Short Night of Glass Dolls/La corta notte delle bambole di vetro (1971)

‘I’d better rescue Mira from the body snatchers.’

An old man finds the body of a journalist while sweeping up in the park early one morning. Pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital, the reporter is still alive but completely paralysed. As he lies on the slab awaiting autopsy, he pieces together the events that led him there…

Unusual, cold war Giallo with American journalist Jean Sorel running up against a dangerous conspiracy when on assignment in the Eastern Bloc. The film’s qualifications as a Giallo may be marginal, but co-writer and debut director Aldo Lado certainly delivers a memorable and classy thriller.

Waking up the worse for wear in an unfamiliar place probably isn’t an unknown experience for foreign correspondents on the job in Europe. However, American reporter Gregory Moore (Sorel) hasn’t been out on the lash, and he’s in for a little more than a blinding headache and mugs of black coffee. Everyone thinks he’s dead. Various interns and doctors pronounce him deceased, hang a tag on his toe and put him in cold storage. But his mind is still very much alive. Under the sheet, he tries to reassemble his memories into a coherent narrative to explain his predicament.

Working out of an office in Prague with fellow journalists Jessica (Ingrid Thulin) and Jacques (Mario Adorf), Sorel had been waiting for reassignment to Berlin. He’d also been pulling strings with local official and friend, Valinski (José Quaglio), to obtain permission to take his new girlfriend, Mira Svoboda (Barbara Bach), out of the country with him. After the couple attends a high-class house party, Sorel is called out in the middle of the night on a tip delivered to him by Adorf. It proves to be a false alarm, and when he returns to his flat, Bach has vanished without a trace, leaving all her clothes and personal possessions behind.

Sorel begins a desperate search for Bach, aided by Adorf and Thulin. She’s willing to help, even though she still holds a torch for the handsome young American after a prior relationship. Before too long, they find out that Bach’s disappearance fits a pattern of similar incidents, but unsympathetic Kommissar Kierkoff (Piero Vida) disagrees, leaving them without official assistance. After a midnight assignation with a possible informant goes south, Sorel finds himself pointed in the direction of the exclusive Club 99, where old politicians and city leaders meet to listen to classical music. 

A lot is going on beneath the surface of Lado’s quasi-horror and conspiracy thriller. At first glance, it’s a reasonably conventional piece with an investigative journalist looking into the case of a missing young woman. Placing the action in a country under Communist control opens up opportunities for a political drama, but, the presence of policeman Vida apart, Lado shuffles this aspect to one side. Instead, the story showcases Sorel as detective, questioning potential witnesses, digging in the local newspaper archives and bribing informants. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t put enough meat on this particular bone, with no sense of an evolving investigation and precious few details about the other missing women. 

There’s also little that’s special about the story’s characters. For the most part, these are pretty standard archetypes: the crusading hero, his crass but well-meaning best friend, the naive young flower that needs a man’s protection, etc. As a result, the cast hasn’t all that much to work on. Sorel could deliver morally complex figures on screen, as he’d proved in several earlier Gialli. The most noteworthy aspect of his performance in this film is his work as a corpse, which is totally convincing! Ironically, it’s Thulin who gets the most significant opportunity to shine, but her role as his jealous ex-lover often seems rather tangential.

The film’s other major weakness is in its framing device. It is a clever notion to have Sorel ‘narrate’ the action from his slab in the morgue, but Lado goes back to his supposed corpse far too often. These scenes focus on his old friend and top medical man, Ivan (Relja Basic), who repeatedly attempts to revive him, not convinced he is dead because of his steady body temperature. I suppose he has a point, but with the heart stopped, no blood is pumped to the brain, so no oxygen, resulting in irreversible brain damage in less than five minutes. Basic continues trying to revive Sorel hours after the reporter was pronounced dead with no vital signs. Sure, the audience knows that Sorel can still think (somehow!), but why would Basic believe it? It seems to be nothing more than a plot device to set up the somewhat contrived finale, which is undeniably suspenseful, if a little silly.

