First published by Little White Lies
“They look like flies – four flies.”
“Yes you’re right. That’s exactly what they look like. What does it mean?”
This exchange, appearing very near the end of Four Flies on Grey Velvet, is also the first direct reference within the film to its wonderfully mystifying title – although it would be criminal to spoil the (frankly batshit) context of these lines, or indeed the resolution of the title’s meaning that comes at the end.
Still, the title situates Four Flies on Grey Velvet as the third film – following The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Cat o’ Nine Tails– in what would be a loose trilogy of Dario Argento’s early gialli that all referenced animals in their titles. And if the four flies turn up only very late in the picture, and never (except metaphorically) on grey velvet, that is only because, as co-writer and assistant director Luigi Cozzi freely admits on one of the extras in Shameless Screen Entertainment’s excellent package, Dario Argento came up with his title first, and then reverse-engineered his plot to accommodate it.
Beyond the title, though, there were other aspects of his film’s conception that Argento also evidently privileged over the plotting, as Cozzi here explains: “We came up with the death scenes first, and then we inserted them into a story that we thought of later.” This may sound like a formula for disaster, and in lesser hands a film cobbled together with such ass-backwards priorities would inevitably be an incoherent mess – but Argento and his team have concocted a crazy story (conducted and directed by a crazy character) whose every demented absurdity is turned into a disorienting if entertaining asset.
Though one of Argento’s lesser known works, in part because Paramount chose for decades not to allow its release for the home market, Four Flies on Grey Velvet is in fact a key film in the giallo king’s oeuvre, representing a crucial bridge between his earlier, more conventional mystery thrillers and his subsequent explorations of the oneiric, the outrageous and the irrational (in films like Deep Red, Suspiria and Phenomena).
In an arresting title sequence that cross-cuts between several band rehearsals, a beating heart, and some cloak and dagger, we are introduced to prog rock drummer Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon) as he skilfully rids himself of a mosquito (an oblique reflex to the title) during a performance, but has more trouble shaking a mysterious man (Calisto Calisti) who seems to follow him everywhere he goes.
The credits over, Roberto confronts his tail in an old playhouse. In the ensuing tussle, as the man is accidentally stabbed with his own knife and falls dead, the lights come on and a masked figure photographs the drummer in a very compromising position – and so, in this locus of theatricality, Roberto finds himself being framed for a staged murder.
In a manner that foreshadows both David Lynch’s Lost Highway and Michael Haneke’s Hidden, photos of the killing, other incriminating evidence and menacing messages start arriving in the mail or appearing discreetly placed around Roberto’s groovy pad, just adding to his paranoid sense of guilt – and then the masked figure reemerges, threatening the drummer directly and taunting him with his inability to turn to anyone for help.
“Maybe it’s all a bad dream,” suggests his wife Nina (Mimsy Farmer), once she has seen her husband’s distraught state and persuaded him to confide in her, “You’ve been working kind of hard lately.” It is true that Roberto has been suffering from a (vividly visualised) recurring nightmare in which he is publicly beheaded in a Saudi square – a textbook expression of castration anxiety straight out of Freud – and there is indeed something dream-like about the whole film’s edgy, neurotic texture and fights of fancy.
Meanwhile everyone around Roberto – the watchful maid (Mariso Fabbri), the limping, porn-addicted neighbour (Guerrino Crivello), the mac-wearing mailman (Gildo Di Marco), Roberto’s friends (Fabrizio Moroni, Stefano Satta Flores) with their taste for gruesome tales, Nina’s seductive cousin Dalia (Francine Racette) – becomes an object of intense suspicion and distrust, until eventually Roberto is driven, like so many desperate men before him, to turn to God – or more specifically, to a jovial schlub in ragged clothes played by none other than spaghetti western superstar Bud Spencer.
“Godfrey, not God,” this earthiest of characters insists, “If you’re gonna call me God, at least you could call me God Almighty.” Yet his first appearance in the film is accompanied by a burst of the Hallelujah Chorus, and his function within the plot is confined to providing a sounding board for Roberto’s wayward conscience and a divine intervention in the climactic scene, leaving it an open question whether he is a flesh-and-blood person, a figment of Roberto’s errant imagination, or a surreal figure for the film’s divine (or at least auteurist) machinery.
With small help from the gay private dick Gianni Arrosio (Jean-Pierre Marielle) as well as from God’s impoverished representative on earth The Professor (Oreste Lionello), Roberto must work out who the killer is before becoming the next victim – which forces him, like us, to find a way through all manner of red herrings, false trails and bizarre digressions, even as all the obvious candidates for the title of killer are dropping like flies.
There is, in the end, a rational solution of sorts, but getting there involves an overtly fantastical piece of pseudo science (linking film, death and viewing itself) and a whole lot of madness – and once the pieces have fallen into place, Argento treats us to one of the most baroquely beautiful death scenes ever committed to celluloid (with the undeniable whiff of cheese in Ennio Morricone’s score only adding to the weird operatic horror of what is seen).
It is all self-conscious and silly, but directed with such manipulative panache that you too will feel as if you are being strung along by a deranged, sadistic puppetmaster – and if the plot’s trajectory at times seems arbitrary and artificial, there are images here that will burn themselves right onto your retina, if not scar the ‘grey velvet’ of your brain.
Except for an out-of-print French VHS release, occasional appearances in revival theatres, and intolerably murky bootleg copies, Four Flies on Grey Velvet had been completely out of the public eye for over two decades until the late Noughties, when official, remastered, slightly cut versions of the film started to appear on DVD. Shameless Screen Entertainment, however, has come up with a definitive version, available on both DVD and Blu-ray.
It can be watched with either the original English audio remastered in High Definition from the original magnetic soundtrack (not heard since the film’s theatrical opening in the ’70s), or with the Italian audio version in HD with English subtitles. An uncut version of the film has been rebuilt, almost entirely in high definition, but with the legendary “missing forty seconds” reinserted in Standard-Definition quality (and only in Italian, with English subs).
All damaged frames have been restored, including the removal of the black diagonal frame line in the final slo-mo sequence. Quite simply, the film has never looked better, and demands to be seen by any fans of giallo, of Italian ’70s cinema, or just of high-quality expressionist insanity.
© Anton Bitel