‘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.