However, in mitigation of those flaws, Lado’s film has a lot going for it. Apparently, he had a complicated relationship with cinematographer Giuseppe Ruzzolini on set, but they crafted a beautiful-looking movie together. Zagreb stands in brilliantly for Prague, and the filmmakers fully utilise the unique exterior locations. The shot composition is masterly at times, with some outstanding lighting effects. These are deployed with taste and restraint, which helps ground the increasingly fantastical story while still providing a memorable visual signature. There is also some predictably superior work from composer Ennio Morricone, whose music is just a little unsettling in all the right places.

It’s also clear that Lado has something to say, and it goes a little deeper than the oft-included critique of the smart young jet set and the idle rich. At first glance, it would be easy to label the film as anti-communist or anti-authority in general, but it seems that Lado had a more specific target in mind. One character explicitly states it in the film: ‘All youth must be sacrificed to preserve those in power.’ There was great political unrest in Italy in the late 1960s, with a highly active student movement inspired by colleagues in France. The so-called ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1968 saw a wave of political protest in Northern Italy where factory workers joined students to demand social reform and better working conditions. Strikes and marches continued over the next few years and were often the target of aggressive police actions. 

Lado’s intended title for his film was ‘Short Night of the Butterfly’, which references youth. Bach presents Sorel with a gift of some framed specimens and talks about their inability to fly. The lyrics of a busker’s song also plead for their freedom and find an echo in the dying words of a potential informant. By the end of the film, it’s possible that Sorel’s reporter has gone too far down the rabbit hole and is losing his mind. He does seem to be hallucinating when he finds Bach’s corpse in a refrigerator. However, the final events in the back room of Club 99 are certainly part of his reality, even if their actuality is open to debate. 

Lado was formerly an Assistant Director and writer, who had worked in the latter capacity on the Giallo take on Patricia Highsmith’s ‘Strangers On A Train’, ‘The Designated Victim/La vittima designata’ (1971). His sophomore directing gig was on well-regarded Giallo ‘Who Saw Her Die?/Chi l’ha vista morire?’ (1972), which he also co-wrote. Later on, he moved into more mainstream drama but did deliver the ‘Night Train Murders/Chi l’ha vista morire?’ (1975), which has been cited as the Italian equivalent of Wes Craven’s ‘The Last House On The Left’ (1972). After that, he wrote and directed the intermitently hilarious, cut-price space-opera ‘The Humanoid’ (1979) before moving into television. A few features followed in subsequent years before he came out of an almost two-decade-long retirement to deliver horror-thriller ‘l Notturno di Chopin’ (2013).

An intriguing and unusual piece that combines several genres to produce an effective and quality experience.

Black Belly of The Tarantula/La tarantola dal ventre nero (1971)

‘With needles dipped in deadly venom, the victims are paralysed – so they must lie awake and watch themselves die!’

A businessman confronts his wife with photographic evidence of her infidelity. The following day she is found brutally murdered. Naturally, the investigating detective suspects the husband, who has gone into hiding, but a second corpse is discovered shortly afterwards. There seems to be no connection between the two women, but the method employed by the killer is identical…

Middling Giallo thriller from director Paolo Cavara coming hot on the heels of Dario Argento’s international breakthrough ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1969). It was far from the last time such a production would make obvious nods to Argento’s film, but it was probably the first. There’s an unknown killer in a black raincoat and gloves, a title that combines a colour with a critter and, of course, a cast frontloaded with beautiful women.

Marital bliss is a distant memory for the uptight Paolo Zanni (Silvano Tranquilli) and blonde bombshell Maria (Barbara Bouchet). Already separated, someone has been sending compromising photos of the promiscuous Bouchet to her husband. There’s a violent argument, and she turns up stabbed to death the next day. Tranquilli is the prime suspect in the eyes of the jaded Inspector Tellini (Giancarlo Giannini), of course, and his guilt seems confirmed when he takes it on the lam. But then another girl turns up dead, killed in the same unique manner, stabbed after being paralysed by an acupuncture needle inserted in the neck. Victim number two ran a shop selling expensive furs while dabbling in drug smuggling, which seems to have no connection to Bouchet.

