrible end when he's thrown off a railroad bridge. Before this man dies, he gives Gary a card for "Klub 99", a secret club of some sort. His last words are: "Don't let them fly!"
In the meantime, as Gary's memories flood back, the doctors at the morgue have begun to ask questions about Gary's death. They realize that his body hasn't cooled, even under refrigeration. One particular doctor, a long-time friend of Gary's, even attempts to revive him. Failing, he calls in a specialist: the distinguished if slightly creepy Professor Karting, whom Gary had met performing a Kirlian-type sensory experiment on a tomato. Nothing works; Gary's heart doesn't seem to be beating, even though his temperature hasn't dropped.
Abandoned again, Gary's thoughts re-assemble themselves. He remembers pushing the Commisar too far, and being warned to mind his own business... or else. He remembers sneaking into the mysterious Klub 99, which seems to be only an assembly of elderly, sleepy-looking people attending a concert. Gary discovers hidden rooms, however, and is chased through them by the Club's staff (at least one of whom knows Gary rather well...) Unfortunately for Gary, he does not discover the room where Mira is lying, her sightless eyes staring at the ceiling.
Going back to his flat, Gary finds Jessica waiting for him. She offers him safe passage out of Prague if he will only forget about Mira and come back to her. Gary agrees, but as they lie together, he confesses that his heart just isn't in it. Furious, Jessica leaves him to his fate. Realizing he's just doomed himself, Gary tries to back-pedal, but it's too late.
Jean calls. He's outside the Klub 99, where there's some unscheduled activity going on. He wants Gary to help him sneak in and see what's going on. As Gary hangs up, Jean is confronted by a gloved hand weilding a knife...
Gary arrives, but fails to notice Jean's body lying in a bloody heap in a trash pile. Pursuing a shadowy figure, Gary finds himself in a crowd on a bridge, listening to a folk singer. The singer is in the middle of a song called "Short Night of the Butterfly", pleading to let the butterfly fly free. This strikes a memory in Gary; but before he can put the pieces together, someone has attacked him and thrown him into the water.
Gary is dragged out and taken before the Commisar. The Commisar intends to charge him with Mira's murder, and with drug use. It seems they've found a vial of something in his flat. Obviously, he and Mira had had an argument over the drugs, and he had killed her and made away with her body, possibly while stoned. Gary objects, but weakly. He feels strangely ill, and barely able to hold himself together. But Gary still has one powerful friend... his host at the party in the beginning of the film, who also happens to be the owner of the Klub 99. As he's driving Gary home, he remarks that if he'd wanted to get in so badly, all he'd needed to do was ask.
Gary gets back to his building and staggers up the stairs. Once in his flat, he becomes dimly aware of a light in his kitchen. Shambling down the hall, he sees the refrigerator is open... and in it... dear God: what he finds inside almost makes him kill himself right there. But before he can commit suicide, the police come pounding at the door. Gary realizes that if he's found, alive or dead, with... what's in his ice box... then the truth will never come out, so he escapes by climbing out a window.
Sneaking groggily back to the Klub 99, where he is sure the answer lies, he stumbles into an orgy. The writhing nude participants, caught up in a stupor of ecstasy, are the fat and elderly club members Gary had seen before. In their midsts, on a stone altar, is a naked young girl. Could this be Mira? Gary's dimming senses can't tell who she is... and familiar faces appear before him to reveal what's really happened to Mira... and what will now be happening to him!
And now that the flashbacks are over, it's time for the Grand Finale. The doctors have given up on Gary, as have the police, who blame him -- posthumously -- for the massive carnage he's left in his wake. All that's left is the autopsy... but Gary is still coming awake. Can he regain consciousness in time?
By this point, we know the answer. There's only one way the movie could possibly end. But the tension of waiting for what we know is going to happen is unbearable, and the end still packs one hell of a punch.
Svoboda. The name means "freedom" in Russian and other Slavic languages (and I believe that Mira may mean "peace"). Freedom is the elusive butterfly that has disappeared from Prague in the aftermath of the 1968 uprising (and preserved butterflies are a constant visual motive of the film). Everywhere Lado's camera goes, Czech faces stop and stare suspiciously back at the camera. These are not extras. These are real people, used to being watched, watching back with thinly veiled hostility. Rather than heightening the artificiality of the movie, they make its atmosphere all the more convincing.
Gary, the American, seems to be a symbol of the US's political short-sightedness, e.g. American inactivity in the face of the '68 Soviet crackdown, at the same time it was escalating a pointless, supposedly "anti-communist" war in Viet Nam. Gary is so sure of his own freedoms that he takes advantage of others', in a country where freedom is a rare and precious thing. He only realizes what he's lost when it's too late, and even then, he fails to recognize the danger to himself in his swaggering assertion of his own power. Finally, his helplessness is made horribly apparent when his ability to do anything is taken away from him.
There are some weak spots in Lado's film, but they do not detract from the power of the film as a whole. The orgy scene, in which the villains of the piece explain their motivations, makes the political message of the film blatant to the point of overstatement... spells it out maybe a little too clearly to be convincing. This is a forgivable lapse, though, as it doesn't really break the momentum of the excruciating final three minutes of the film.
Another major achievement of the film is the way in which its inevitable conclusion is foreshadowed throughout the development. Casual remarks, jokes and idioms about paralysis and death take on horrible hidden meanings to the audience, who knows how the story has to end. At the fateful party near the beginning of the film, Greg is introduced to a visiting American girl, a hippie who is so stoned she's nearly catatonic. Her glass-eyed immobility allows Jean to partially undress her and give her a quick grope -- a thoughtless, callous moment that will return to our imaginations as Gary lies paralyzed on the autopsy table. And in the meantime, ruthless, powerful men are doing with their eyes what Jean is doing to the hippie girl with his hands. They want what Greg, the American, has: this bright, beautiful, spirited companion named "Freedom" that he takes for granted. They want her, so they can use her beauty to draw others to their cause, and then they will crush her under their feet.
The bizarre, slightly sadistic interlude featuring Professor Karting demonstrating his contention that tomatos can feel pain -- and what he does to the "sensitive" tomato after the demonstration -- will be recalled by the viewer with a horror bordering on nausea following the final scene. Lado inspires more discomfort and anguish with a tomato (in a film which has relatively little blood) than Dario Argento can pull off with gallons of gore.
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