Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon) is a young drummer in a rock band, who is apparently being followed to and from his studio rehearsals and constantly distracted by a strange, leering moustachioed man in dark glasses and a fedora hat. After catching sight of him in the street, Roberto chases the figure onto the stage of a darkened theatre auditorium, and is accidently responsible for the stranger’s death in the struggle that ensues. Meanwhile, a macabre figure wearing a child’s rubber puppet mask has photographed the entire event from one of the upper balconies of the theatre. When the dead man’s identity papers are posted to Roberto and his nervous young wife Nina (Mimsy Farmer) the next day and photographs of Roberto’s crime start to appear randomly around the house along with notes reminding him that his criminal act has been witnessed, the young rock musician is plunged into a nightmare of paranoia. Then people around him start getting brutally murdered, and the stakes are raised once more as Roberto tries to cover up his ‘crime’ while pondering who might be responsible for this spiralling nightmare of psychological torment …
“Four Flies on Grey Velvet” is very noticeably the key transitional film in Dario Argento’s development as a filmmaker, bridging the gap between the traditional mystery style of giallo first brought to prominence by the young maestro in his elegant debut “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” (and then consolidated in his so-so follow-up “The Cat O’Nine Tails”), and the nightmare-tinged collision of horror, delirium and psycho drama that was crystallised so assuredly with the emergence of the completely ground-breaking technique that marked the director’s first true masterpiece, “Deep Red”. With its narratively underdeveloped hints at the protagonist’s telepathic powers (which take the form of symbolic ‘predictive’ dreams of decapitation) and the ludicrous outré science behind the conceit which eventually reveals the killer’s identity, the film was clearly tentatively edging towards the territory inhabited by Argento’s later work, although it comes across more as though it was made by someone not quite sure of his ground yet, but anxious to break out of the straightjacket of conformity to the rigid giallo framework (which Argento himself had originally instigated) that was by now being routinely imitated by a slew of other Italian filmmakers, prompting the country’s great giallo boom of the late-sixties and early-seventies in the process.
But “Four Flies on Grey Velvet” is also interesting for the way in which it attempts to merge the director’s habitually baroque sensibility (which was later showcased so wonderfully in “Deep Red” and “Suspiria” among others) with an attempt also to encompass and perhaps comment upon the iconography of the countercultural movements of the times in which the film was made. It was released around the same period as Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point”, and Argento cast Mimsy Farmer in the role of Nina, Roberto’s pallid, tomboyish wife, after being entranced by her performance in Barbet Schroeder’s Pink Floyd-scored hippy-heroin morality tale “More”, and had originally planned to cast James Taylor in the role of Roberto after his appearance in Monty Hellman’s existential countercultural road movie “Two Lane Blacktop”. All of these films share a common trait of aiming themselves squarely at the kind of young audience expected to be sympathetic to the counterculture, while also obliquely critiquing its apparent aimlessness and its ultimately self-destructive and selfish tendencies. Thus Argento’s film luxuriates in exquisitely shot (by cinematographer Franco Di Giacomo) compositions showcasing the baroque architecture of the film’s mix of Turinese, Milanese and Roman exteriors; once again the plot turns on dark childhood secrets and warped sexual family psychology, symbolised in past events which have occurred in a decaying abandoned villa (in this case, said past events are bound up in the building’s history as a mental hospital). But lost in this imposing landscape of Gothic architectural grandeur (looming opera theatre backdrops, elaborately over-adorned street facades, the interior art deco designs of old Italian apartment buildings) and pseudo-Freudian terrors are figures who, more than in any other Argento film, belong full square in the late hippy milieu of 1971.
“Four Flies on Grey Velvet” is far more of a time-capsule period piece than possibly any other film the director ever made. His other works all inevitably betray the period of their production in some way through their fashions and furnishings, but “Four Flies …” is the only one that goes out of its way to foreground the fact that its events are taking place in the modern, affluent, consumer-dominated Italy of 1970 through the appearance and attitude of its characters. Nearly all of the central characters in Argento’s films are involved with the arts, usually in some non-descript or non-specific way, but Roberto Tobias’ occupation as a rock drummer in a trendy modern band of the period is foregrounded from the opening frames, and furthermore, unlike square and hung up Sam Dalmas or twitchy jazz pianist Marc Daly, Roberto is clearly intended to be read as a fairly hip and happening 1970s musician, who appears to have gained some sort of success from his efforts if the state-of-the-art, all mod cons designer house he shares with his wife is any indicator of such things.