As his investigation progresses, Giannini starts to focus on a possible blackmailing ring connected to the beauty salon run by Laura (Claudine Auger), where Bouchet was a regular client of blind masseur Ezlo Marano. Certainly, friendly waiter Ginetto (Eugene Walter) seems too good to be true, and receptionist Jenny (Barbara Bach) seems less than happy about the continuing investigation. Then there’s the darkly handsome Mario (Giancarlo Prete), who could have been Bouchet’s photographic partner and certainly seems to be showing an unhealthy interest in wealthy older woman, Franco Valentino (Rossella Falk). Giannini pursues the investigation with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm and is on the verge of quitting the force. Only his bubbly wife, Anna (Stefania Sandrelli), provides any respite from the depravity all around him.

This is an adequate horror-thriller with some good points, but it falls short in several important areas. The screenplay by Lucile Laks (based on a story by Marcello Danon) is serviceable enough but lacks complexity, with the final scenes revealing that there was a lot less going on than the audience might have thought. The climax is also somewhat contrived, and although it makes sense, it’s a little unconvincing. This lack of conviction seems to be reflected in the performances, with Giannini displaying little charisma and only Ettore Mattia registering in a minor role as a seedy private detective.

There are some weak developments in the story, too, including a sequence where the blackmailer films Inspector Giannini and his wife making love. This is quite a complex surveillance operation, with a camera pointed down into their bedroom from the high rise across the street. How did the blackmailer find out where the couple lived? I have no idea. Why does he do it anyway? No clue. All it does is lead into a scene where the film is taken from a crime scene and shown to a large room filled with senior police officers. They seem to find the whole thing pretty hilarious as the mortified Giannini storms out in a huff. Perhaps they just don’t like him; after all, someone does need to tell him that when you have an informant with crucial information about a murder spree, you don’t let them go with an agreement to meet them the next day when they will tell you everything. That’s going to go about as well as Bouchet’s ‘corpse acting’ (try not to breathe, Barbara!)

The film’s main virtues are on the technical side. As is often the case in Giallo, the killings receive the director and cinematographer’s fullest attention. These aren’t up there with the very best you will see, but they are well-mounted and reasonably stylish with some good use of extreme lenses and POV shots. By far the best aspect of the production, though, is another haunting soundtrack from the staggeringly prolific composer Ennio Morricone. On this occasion, the central motif is the sound of a woman exhaling over the music. These sounds convey a sense of dread and menace that the visuals never evoke.

A minor point of interest arises when Giannini visits entomologist Daniele Dublino. The scientist is using shipments of tarantulas to smuggle cocaine under the highly reasonable assumption that customs agents won’t want to check the cargo too closely. He also shows Giannini how a black wasp kills the arachnids (spiders aren’t insects, Mr Scriptwriter!) by paralysing them first. Of course, this ties into the murderer’s method, but it’s just a blind alley and comes over as a lame attempt to justify the film’s title.

Cavara’s film does have one significant aspect, though; its connection to the James Bond franchise. The cast features three past and future Bond Girls. Auger had appeared as Domino opposite Sean Connery in ‘Thunderball’ (1965), Bouchet was Miss Moneypenny in the spoof version of ‘Casino Royale’ (1967), and Bach went on to spar with Roger Moore in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977). And it doesn’t end there; Giannini played secret agent Rene Mathis in two of Daniel Craig’s outings as 007: ‘Casino Royale’ (2006) and ‘Quantum of Solace’ (2008).

The killer’s unusual M.O. and the scenes where it’s employed are probably the only things likely to leave a lasting impression on most viewers. A reasonable Giallo, just not very memorable.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)‘You will be devoured last after I have eaten up all of your fellows.’

At the end of the Trojan War, the warrior Odysseus sets out on the journey back home to Ithaca. But he was angered certain of the Gods and the path is beset with mythological beasts, traps and sorceries. During the ten years that pass, his wife Penelope remains faithful, but she is surrounded by young princes who demand that she take one of them as her husband and new King…

Epic, almost seven-hour adaptation of Homer’s famous poem, made for Italian television by producer Dino De Laurentiis and director Franco Rossi. De Laurentiis had also been responsible for the feature version ‘Ulysses’ (1954) with Kirk Douglas but had always been unhappy with the compromises necessary to bring the story down to feature-length. This Italian-French-German co-production, however, delivers almost the entire tale intact.

