Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #491
Number of Views: One
Release Date: December 17, 1971
Country of Origin: Italy, France
Box Office: ₤1,231,000 (Italy)
Running Time: 104 minutes
Director: Dario Argento
Producer: Salvatore Argento
Screenplay: Dario Argento
Story: Dario Argento, Luigi Cozzi, Mario Foglietti
Special Effects: Dino Galiano
Cinematography: Franco Di Giacomo
Score: Ennio Morricone
Editing: Franco Fraticelli
Studio: Marianne Productions, Seda Spettacoli, Universal Productions France, Cinema International Corporation
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Stars: Michael Brandon, Mimsy Farmer, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Bud Spencer, Aldo Bufi Landi, Calisto Calisti, Marisa Fabbri, Oreste Lionello, Fabrizio Moroni, Corrado Olmi, Stefano Satta Flores, Laura Troschel, Francine Racette, Dante Cleri, Guerrino Crivello
Suggested Audio Candy
Ennio Morricone “Come un Madrigale”
When speaking of the many films of Dario Argento, one movie that seldom receives mention is Four Flies on Grey Velvet. To their eternal discredit, Paramount Pictures owned the rights but decided not to release it until 2009, leaving most audiences unaware that it even existed. Following on from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Cat o’ Nine Tails, the third and final part in his Animal Trilogy is still eerily ambiguous over forty years on and that seems a crying shame as it came about during a particularly torrid time in his personal life and often echoes his torture. His marriage to Marisa Casale was drawing to an acrimonious close during shooting and one close look at Michael Brandon, who plays his lead Roberto Tobias, and it becomes clear that the young actor represents his own bleeding heart.
Argento was still finding his feet in 1971 and it wasn’t until Profondo Rosso arrived four years later that he would truly hone his skills but his first three stabs at giallo are all still worthy of credit. Four Flies on Grey Velvet may well lack the bloody excess of his later work but his unique stylistic vision is here in abundance. This is never clearer than during a superb set-piece in a deserted park where a woman suddenly realizes that the sound of children and haunting carousel music has subsided and been replaced with ominous silence. Suspense is something which is in absolutely no shortage and he turns something as laborious as a shot of as Roberto driving his car, spliced with his POV of the destination, into something so intimate that we can almost smell the burnt rubber as we drive up the steps to his location ourselves.
One area where Four Flies on Grey Velvet has drawn criticism is Brandon’s limp and colorless performance and this isn’t an entirely fair observation. By Argento’s own admission, his least favorite part of the filmmaking process has been dealing with actors, and this likely stemmed from issues he had with Tony Musante while shooting his debut feature. Regardless of and possibly thanks to any language barriers, any vacancy in Brandon’s face echoes precisely how his director was likely feeling at the time, given the dissolution of his marriage. I would imagine it suited Argento down to the ground as he was always more interested in the look and texture of his work than any distracting narrative. For the record, I think Brandon does more than well enough given the parameters.
Indeed, the fact that his character can seem a little stand-offish and hard to form a bond with offers a unique perspective for the addressee. His marriage to affluent Nina (Mimsy Farmer) is on shaky ground, a man in black is mirroring his every move, and before long he is fleeing a crime scene with blood on his hands while a case for blackmail is being lodged against him by a surreptitious snapper who caught the whole act from an elevated vantage point. We would be right in assuming that we are catching Roberto at a particularly bad moment. To top his sorrow, he is haunted by a recurring nightmare which involves a Middle Eastern execution in a bleached out town square on perpetual and ever more tantalizing loop.
Shaken and unable to share his distress with his wife, Roberto turns to his closest friends in an attempt at perking himself up. Soon we meet God, short for Godfrey (Bud Spencer) to the heavenly chorus of “hallelujah” and his quick-witted compadre The Professor (Oreste Lionello) and overt characters such as these show a rare and welcome vein of humor which he would later tap into once again for Profondo Rosso. Also on Roberto’s books is wonderfully camp private dick Arrosio (a wonderfully camp Jean-Pierre Marielle looking like he’s just vacated the Le Cage Aux Folles launch party) and, with Clouseau’s gay nephew leading the inquiry, it’s no small wonder that Roberto drags his loafers around looking so damned somber.
Thankfully, Nina’s desirable cousin Dalia (Francine Racette) is on-hand to run him a nice warm bath and he gets to let off some of that sexual frustration with a lovemaking scene that sadly reminds us we’re in the early seventies. Beneath the suds, one part of Roberto is animated but his eyes are still under that spell. His inability to truly feel, coupled with a mysterious facial similarity with Argento himself, are the closest the director comes to showing us his own tears. Blank. Expressionless. Numb. I know just how he was feeling. Meanwhile, a killer is at large, and beginning to lose patience.
It isn’t until the final act that the title Four Flies on Grey Velvet begins to hold weight as Roberto is introduced to a new police technique which involves removing the eye of a victim just after their final death throe, firing a laser through it, and extracting the last few frames of their life for analysis. The test is declared inconclusive and that is precisely what Argento felt about applying its logic at the time. The notion that an image could be caught on retina is one he would likely have embraced later in his career but, back then, seemed too fantastical for giallo. I’m glad that pal Carlo Rambaldi helped him see sense as it’s a fascinating concept which has since been replicated several times to excellent effect in other movies.
This technology comes to the forefront during our reveal and, cleverly, the answer to the mystery has been staring us in the face ever since the title card. It’s a neat touch and Four Flies on Grey Velvet is littered with similar nuggets of delight. The fact that Roberto’s recurring nightmares of decapitation foreshadow how justice will ultimately be delivered is just beautiful as is the slow-motion used to teasingly draw out the denouement. Talking of which, the slo-mo bullet effect moments before predates The Matrix by almost thirty years. Suddenly, the film’s place amongst his considerable canon becomes more pronounced. The villain’s mask reminds us that all ideas come from a seedling as it echoes the nightmarish clockwork doll from Profondo Rosso during its sadly brief run-out. Does this all hang together as a cohesive expression of art? Perhaps lopsidedly but that’s still a yes.
Four Flies on Grey Velvet never quite becomes vintage Argento but it is still a film that his faithful following really ought to cotton on to. The melancholic score by Ennio Morricone marked the end of their association for many years as Goblin gave us something edgier. The film itself marks a poignant moment in his own voyage of discovery and any self-respecting Argento fan owes it to themselves to take that voyage alongside him, just to understand this wonderfully contorted mind just a little better.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10
Grue Factor: 2/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Bear in mind that the year is 1971 and four years is a long time in show business. By 1975, Argento was ready to really turn the screw but here he is just securing it in its fixing. Most of the violence is off-screen but a couple of meaningful decapitations will hang in our retinas long after the credits have rolled. Meanwhile, Racette looks simply delicious hiding away in a closet like a startled rabbit and even better in the bath tub minus her clothes.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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