Although Ennio Morricone’s attempts to pastiche the post-hippy progressive art rock milieu of Argento’s original choices for the music soundtrack -- either the sound of Pink Floyd or that of Deep Purple is what the director initially wanted for the film, which would have marked a decisive break with Morricone’s classical melodic approach -- are arguably a rather embarrassing misfire (although their quirkily inappropriate oddness now just adds yet another level of insanity to the mix which only enhances the generally disorientating effect Argento was going for with the film overall) Roberto and his band dress in the contemporary relaxed style of young(ish), long-haired tie-dye wearing bohemians of the period and Roberto has the latest up-to-the-minute stereo record deck (complete with massive speakers and a showcase mounted Sunburst electric guitar and reel-to-reel tape deck display) in his apartment, which even becomes the backdrop to his climactic confrontation with the killer and tormentor at the very end of the film, with Roberto placed in front of the display as though he were part of a diorama of modish, trend-setting 1970s rock star affluence. This sheen of modernity is set in opposition to the traditional Gothic psychological concerns of Argento’s cinema -- as symbolised by the baroque, decaying architecture Roberto soon finds himself surrounded by elsewhere. During the course of the nightmare he is forced to enter, Roberto is rapidly taken out of his faddish comfort zone of groovy, happening parties at his stylish pad; but then finds the insanity has even invaded his swanky home as well. The tormentor appears to have the ability to invade his space at will, leaving photos and notes scattered around, ripping up the cushions and killing his pet cat -- even assaulting him and whispering hoarse threats into his ear in the dark …
Pressured to come up with something new in order to compete with his many giallo-making imitators, and in the throes of divorce proceedings as his marriage to his first wife came to an end, Argento was in something of an agitated state at the time the film was made and, in an interview with Alan Jones published in his book ‘Profondo Argento’, tells of feeling like he was “under a microscope” – everyone watching for what he would do next. It was apparently the crisis brought about by this pressure of expectation which induced Argento to proclaim that “Four Flies …” was to be his last ever giallo. But ironically, this seems to have worked psychologically to his advantage, and led to his taking the breaks off the creative pedal and initiating the first stages of the radical, adventurous new style that would later make his name: ‘I decided to be completely experimental and throw every outrageous idea I had about shooting, colour, music and acting into the mix’ he said. In the same interview Argento talks about “Four Flies …” as his ‘New Wave’ movie and of it being ‘the father’ to “Deep Red”.
What’s peculiar and all the more evocative about the movie today, is the strange convergence that emerges between the director and his state of mind at the time and that of the central character in the film. Michael Brandon even looks a lot like Argento did in the early seventies, and Brandon’s character Roberto seems to function as an alter ego for the director (indeed, Brandon is one of the few actors who got on so well with Argento that the two became firm friends, and the director even threw a surprise party for him on his last day in Rome). This is unusual, since Argento usually plays the killer’s black gloved hands in all his movies, but not in this one; instead it is Roberto’s increasing sense of isolation and estrangement from his surroundings that Argento seems more in tune with. Roberto is an arty, trendy, financially well-off bohemian rock star type – just like Argento at the time. Yet even weirder is just how unsympathetic Roberto Tobias increasingly becomes as the film progresses: this is a man who, believing he has murdered someone, goes to extraordinary lengths to cover it up in order to protect his affluent, comfortable lifestyle; he selfishly cheats on his wife – whom he treats like dirt most of the time anyway, when he’s not completely ignoring her – with her pert younger cousin Dalia (Francine Racette), and seems ill-at-ease among the hip and hirsute friends who litter his musicians’ home soirees.
