(1971) Written and directed by Dario Argento; Original story by Dario Argento, Luigi Cozzi and Mario Foglietti; Starring: Michael Brandon, Mimsy Farmer, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Bud Spencer, Oreste Lionello and Francine Racette; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“…I killed this guy. I didn’t even know him. It was an accident. The police don’t know about it, but somebody else does. Someone who was there – took pictures of me killing him. Now they’re blackmailing me. But that’s not all. It isn’t just anyone. Someone who knows me pretty well...” – Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon)
Hmm…what to kick off Giallo Month with? Considering the multitude of available genre titles, I pondered some of Dario Argento’s contributions. Deep Red, arguably his best-known giallo film, was the first to spring to mind, but that would be too obvious. While I can’t guarantee I’ll have anything new or original to say about Four Flies on Grey Velvet (aka: 4 Mosche di Velluto Grigio), it’s the lesser-known Argento film, and worthy of further examination.
Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon), a drummer in a rock band, is being stalked by a man in a black suit and fedora, and eventually decides to confront him. Roberto follows him into an empty opera house, and in the ensuing struggle, the man is stabbed with his own knife. Meanwhile, a shadowy figure in a creepy kewpie doll mask watches from a distance, photographing the fatal altercation. He shortly receives a series of phone calls and an unwelcome late-night visit from the individual that witnessed the incident. Roberto concludes he’s being manipulated, but he’s afraid to discuss it with the police, fearing he’ll be jailed for the stalker’s murder. Assisted by his friends and a bumbling private detective, he conducts his own search for the killer. He must also contend with a strained marriage, as his wife Nina (Mimsy Farmer) begins to eye him with suspicion, and he has an affair with her cousin Dalia (Francine Racette). As the people around him begin to meet horrible ends, he’s no closer to learning the identity of the witness, or what they want from him. The answers spell certain peril for anyone who digs a little too deep, and could lead to Roberto’s demise.
One of the film’s most interesting conceits proposes it could be possible to extract a vital clue from of one of the victims by examining the cadaver’s eyes. Using an experimental type of forensic research, police investigators attempt to view the final thing the murdered woman saw, by examining an image that remained on one of her retinas. While this works great as a plot device, with some basis in actual research conducted in the late 1800s, the reality is much more prosaic. The research was based on false assumptions, stemming from the early days of photography, which equated the eye with a camera, and the retina analogous with film (Source: Smithsonian.com).
One of the best things about Four Flies on Grey Velvet is how it’s populated with a colorful assortment of supporting characters that provide much-needed levity to the intense story. The characters are so much fun that they threaten to steal the spotlight from the leads whenever they appear. Roberto seeks the advice of his irascible hermit friend Godfrey, aka “God” (Bud Spencer), whose initial appearance is heralded by a “Hallelujah” choir. Their meeting leads him to God’s companion, a lovable vagrant known as The Professor (Oreste Lionello). Roberto hires private detective Arrosio (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who’s been in business as a private eye for three years but hasn’t solved a single case (with a string of 84 failures). Marielle’s performance isn’t likely to win any points with GLAAD for his groan-worthy stereotypical gay portrayal, but his character manages to be sympathetic. There’s also a goofy mailman who has an unfortunate tendency to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Because this is an Argento film, Four Flies on Grey Velvet has more than its share of delightfully eccentric moments and weird, artsy shots. In one memorable scene, Roberto meets with God and The Professor in a coffin expo, filled with an assortment of strange caskets. In another scene, with Roberto’s band in a recording session, we’re viewing a shot from inside a guitar looking out. I’m not sure who would be hiding inside the guitar, but it’s an interesting vantage point. In a later scene, there’s an intriguing shot of a shiny dagger dropping toward its victim.* Besides the obvious phallic imagery of daggers and syringes, the movie delves into additional Freudian territory when Roberto is startled awake by a recurring nightmare, recalling a bandmate’s story about a public execution in Saudi Arabia. The story creeps into Roberto’s subconscious, as he repeatedly sees a head being chopped off (Is it a case of castration anxiety or fear that his head will be next on the chopping block?).
* If you turn the shot around 90 degrees, it’s oddly similar to the silver ball in Phantasm (1979). Even if it wasn’t a conscious choice, I’m left to speculate if it could have indirectly influenced such an iconic visual in Don Coscarelli’s film.
Four Flies on Grey Velvet is full of red herrings designed to steer you away from the trail, along with dubious psychological explanations for the killer’s behavior and a cool, if scientifically suspect plot device. Accompanied by a discordant Ennio Morricone score, designed to keep you on edge, Argento’s film takes us on a subjective, often polarizing, visceral experience. Like a good thrill ride, it’s filled with surprises and thrills, which pause only a moment for you to catch your breath before the next shock. Four Flies on Grey Velvet is another stylish offering from Dario Argento, which keeps you guessing until the end, and ranks among his best.