It’s been a hard 20 years for Queen Penelope of Ithaca (Irene Papas). Not only did husband Odysseus (Bekim Fehmiu) fight in the decade-long siege of Troy, it’s now ten years later, and he still hasn’t returned. The royal court is filled with young nobles who are eating her out of house and home and demanding that she takes one of them to fill the vacant throne. Her son Telemachus (the excellent Renaud Verley) can do nothing but suffer the insults heaped on him by the prospective grooms, led by the insufferably arrogant Antinous (Constantin Nepo, aka Constantin Andrieu).

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

‘Your dinner is in the bin.’

The frustrated Verley is persuaded by the goddess Athena to look for his father. So he hits the road to visit Troy veterans Nestor (Jaspar von Oertzen) and Menalus (Fausto Tozzi). Neither can give him any information, but Tozzi’s wife Helen (Scilla Gabel) tells of how Fehmiu scaled the walls of Troy alone to find her. Meanwhile, the man in question has washed up on the coast of Phaeacia. Thanks to the help of the young Princess Nausicaa (Barbara Gregorini) he’s been received at court by King Alcinioo (Roy Purcell) and Queen Arete (Marina Berti). After initially keeping his identity a secret, he reveals himself and begins relating the stories of his adventures.

It’s here that the most famous part of the poem begins, of course. Fehmiu has already told the smitten Gregorini about his seven years spent in the arms of goddess Calypso (Kyra Bester), so he begins with his crew’s temptation by the Lotus Eaters and goes on to their encounter with the Cyclops, Polyphemus (Samson Burke). This sequence was directed by horror maestro Mario Bava, and some sources claim that Bava also worked on the same scenes in ‘Ulysses’ (1954). However, others suggest there is no evidence for this assertion. Either way, it makes perfect sense for De Laurentiis to bring Bava on board, though, given his legendary ability with optical trickery and practical SFX.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

🎵So let them say your hair’s too long… 🎶

And Bava does not disappoint, delivering a substantial sequence that proves to be the highlight of the series. The scale of the giant’s cave is achieved with a combination of matte paintings and perfect camera positioning, aided by appropriately oversized props. Forced perspective and high angles emphasise the creature’s size and some quick cuts with a giant hand (very reminiscent of a couple of the same moments in ‘Ulysses’ (1954)) only serve to further the illusion, rather than dispel it. It’s a technical tour de force, assisted by the excellent performances of the cast and Carlo Rambaldi’s work on the monster’s face, although the latter has dated a little.

The rest of Fehmiu’s tale is more of a mixed bag in terms of filmmaking quality. The only major misstep is his visit to ‘keeper of the winds’ Aeolus (Vladimir Leib). Up until this point, the costume department has delivered flawless work, but here something went badly wrong. Leib and his entourage are saddled with silver Afro fright wigs and matching clothing. They look more like refugees from an Italian science-fiction picture of the period. It’s also worth noting that the six-headed Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis are omitted entirely; probably due to the technical difficulties of bringing them to the screen in a convincing way. However, on the bright side, we get a very memorable Circe, courtesy of the strikingly beautiful Juliette Mayniel.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

‘But you know I’ve always looked up to you…’

What holds the project together though, is some fine performances from the leading players. Fehmiu is excellent as Odysseus; brash and arrogant in the flashbacks to the start of his journey, but older and wiser in the telling of it. He even has doubts during his revenge on his wife’s suitors in the final act, something that his younger self would not have entertained. The actor is also plainly doing most of the sword combat himself. It’s not spectacular work, but it does avoid the over-choreographed unreality of more modern films, genuinely seeming more authentic to the period. And authenticity is a touchstone throughout the production, Fehmiu eating a meal with his fingers at the Phaeacians’ court (no cutlery in Ancient Greece, folks, not even knives!)