Like Argento himself, Roberto seems much more relaxed and ‘him-self’ around those confined to the margins of mainstream society. Although he represents the modern affluence of Italy’s consumer pop culture, Roberto turns to his friend ‘God’ (Carlo Pedersoli) for help rather than his fragile, apparently loving wife (the name is short for Godfrey – a character that originally appeared in the story The Screaming Mimi, from which Argento’s “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” was adapted). God lives in an old shack by a river on the overgrown outskirts of the city, happy apparently living in total poverty, eating only raw fish. He in turn employs another dishevelled vagabond called the Professor to keep watch on Roberto’s house. Another marginal character Roberto becomes involved with is the private detective Gianni Arrosio (Jean-Pierre Marielle), a likable but unsuccessful homosexual investigator who, although in some ways a camp stereotype, avoids the negative casting common to 1970s portrayals of gay characters, his sexuality simply being an extra shading added to the portrayal by the French actor Marielle. The shallowness and absurdity of the bourgeois lifestyle Roberto aspires to is no better satirised than in the scene in which Roberto and God visit an Expo of funerary products and a series of vignettes are played out in the background of the scene, in which rich people fuss over a selection of expensive and gaudily tasteless coffins, including a velvet-lined heart-shaped one. One expensively suited customer fussily complains that one of the displays is too tight a fit. ‘We’ve never had anyone return with a complaint,’ the salesman informs him.
Roberto’s finding common cause with society’s outcasts or its misunderstood and marginalised is about the only thing that helps humanise this pretty-looking but otherwise oddly passive character. Like many of the characters that represented the counterculture in movies from the period, he seems dislocated and detached, and like the emerging pop and rock aristocracy of the 1960s, he appears to represent the aspirational classlessness of the New Wealth which came to prominence during that decade as a result of the emergence of a teen-orientated pop culture, yet is caught mid-way, somewhere between a desire to embrace the selfish excesses of the era and his identification with the simple lifestyle represented by his old friends who still live on the outskirts of that pseudo- sophisticated metropolitan world.
But the primary way in which Argento illustrates the giddy excesses and experimental temperament of the era though comes about with his energetic adoption of an array of showy techniques, which he was now prepared to throw at the audience without the least worry or reservation about what people might think. As far as he was concerned at the time, this was to be his very last fling in the giallo genre, and although there often seems no real plan behind the relentless barrage of weird camera angles, rapid-fire editing and disruptive sound patterns that do strange things with the diegetic space; the oddball POV shots (from behind the sound hole of a guitar?), jump cuts, peripatetic camera roamings and gimmicky but effective camera tricks (at one point the camera actually ‘becomes’ the candlestick murder weapon used to stove in a victim’s brains), many of which Argento unleashes from the very opening frames of the film when even the opening credits are constantly interrupted with a modish, jittery display of off-the-wall camera placement ideas and around-the-room pans executed during a sequence where Roberto’s band are seen rehearsing a particularly indulgent prog rock wig out -- the overall results are extremely effective in engendering a kaleidoscopic feeling of displacement which feeds the edginess and paranoia of the very peculiar plot to come. During the course of the film Argento lets rip with the kind of visual showpieces that were soon to become a trademark: he has his camera follow the route of a telephone call from outside a phone box all the way to the killer’s indoor line; and at one point a bullet is caught in slow motion as it speeds towards its destination -- an idea the director would go on to finesse in several other films during his career.
