Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Four Flies on Grey Velvet

Four Flies on Grey Velvet.Original Title: 4 mosche di velluto grigio
Directed by: Dario Argento
Italy/France, 1971
Giallo, 102 min
Distributed by: Mya Communication
It’s been said that Dario Argento used to find inspiration for his moves in the books and newspapers he read. The smallest little article could generate a series of thoughts that would finally develop into a full-fledged movie. This may be true, but the newspaper article that laid the basis for the title of Four Flies on Grey Velvet is even for Gialli standards pretty far fetched, although on the other side modern technology – even if pretty imaginative and fabulous – is sometimes quite important to the Gialli and fills it purpose.
Argento’s third movie; Four Flies on Grey Velvet, is somewhat of a curiosity amongst his works, because it is one of his coldest of his movies, focusing on a more distanced voyeurism and almost holding the audience at arms length and never really letting us get involved with the characters... and when we do it’s for the wrong one.

The third and final instalment of what is loosely referred to as the "Animal Trilogy" sees rock musician Robert Tobias [Michael Brandon who later narrated kid’s show Thomas the Tank Engine for several years] being stalked by an odd character. Roberto has had enough and decides to follow the man instead, and his path leads him into an abandoned theatre. Inside the theatre a struggle takes place and Roberto accidentally stabs the man, who falls dead to the ground. A masked figure sitting upon a balcony [played by co-screenwriter and assistant director Luigi Cozzi] photographs the “accident” and starts torturing Robert by mailing pieces of information about the dead mans identify to him as to show that he knows that Robert is a murderer. Robert's wife Nina [Mimsy Farmer] and his friend Godfrey [Carlo Pedersoli under his more common name Bud Spencer] are the only people who he can trust, so he confides in them. But when the taunting continues and his maid is murdered too, Roberto hires private detective Gianni Arrosio [Jean-Pierre Marielle] to help him solve the case and find the blackmailer… Then the murders start piling up, and a piece of sci-fi technology can take photographs of the last image seen by the latest victim which finally tightens the noose round the neck of the killer.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet is in every possible way an improvement to the previous Il gatto a nove code (The Cat O’Nine Tails) 1971; the fancy camerawork is back, the pacing is back, the narrative flows forth like clockwork, archetypical Argento characters are back more clearly, and there’s a very clear personal involvement in the quest that makes it more engaging than the previous movie.

But there is one thing that makes Four Flies on Grey Velvet such an enigma within the Argento universe – Roberto Tobias. Roberto isn’t much of a likeable protagonist. He’s a pretty shallow and unlikeable guy. He’s not really interested in busting the mystery, only clearing his name, that’s why he refuses to go to the cops. He is also is unfaithful to his gorgeous wife with her cousin Dalia [Francine Racette] in the same instance that she leaves town which definitely harms his character, and pushes his arc down into the negative realm. It’s an odd approach because it also makes it difficult to indentify or sympathise with the leading man – whom the movie after all is supposed to be about. So instead when the killer’s identity is revealed – in one hell of an impressive performance – it’s easier to take sides with that character instead. Which is kinda confusing, but then again if you know the ending, you will understand why I think that this was intentional of Argento. Having finally presented us with an unfortunate character to empathise with, there’s still the shocking ending to pack a final punch, and a shock ending it is.

Being the bookend of the “trilogy” it’s easy to look upon these three movies as the breeding ground for Dario Argento’s traits. Everything that is good with these first movies is what developed the attributes that would build the magnificent stem and style of Profondo Rosso, the unchallenged masterpiece of Dario Argento’s Gialli. It’s even possible that the progressive rock band that Roberto plays in served as an influence after Morricone and Argento fell out with each other and Argento needed to search elsewhere to score Profondo Rosso. As you probably know Profondo Rosso contains that fabulous score by Italian rockers Goblin and doesn’t have a typical classic score like previous Gialli.

Already in the opening title sequence the style of Argento is hurled back upon the viewer as we see the camera being forced into seemingly impossible locations; inside a guitar, on the neck and so on. The opening sequence also sets up the mysterious bloke, Carlo Marosi [Calisto Calisti] who is stalking Roberto and get’s us right into the mood for what is to follow. As soon as the opening titles are through – with that great beating heart image – the plot kicks in. Roberto follows the man stalking him and in a scene prevailing Terror at the opera, the red velvet curtains leading into the womblike orifice that is scene of the initial crime, and the show is on the go. Much like the two previous films, Four Flies on Grey Velvet is all about interpreting what our senses let us experience. In L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (Bird with the Crystal Plumage) 1970, its all about what Sam Dalmas thought he saw, in The Cat O’Nine Tails it’s all about what Franco Arno thought he heard and in Four Flies on Grey Velvet, it’s all about what Roberto Tobias though he experienced – because you know there’s a twist in there don’t you.

