4 mosche di velluto grigio aka Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)
Director: Dario Argento
Starring: Michael Brandon, Mimsy Farmer, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Bud Spencer, Marisa Fabbri, Oreste Lionello, Francine Racette, Calisto Calisti
1/2 (out of 4)
The third film in Dario Argento’s “Animal Trilogy” (which includes The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and The Cat O’Nine Tails) reveals early Argento as ambitious, skillful, and experimental. The fascinating tracking shots and camera placement that would show up in later films like Deep Red and Suspiria show up here; of course, you have to take the good with the bad – the incoherence of his later films and absurdity of his plots also make an appearance. This movie comes at a time when the giallo was getting big, and it has elements of sex and violence that one would expect from the genre, but what’s surprising is how restrained it is, especially for an Argento picture. 4 Flies on Grey Velvet is no masterpiece but I do find it agreeable enough to recommend it over most of his latest work – in the early 1970s, Argento had something to prove.
The hero of the film, if you can call him that, is a hipster/musician named Roberto (Michael Brandon). Drawn rather vaguely as a character, Roberto is aloof and never gives too much of himself; as a result he doesn’t leave a lasting impression. His trouble begins when he notices a guy in shades following him and decides to confront the dude in an empty theater. The guy pulls a knife, there’s a struggle, and the stranger is accidentally killed by Roberto with his own weapon. Up in the rafters a strange figure wearing a mask takes photos of the incident. Roberto is later harassed by this person, who leaves pictures and notes around his house, threatening to kill him when the time is right. No ransom is demanded – the unknown stalker just wants to torture Roberto a bit before he dies. He tells his wife Nina (Mimsy Farmer) about it, who is distraught and wants to leave the house and/or go to the police; Roberto will have none of that. Instead, he consults his friend God (Bud Spencer) who has his vagrant assistant, nicknamed “The Professor” (Oreste Lionello) watch the house, while Roberto hires openly gay private detective Arrosio (Jean-Pierre Marielle in a great performance) to figure out the stalker’s identity. When Roberto’s maid catches on to the bad guy’s scheme, she tries blackmail, which results in her death in a park. When Nina leaves the house to stay with relatives, her cousin Dalia (Francine Racette) stays behind and Roberto begins a short affair with her (not for any particular reason, either – just adding to his unlikeability, although the bathtub scene itself comes off as rather sweet).
What’s interesting about 4 Flies… is how it’s less concerned with keeping the plot going and more concerned with mise-en-scene and set-pieces – not necessary a flaw here. Argento keeps things at a leisurely pace, but most scenes are visually striking. Roberto is given a recurring dream of a man being beheaded in a square in Saudi Arabia (foreshadowing) and there are neat editing tricks, like a sequence where our protagonist is driving his car – every stick shift is intercut with scenes of the camera approaching Arrosio’s place of business. It feels like Roberto is literally driving into Arrosio’s office and is a very effective trick, as is an earlier sequence where Roberto is pursuing his man-in-shades, where the camera is pushing through a series of red curtains. The camera is fluid and always moving here. There are perhaps too many comedic elements, but they don’t distract too much from the film – much more ridiculous is the plot gimmick where a victim’s eyeball is hooked up to a special machine to extract an image from the retina, because this movie believes that old wives tale about the eye of a murder victim retaining the last thing it sees. In this case, what we see looks like four flies. The film’s pacing and the use of an image as a vital clue recalls Antonioni’s Blow Up (even the main character seems cut from the same cloth as David Hemmings’ character). The conclusion of 4 Flies… is a bit unsatisfying, partly because no clues to the killer’s identity are ever really given and the killer’s explanation is not very believable. The killer’s final fate, while telegraphed early on, somewhat fitting, and delivered in a visually stunning slow motion sequence – still comes off as lazy, as if Argento just wanted to end the thing.
And yet, throughout the whole movie there is the sense that God (Argento, not Bud Spencer) is always there, manipulating time and space. Daylight in the park suddently switches to night; people suddenly disappear in frame, as if you are jumping through time. Argento attaches much significance to the eye, and what it sees. He kills people and then implicates the viewer in the kill (witness a murder victim getting bludgeoned from the killer’s point of view – our point of view – and then the victim spitting blood in the camera – our face, that is). I like, also, how Argento manipulates gender roles – this is most obvious when the killer’s identity is revealed (I won’t give it away) but it’s also apparent from how Marielle’s homosexual character is handled. I didn’t find it homophobic at all – when he says “I’m a man like you, just a little different” – it’s rather simple and perfect, no need for further discussion. My biggest wish is that Argento put more effort into the story, which is rather lightweight and saturated with red herrings/false clues. Despite this, I would still recommend it for giallo fans.
- Bill Gordon