Murder set-pieces, of course, are where Argento gets to indulge himself to the utmost. The key one in this film comes when Roberto’s and Nina’s maid, having worked out the identity of Roberto’s tormentor, arranges to meet that person in a public park intending to blackmail them for money (Roberto is obviously stingy with his wages too, despite his rock star affluence). In a lengthy sequence that is often cited as taking its inspiration from a similar one shot by Jacques Tourneur in Val Lewton’s 1943 production of “The Leopard Man”, the maid arrives in a park already mildly scattered with people and parents overseeing some children in a small play area while eerie fairground-type music is broadcast across a crackly Tannoy system. Although events play out similar to the way they also did in “The Leopard Man” in which a young girl fails to notice the passage of time in a cemetery while she waits for her boyfriend, and finds herself locked inside with a killer and unable to escape, Argento’s handling of the material in his version owes much more to the suspenseful mastery of Alfred Hitchcock combined with the experimental pizazz of Michelangelo Antonioni than it does to the noir stylings of Tourneur. There is a radical use of a jump cut technique to illustrate the victim suddenly becoming aware that time has passed and all the people who were previously around are no longer there, and that the park has been locked for the evening. The strange atmosphere of the surroundings is by this fashion subtly emphasised and the off-the-wall jump cutting technique calls to mind the final frames of Antonioni’s “Blow Up” -- also set in a similar park space -- when David Hemmings’ character disappears from the movie in a similarly audacious manner. As day suddenly becomes night across the park (the sudden transition seen here seems to be a mistake on the part of Shameless), Argento exercises unusual restraint by cutting away from the chase to the other side of the park’s towering, un-scalable surrounding wall, where a helpless couple on the street have to listen to the maid being murdered off-screen while being unable to do anything to help. In another very memorable sequence, Argento utilised the very highest speed camera then available, which shot film at 1000 frames per second rather than the standard 24 (and had just been used by Antonioni on “Zabriskie Point”) to turn the death and decapitation of the murderer in a random car accident, as they flee the scene of confrontation with Roberto, into a bizarrely moving, elegiac counterpoint to the kinetic violence seen elsewhere in the movie, accompanied by one of Morricone’s most achingly beautiful cues and becoming perhaps the ultimate expression of Argento’s death as art aesthetic, in which the final moments of a life are fetishized as an artistic happening that also really brings home the tragedy inherent in this character’s twisted backstory as well.
Although the usual patented Argento cocktail of gender confusions, aberrant sexuality, warped family relations and maniacal personality disorders, which are nonetheless still able to pass themselves off as normal in everyday society, all lie at the heart of the killer’s tortured psyche (as they do in most superior examples from Argento’s body of work) there are few other films where our sympathies are more with the killer than the protagonist, even though the protagonist seems to be the director’s alter ego! The killer appears to be the creation of an upbringing they couldn’t have escaped from, while Roberto becomes their target precisely because he shares an accidental similarity to the person responsible for turning the killer into the person they grew up to be. The forces of chance and randomness appear to govern the world in “Four Flies on Grey Velvet”, forming character and dictating circumstance with no ultimate aim in mind but those that can be designed by a homicidal maniac. Roberto tries to hide from this fact behind the insulating false security of consumer-led pop culture, but the pessimistic message of Argento’s final film in his animal trilogy is that the warped crimes of the past live on in contemporary psychology and won’t be outlived or remodelled by the countercultural or any other revolution – even hippies have their hidden family secrets and skeletons and devils are buried in their closets too …
“Four Flies on Grey Velvet” for years was unavailable in anything like an acceptable form, rights issues with distributors Paramount consigning it to a limbo that could only be circumvented if you were prepared to negotiate dubious Greek-subtitled bootlegs of truly hideous quality. The stateside MYA DVD release from a few years back came with a whole host of annoying new audio problems, so it was with a sense of excitement mixed with trepidation that I loaded up my player with this new Shameless Blu-ray disc (which happily is an ALL REGION release, all you jealous American fans out there) of Argento’s least-seen early giallo effort. After an opening caption from Shameless that made me laugh out loud, since it flashed up a request that the viewer turn out all the lights before viewing the movie in accordance with Dario Argento’s wises, just as I was doing exactly that, the film proper starts up. The quality of the HD transfer itself might disappoint some naive viewers who expect oodles of extra sharpness and definition from a film that’s been near lost for the best part of forty years but compared to all previous versions (including the MYA release) this is streets ahead of anything we’ve been treated to before. The sombre colour tones look like a very good reproduction of what would have originally been intended by Di Giacomo’s early seventies photography, and if this print isn’t exactly bursting with shiny new detail it does at least appear to provide a clear, accurate rendering of the visual style of the film with minimal visual glitches and without distracting overuse of digital noise reduction. In short, it looks pretty fab and the English audio, remastered from the original magnetic soundtrack and heard here for the first time since the film’s original release in the ‘70s, is an equally good, strong, clear 2.1 DTS HD-MA – no pitch problems and no pops and crackles.