Dark-eyed Papas also makes the best of her role as the archetypal ‘woman who waits’ bringing a much-needed emotional edge to proceedings without overplaying her hand. It’s interesting to speculate why Silvana Mangano didn’t get that part instead. After all, she’d played the same role in ‘Ulysses’ (1954) opposite Kirk Douglas, and she was married to producer De Laurentiis at the time! It’s also curious that only Gabel’s beautiful Helen has her face whitened with makeup, because this was the standard practice for all noblewomen in Ancient Greece where the suntan was not socially acceptable.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

‘Not so fast, Mr Odysseus.,.’

Conversations between the Gods are kept to a minimum and rendered by offscreen voiceover accompanied by shots of statues. It’s not particularly satisfying, but it’s preferable to well-known actors making cameos on smoke-filled sets dressed in togas. Peter Hinwood apparently played Hermes, a half-decade before he found everlasting cult fame in the title role of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (1975). You’ll also recognise the young Gregorini in her debut role. A swift name change later and she was ‘Bond Girl’ Anya Amasova opposite Roger Moore in ‘Ths Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977) and another made her Mrs Ringo Starr. One of Gabel’s first screen credits was as Sophia Loren’s ‘swimming double’ in ‘Boy On A Dolphin’ (1957). Despite his memorable performance here, Nepo’s screen career was a short one. In real life, he was a celebrated Russian surrealistic artist whose best-known work is the wonderful painting ‘La Nuit de Walpurgis’. 

Other technical merits boost the production, including an elegant score by composer Bruno Nicolai and excellent location work. The exteriors were entirely filmed in the former Yugoslavia, and its empty, sun-baked coasts are the perfect setting for this sweeping tale of men and mythology. As well as its television broadcast, the series was condensed into a 105-minute feature called ‘The Adventures of Ulysses’, This went to theatres over the next couple of years and apparently contained nearly all of Bava’s contribution.

Minor quibbles aside, this is an impressively faithful attempt to recreate Homer’s original poem on the screen. Filmmaking is rarely this ambitious or so well accomplished.

lsland of the Fishmen/L’Isola Degli Uomini Pesce (1979)

Island of the Fishmen (1979)‘This island is inhabited by zombies! The Living Dead! That’s why the graves are empty!’

1891: A prison ship is wrecked in uncharted waters and the few survivors wash up on an empty beach. The island’s owner isn’t pleased to see them and it becomes obvious that he has more than one secret to hide. What is his connection to the strange, amphibious humanoids that live out in the swamps?

Cast adrift in a boat with no food or water and only convicts for company, it would seem that things can’t get much worse for ship’s doctor Claudio Cassinelli. Unfortunately, he’s also got to deal with arrogant autocrat Richard Johnson, whose household consists of pretty young wife Barbara Bach, and native servants who seem more interested in voodoo than their household chores. Oh, and he’s keeping elderly Professor Joseph Cotten in a secret laboratory under the stairs.

Yes, what with the murderous fishmen out in the reeds, it seems we’re back in ‘Dr Moreau’ territory again for another round with H.G. Wells’ classic novel. But what’s that lying in the depths offshore beneath the coral reef? Why, it’s the lost continent of Atlantis, of course, which puts rather a different spin on things. As well as that, Johnson’s housekeeper Shakira (Beryl Cunningham, not the pop star) is carrying out strange ceremonies in a cemetery in the woods. This tropical boneyard has been abandoned by everyone, including the residents! Questions pile up for Cassinelli as he investigates, inevitably falling for Bach along the way as his convict charges becomes fish food one by one.

This all sounds like quite a heady mix with lots of possibilities, but it all falls rather flat under the direction of journeyman Sergio Martino, whose only real cinematic claims to fame are the controversial ‘Slave of the Cannibal God’ (1975) and delirious Mad Max ‘homage’ ‘2019: After the Fall of New York’ (1983). The main problem is the lack of originality in the script and the sheer predictability of events. Barely a quarter of an hour has gone by before the local volcano starts rumbling, effectively signposting the way to the climatic conflagration and inevitable stock footage. What is it with these mysterious islands and their volcanos? It seems one isn’t complete without the other. And there’s little else in the way of real action either; with the voodoo subplot going nowhere and our amphibious friends doing little until some aquatic shenanigans in the final act. To the production’s credit, the creatures don’t look particularly ridiculous, just a little unconvincing.

