DVD Review: Four Flies on Grey Velvet

PrintE-mail Written by Martyn Conterio

Review: Four Flies on Grey Velvet (18) / Director: Dario Argento / Screenplay: Dario Argento / Starring: Michael Brendon, Mimsy Farmer, Jean-Pieree Marielle / Release date: Jan 30th

Dario Argento’s little seen third picture, Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), has been partially restored by Shameless Screen Entertainment for this latest re-release. Why only partially? The print they’ve scrubbed up still possesses some wear and tear in places and not even modern technology could sort it out fully. The blemishes, frame wobbles and print scratches only appear once in a while but it jars badly when the rest of the film is a visual treat (even on DVD). In fact, it highlights what a great job, in general, Shameless has done when you see the differing quality.

Before the movie commences a warning is given announcing the glitches. Nevertheless what they’ve done is commendable given nobody usually cares about genre pictures compared to the usual restoration process of ‘classics’. They’ve fixed up a lot of problems and re-inserted several shots previously thought missing. What we have now is the most complete version of the film to date.

Co-written with Luigi Cozzi, Four Flies on Grey Velvet (Italian title: 4 Mosche di Velluto Grigio), takes a fantastical idea: the retina being able to record the very last image it sees (thus a murder victim will perhaps reveal a clue as to the perpetrator). Of course it’s all completely absurd making it less forensic revolution and more science fiction. However, Argento’s masterful weaving of dreamlike atmosphere firmly acknowledges everyday realism is the last thing on his mind. Was it ever?

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage announced a new sort of new subgenre in horror-thriller cinema. The giallo, historically, might have kick-started with Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace in 1964 and examples can be found more or less throughout the 1960s, but Argento cemented a variety of tropes and launched the great – and much imitated – gialli boom.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet began as a title in the director’s head. He befriended former music journalist Cozzi and they developed a storyline around death scenes they’d devised. It might appear an experimental (or foolhardy) approach to narrative but in the realm of Argento, this is entirely normal. Bizarre mysteries, exquisite and violent death and the director’s own obsessions are what make these films tick and why they’ve been singled out for all sorts of reasons over the past forty years.

Michael Brandon plays Roberto Tobias, a musician in a rock band, who develops a great unease after the same man follows him across town day in, day out. Finally, pissed off more than unnerved, Roberto is led to a deserted theatre where an accident leaves him in a vulnerable position. Who is the figure in the mask taking photographs?

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage took inspiration from Frederic Brown’s dime store novel The Screaming Mimi and Argento turned to American pulp fiction again for inspiration. Cornell Woolrich’s Black Alibi provided the movie with a great sequence involving a woman trapped inside a park. Giallo fans may also notice Sergio Martino staged a similar scene in The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, and seems to think Argento was paying some sort of homage. Luigi Cozzi, quite believably, disputes this in the bonus DVD interview, saying Argento would never copy those he saw as imitating him. Not that they’re against Martino’s film or the director himself, it’s just Argento set trends – he didn’t follow them.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet also completes what fans call the ‘animal trilogy’, which began with his debut and continued with Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971). The third feature also forefronts Argento’s passion for rock music. Yet this would be film where Ennio Morricone and the director, after arguing over the score, parted ways for over twenty years. Unusually for Morricone, it’s not very good or distinct.

The opening scene of Roberto pounding away on his drum kit only to stop the music all together for a few beats helps set the off-kilter, disruptive tone of the entire film. The editing, too, delivers a querulous, albeit, exceedingly stylish tone. Argento was growing more and more confident, that much is clear.

Roberto, a total innocent in the unfolding mayhem, is being blackmailed by a killer for some maddening reason. The list of suspects is surprisingly slim but there are red herrings a-plenty along the way. One of the best moments visualises a re-occurring dream Roberto has involving a man executed in a large public square with a sword. The details of this nightmare come direct from a friend’s story related at a party but takes on significance in greatly symbolic fashion.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet is, of course, absolutely ludicrous (like most giallo movies) but so assured is Argento’s directorial panache that even the most silly plot developments somehow remain in tone and do not disrupt the film or experience. The same cannot be said for several characters including a gay detective whose effeminate manner is meant as a jokey polar opposite to the traditional hard-boiled gumshoe, but is cringe-worthy.

Fans of Argento love the gruesomely staged set pieces. He doesn’t disappoint here though it’s not as gory as later films. However the final scene, in which reality and dream collide to create the brutal passing of an omen, is stunning. It takes Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Ballet of Death’ notion from The Wild Bunch and re-contextualises it, making a rather wacky ‘whodunit reveal’ strangely poetic. The slow motion is gorgeous despite the gruesome nature of what takes place.

This new release will definitely be something for Argento and giallo fans to check out. Whilst it’s not an essential work from the Italian maestro, it is near quintessential. It feels much like a transient movie and displays inklings of what would come in masterpieces such as Deep Red (1975), Suspiria (1977), Inferno (1980) and Tenebrae (1983). The Italian filmmaker was gaining great confidence in both style and thematic concerns.

The DVD comes with a few extras but nothing of great significance. A featurette on the restoration would have been most welcome. The film is also presented in Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic and this further creates a beautiful sense of composition. It’s great to see foreign genre cinema given the same amount of care and consideration afforded to Hollywood classics. Only the unfortunate print defects sully an otherwise excellent release.

Extras: filmed introduction by Luigi Cozzi, theatrical trailer, interview with Luigi Cozzi, Shameless Screen Entertainment trailer reel

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