The only problems come in the last few minutes of the film when it seems that the killer’s final confrontation with Roberto was cut down for the English language release and so no full English track actually exists for it, necessitating Shameless jump back and forth from English to Italian audio several times. It seems bizarre that this key scene was tampered with for the English cut, but there is no way around that fact now. It’s doubly unfortunate though that the subtitled Italian mono audio that acts as substitute for the missing English dialogue (you might recall that Anchor Bay did the same thing for missing English scenes in “Deep Red”) seems to cut in at a much higher volume and is accompanied by harsh pops on the soundtrack, forcing the viewer to hastily scrabble for the remote to turn the volume down. The disc also comes with the option of watching a seamless branching reconstruction of the most complete cut of the film available which includes an extra, previously missing 40 seconds of material which alas is NOT from a HD source (which is why Shameless give you the choice of watching it without the material reinstated as the default option). We also get the Italian soundtrack in mono (with a DTS mono option as well), with English subtitles that are a direct translation of the original Italian dialogue rather than the English language dubbing script, so there are interesting differences which make it well worthwhile fans watching the film in its Italian language variant. In fact, I think I prefer the film with its Italian soundtrack option.
There are a number of interesting little extras with the release: we get an English trailer put together by Shameless, which is fine, but even better is the original Italian trailer (which has also been restored to HD quality). This is a minor work of art in itself and is a lot more than just a selection of clips from the film strung together. In fact there’s plenty of stuff here that’s not in the film at all, most of it based around the creepy puppet mask which the killer uses to disguise their identity early in the film. It’s well worth giving this a spin even if you usually ignore the trailers on DVD/Blu-ray releases. The source used for this release makes use of a print with Italian credits, so Shameless have also included a version of the opening and closing credit sequences with English credits spliced in, although they’ve been taken from a ropey VHS print by the look of it. The photo gallery features the usual selection of publicity stills and cool posters from various territories, as well as a Paramount Films press book with crazy ideas for theatrical publicity campaigns, and even a comic strip adaptation of the film!
The principle extra on this Blu-ray edition though, is a forty minute interview with assistant director and co-writer (and professional ‘friend’ of Dario Argento) Luigi Cozzi in a feature entitled “The Art of Murder”. Cozzi actually gives a pretty extensive overview of the thinking and effort that went into the making of the movie, especially in recounting just how important literature by the likes of Fredric Brown, Cornell Woolrich and Raymond Chandler was to Argento during this period. He talks about how his own love of fantasy is what galvanised the more fantastical turn in Argento’s cinema, eventually leading to “Deep Red” and “Suspira”, since the crazy science behind reading the image from the eyeball of a murder victim was his idea. He mentions how important every single detail was to the director, with nothing about the look of the lighting and cinematography, the set design or the colour scheme of the film left to chance. There’s an insert in which director Sergio Martino is shown claiming that Argento took the concept behind the murder in the park scene from his own film “The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh”, but this is a claim that Cozzi explicitly denies, claiming that they may have both been inspired by the same literary source, namely Cornell Woolrich’s “Black Alibi” (which was also the inspiration for “The Leopard Man”). Side by side comparison shots do reveal an uncanny similarity in both scenes though. There is a discussion about how the shots in which the image of four flies is shown being extracted from the eyeball of the victim using a laser beam in order to provide the vital clue to the murderer’s identity was achieved, and Cozzi reveals that Deep Purple apparently did actually supply some music which was originally used in the filming of the opening sequence, then explains why it didn’t make it into the finished film. There’s also an in-depth discussion about the famous final slow motion shot at the end of the film, the fraught circumstances behind the filming of it, and the reason for the strange line which can be seen in the original version of the movie, caused by the film slipping in the gate of the high speed camera. In fact, Shameless have digitally removed that line for this release.
All in all, “Four Flies on Grey Velvet” emerges as a much stronger film than many may have anticipated, laying much of the groundwork for the true masterpieces to come by allowing the director to see that special things tended to happen when he let his wild side loose on the screen. The film is a transitional piece and is far from perfect (the running gag with the postman never appealed to me) but it has more than enough stand-out moments and a deeply paranoid yet detached atmosphere which does make it stand out in the Argento oeuvre as a distinctive and artistically sophisticated development in his approach to the art of murder.
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