Island of the Fishmen (1979)

Bach’s choice of boyfriends wasn’t always perfect.

Bach was a Bond Girl in the era when it was a double-edged sword. Although it brought instant fame, it could also be a career curse and she struggled to escape the shadow of ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977). Subsequent projects were less than stellar Eurotrash such as ‘The Great Alligator’ (1979) and ridiculous ‘Star Wars’ (1977) knock-off ‘The Humanoid’ (1979). She met Ringo Starr on the set of prehistoric comedy ‘Caveman’ (1981), became his wife and virtually retired. It was probably for the best, as she is a distinctly vapid presence here, and her dialogue seems to be dubbed.

Spare a thought for Cassinelli too, whose part entirely consists of looking rugged and asking endless questions. So acting honours go to Johnson, who gives a performance so dastardly you expect him to start twirling his moustache at any moment. Cotten, on the other hand, is obviously just picking up a cheque, and probably wasn’t on set too long to get his brief scenes in the can.

This has all the ingredients of a cult classic but fails to deliver on almost every level. lt’s not so bad that it’s good, and not good enough to be very entertaining.

Jaguar Lives! (1979)

Jaguar_Lives_(1979)‘Look, I’m sure you and your little bulldog didn’t just fly in to see the cows.’

After his partner is killed on a mission, Jonathan Cross retires as a secret agent. When a series of high level assassinations occur in the Middle East, he’s persuaded to return because it appears that the culprit may have been responsible for the death of his friend…

After ‘Enter the Dragon’ (1973) star Bruce Lee became a global phenomenon, there were plenty of attempts to launch real-life martial artists as the successor to the late superstar. Joe Lewis was one; a man who Lee himself considered ‘the Greatest Karate Fighter of all time’ and one of only 5 men to defeat Chuck Norris in competition. Unfortunately, the only acting experience he had was a bit part in Matt Helm flick ‘The Wrecking Crew’ (1968) over a decade earlier, and his lack of experience was cruelly exposed in his first starring vehicle.

Obviously, the film was intended as a rival to the Bond franchise with Lewis as an agent who could use his fists and feet to deadly effect, rather than a Walther PPK. The concept is certainly a decent one, but is scuppered not only by Lewis’ lack of presence, but by a weak script and indifferent direction. The plot meanders confusingly, often seeming to be just an excuse to send Lewis from one exotic location to another and to meet one guest star after another. These guest stars never appear in any scenes together, which is not a good sign. Also the final revelation of the villain’s secret identity should come as a surprise to no one.

It’s the impressive role of guest stars that is likely to be the reason anyone seeks this film out now. It’s probably no coincidence that these provide several links to the Bond franchise. First up, Lewis’ handler is Mrs Ringo Starr – the lovely Barbara Bach from ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977), and, later on, he runs into Bond villains Donald Pleasance from ‘You Only Live Twice’ (1967), Christopher Lee from ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ (1974) and Joseph Wiseman from ‘Dr. No’ (1962), making his final film appearance.

Jaguar Lives (1979)

‘I’ll come with you so long as I don’t have to wear a shirt.’

Elsewhere he tangles with 1960s ‘It Girl’ Capucine and Western icon Woody Strode. Also present is film director John Huston, whose ill-judged acting career included Euro-bombs like ‘Tentacles’ (1977) and demented ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977) knock off ‘The Visitor’ (1978). None of these famous names makes much of an impression, with the notable exception of Pleasance, who has fun as the unhinged dictator of a banana republic.

The action and combat sequences could have saved the film, of course, but there’s little stunt work and the fight choreography is predictable and flat. Given Lewis’ lack of star quality, the combination of all these negative factors makes for an unsatisfying experience. Perhaps the most memorable moment is the climactic face-off on the battlements of an old castle. Not because there’s anything remarkable about the sequence itself; just that it was the middle of the night a few seconds earlier.

The final scene hints at sequels but it was no surprise when they failed to appear.