Just like The Cat O’Nine Tails there’s a very limited use of conventional gloved hands and straight razors. Although there is one shot of a razor just before the killer takes to the park to kill Roberto and Nina’s maid Amelia [Marisa Fabbri], and that leads elegantly up to the scene where it starts to become apparent that in Dario Argento’s world it’s never enough with just a simple murder. There has to be some element of squeamishness in there to get under the skin of the audience too. Even though we never actually see Amelia being killed, we do see a shot of her fingers scraping the concrete wall as the nails burst off all over the place, a very nauseating assault on our senses as most of us hate that sound of nails scraping against rough surfaces. When Dahlia later falls victim to the killer, she’s not only murdered, she’s first slashed across the forehead, then pushed down a flight of stairs, the camera follows as her head bangs into each step with a loud bash, bash, bash. Then the knife goes in. There are no simple deaths in Argento’s movies, and it’s a trait that he started using here in these initial movies and stuck with for many of the movies to follow.

And while I’m on that murder of Dalia, I have to point out that this scene is one of my favourite Argento scenes. I love how he used the silence of the attic, the pending threat of the killer being in the house, and then that aggressive burst of audio as the phone rings. It’s a fantastic little scene that easily makes it into the top ten of best suspense and shock moments in Argento’s movies.

Common for the Gialli are, flashbacks or surreal dreams that are significant for the narrative. There are two such devices used in Four Flies on Grey Velvet, the back-story of the murderer which is explored by both visual flashbacks of an asylum and through audio, as we hear a parent scolding a child for not being what he wanted it to be – and when you know, check out the killer’s clothing. Apparently the killer never quite got over the childhood abuse as it still dresses in the clothing of the gender that the parent wanted it too be. Then there’s the metaphoric execution that reoccurs in the dreams of Roberto. It’s both a symbol of his brewing guilt, and a symbolic prediction of things to come. Crime does not pay, and in the case of extremes one can loose ones head.

The cast - well, I don’t really see the similarity between Michael Brandon and Dario Argento that others seem to find, and it takes more than appearance for me to see what the supposed autobiographical connection is. But I do feel that Brandon kind of sells the part and is a pretty decent leading man, even if he’s a pretty boring and passive one. Which obviously leads to the stunning Mimsy Farmer. Farmer has in my opinion never acted or looked better at any other point in time than in Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet. She’s absolutely gorgeous here, and undoubtedly one of my favourite Dario Argento leading ladies. I also find great sympathy for the fascinating character of Gianni Arrosio. I’d completely forgotten all about the constant recurrent gay characters in Argento’s movies until Ninja Dixon pointed this out on his eminent blog a few weeks back, and sure as said, here’s a gay character once again. But this time the character is not as much of a caricature but more of an authentic and effective character, even though he does manage to have a little flirtatious meeting with another gay bloke during his investigation. Arrosi is a fascinating character that has a great character arc, as he, despite never solving a case, is full of optimism and hope. It’s quite a moving scene when he finally succeeds to figure out whom the killer is but doesn’t live long enough to see the rewards of his actions. Ironically dies in a restroom, pumped full of poison distributed by the killer. As he fades away he congratulates himself on solving the mystery. Keep your eyes open for yet another appearance by Fulvio Mingozzi in the movie, this time as a studio engineer.

As for the technical bits of this flick, well needless to say Franco Di Giacomo’s cinematography is certainly up to Argento standards, and the script by Argento, Cozzi and Mario Foglietti is intriguing, although I’m not convinced that the withheld approach to the leading man was the right way to go. Foglietti would later write and direct one of the best parts for Argento’s TV serial La porta sul buio (Door Into Darkness), with the episode La Bambola (The Doll) 1973. For reasons unknown, Ennio Morricone and Argento  had a falling out during the production which may have affected the score. The lead theme is certainly ferocious and groovy, but the rest – and there’s not much – is mainly varaitons on the theme and never really stands out as their earlier collaborations. But it's still a great score, albeit a weaker one, and it is possible that Argento had to make do with what he had been given.

So summing up the “animal” trilogy, it sees the traits of Dario Argento come into shape. The pacing, the symbolism and the visual style are sternly constructed within these three movies. It’s the last of the Morricone soundtracks, although they would work again twenty-five years later on La syndrome di Stendhal (The Stendhal Syndrome) 1996. It certainly is a suite that establishes the style, traits and atmosphere of the classic Dario Argento Giallo, one that soon would peak with the magnificent Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) 1975, but first Argento was to venture into TV serials La porta sul buio and the historic comedy Le cinque giornate (The Five Days) 1973.

2.35:1 (16x9 anamorphic)

Dolby Digital Mono. English dialogue, although Italian in reinserted scenes where English subtitles are available.

Alternative English opening and end credits, Original trailers, poster and photo gallery.

Here's a few American trailers...


Alex B. said...

Michael Brandon has really fond memories of working with Dario on this film. His interview in "An eye for horror" is most amusing.
I thought, Farmer looked most sexy in "Autopsy", but then I haven't seen "4 flies" yet so I can't compare.

CiNEZiLLA said...

Alex, you really need to see this one. It's an important piece. I dunno what it is with Farmer in this one, I just adore her in it. It's probably got something to do with her vulnerability in this part that appeals to me.



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