Reviewing Dario Argento’s Animal Trilogy Part 3: ‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’ (1973)

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Here we are at the last film in Argento’s Animal trilogy. It was also intended to be his last giallo, as Argento fully intended to leave the genre he’d helped reinvigorate behind. Unfortunately for him his next film – the drama/comedy The Five Days of Milan – did not do well at the box office, and he returned to the giallo genre with Profondo Rosso in 1975. I’ve never seen Five Days, but from everything I’ve read it seems that comedy was just not Argento’s forte (and there’s far less of it in the films to follow). Profondo Rosso, or Deep Red, is often considered one of – if not THE – best of Argento’s films, so I’m glad that things didn’t quite work out with Five Days. I do sometimes wonder what sort of movies he would have made had that film been successful though.

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I hadn’t even heard much about this film until recently. Paramount had the rights and after a brief theatrical release it was put in the vault and there wasn’t an official home video release (at least in the US) until 2009. The first time I saw this I went in knowing nothing about it, except that it was an Argento film I hadn’t seen. (There are a few, actually, but this was the only one I that was completely new to me.) I very much enjoyed my first viewing, but to be fair I did watch it almost immediately after Lucio Fulci’s A Cat in the Brain, and the difference in quality was striking.

I’ve been looking forward to watching it again, but I’ve had trouble acquiring the recent 40th Anniversary Blu-ray release from Shameless. I’ve ordered it twice now, and the first time resulted in the whole shipment going missing. This time the third party seller didn’t actually have a copy in stock. I’ll get a copy eventually, but wasn’t able to get my hands on one for this viewing.

The Medium
I watched Four Flies on Grey Velvet through a service called FlixFling, which appears to be the only way to watch it streaming at the moment. The quality was decent, though not HD. It had the ‘40 missing seconds’ (cut from the theatrical release) added, but in Italian and without subtitles. I really do want that Blu-ray so I can figure out what that character is saying in that scene.

The Movie
Roberto (Michael Brandon) is a drummer in a rock band. There’s a mysterious figure following him around after rehearsals and even during the day. One night he finally confronts the stalker, having followed them to an abandoned theater. The stalker pulls a knife, they struggle and in the melee Roberto stabs the stalker. This is bad enough, but there’s also someone else in the theater. Someone wearing a creepy puppet mask who takes pictures of Robert standing over the body, holding the bloody knife. Roberto runs, but is soon contacted by the person who took the pictures. They’re not going to the police, no – they want to torment Robert, before killing him.

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Man this is a stylish film. I know that’s like Argento’s thing, but there’s some really awesome cinematography and framing in this film.  Right off the bat we’ve got shots from the inside of a guitar, slow spins to reveal people standing outside of windows, and a shot of a fly between two cymbals with the drummer out of focus behind it. It’s just so visually interesting compared to Fulci’s straightforward compositions. All the music is provided by Enio Morricone and there’s prog-rock, jazz and some electronic sounding stuff. (This was the last time Morricone and Argento worked together until 1996’s The Stendhal Syndrome, as they had a falling out during the making of Four Flies.)

Also, that puppet mask? That is damn creepy. I kind of wish it had kept appearing throughout the film, but it’s not that sort of giallo.

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I’m not sure what to make of Roberto. He seems a likeable enough guy, but he’s also willing to cover up his involvement in a man’s death. He appears to be somewhat distant and isolated, even from his beautiful wife (Mimsey Farmer) and his band mates. Maybe that’s just the stress he’s under, but it ended up having the effect of leaving me feeling distanced from him as well.

There’s a shot that appears to be a cemetery. Headstones in a white glare, over-exposed. Then the contrast starts to drop, the glare fades… and it’s a public square on a middle-eastern country. What we thought were tombstones are actually the curved entrances into the surrounding building. There’s a public execution going on and we watch the executioner begin his work. This is a recurring dream that Roberto has and is one of the few potentially supernatural touches in the film – if we take it as a premonition. Though it’s just as likely that it’s a representation of Roberto’s increasing fear and paranoia, mixed with a story told at a party.

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The blackmailer invades Roberto’s house, leaving pictures of the killing. They even enter at night and almost kill Roberto with a garrote before telling him that they want him to suffer first. At this point I’d be going to the police, murder rap or no, but instead Robert seeks out the advice of God.

I don’t generally expect a Dario Argento film to be funny. So when Roberto goes to talk to his friend Godfrey (Bud Spencer) and calls out ‘hey God!’ and there’s a burst of music and a chorus singing ‘hallelujah!’ I almost snorted my drink. There’s a substantial amount of humor in the film, between a bumbling mailman, God and the Professor (two homeless gentlemen), and a gay detective. Whether it works for anyone else or not I actually enjoyed the humor. It’s a little jarring, but the scenes – particularly with God and the Professor talking to Roberto at a Funeral Arts convention – are just hilarious to me. (One of the people at the convention tries lying in a coffin only to complain that it’s a little too tight. The response of the vendor – “None of our customers have ever come back with a complaint…”)

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The gay detective, Arrosio (Jean-Pierre Marielle) is way too over the top, but the actor is so good in the role that I can almost forgive the cartoony nature of the presentation. I found myself wishing the entire movie was about this guy on his quest to finally solve a case. He’s only around for a short time, though, and he’s sorely missed after an unfortunate meeting with the killer. I was pretty impressed that there was a positively portrayed gay character in a giallo in 1971, even if he’s mostly a caricature.

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There are a number of plot twists and turns of course. This is, after all, an Argento film. Murders are highly stylized affairs with inventive and almost beautiful imagery. There’s a standout suspenseful sequence with a maid out to blackmail the blackmailer. It starts out in a park full of people during the day – and then she’s suddenly alone at night, locked in with the blackmailer (who quickly becomes a killer). A cousin of Roberto’s wife – with whom Roberto has an affair – is a suspect until she too is murdered in spectacular style.

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And then we get classic junk science, which seems to be a thing with these early Argento films. The ‘last image can be recovered from the victim’s eyes’ nonsense. This is why I quit watching Fringe the first time it aired.  It’s still dumb… but it does look kinda cool, with eyeballs, lasers, glass globes, and a blurry image projected on a circular screen.

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The end comes quickly after the reveal of the murderer. There’s some crappy pop psychology, slow motion bullet time (decades before The Matrix – though it’s pretty limited), slow motion car crash decapitations and more prog-rock soundtrack music than you can shake a stick at. Does it all make sense? Probably not, though it felt more coherent than some of Argento’s films.

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The acting is fairly decent, if broad, and I was pleasantly surprised by the dubbing. Mimsy Farmer as Roberto’s wife Nina is a standout, as is Jean-Pierre Marielle as the detective Arrosio. The pace of the film is uneven, and there are segments that drag interminably, particularly the ‘party’ sequences. The final confrontation was also marred by the inclusion of several seconds that had been excluded from previous versions of the film. These are mostly part of a sequence in which the killer explains their actions and are all in Italian with no subtitles. So I was left with the impression that the killer had gone crazy because sometimes they just randomly speak in Italian.

The Bottom Line
Four Flies on Grey Velvet is a really enjoyable giallo with all that entails – including elaborate killings, stylish people and settings, and some convoluted plot twists. I like it quite a bit better than Cat o’ Nine Tails, but it’s not quite as well paced or interesting as The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. It DOES, however, feel the most like a true Dario Argento film out of the three and I can recommend it on that level alone. It may not represent Argento at the height of his powers, but it’s still a pretty entertaining film.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.