Monday, March 23, 2015

FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET aka 4 MOSCHE DI VELLUTO GRIGIO

Dario Argento, 1971
Starring: Michael Brandon, Mimsy Farmer, Jean-Pierre Marielle

Roberto, a drummer in a local band, notices that he’s being followed by a stranger in dark sunglasses. One night after practice he follows the man into an empty theater to try to get some answers, but the man attacks Roberto and Roberto accidentally stabs him. A masked figure up in the balcony begins taking pictures and Roberto flees certain that he killed the man. He begins receiving pictures of the attack in the mail and has strange nightmares about a man being executed by beheading in Saudi Arabia. Soon he is physically threatened and his maid, who discovered the identity of the blackmailer, is found murdered. As the blackmailer closes in and bodies pile up, Roberto desperately looks for help to keep himself from being the next victim.
Argento’s third entry in his “Animal Trilogy” was difficult to find for many years – it wasn’t available for home viewing for a wide audience until 2009 – and primarily serves as an important link between his debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and his first masterpiece, Deep Red. Four Flies on Grey Velvet prefigures Deep Red, Tenebre, and Opera by using one of Argento’s most beloved devices: a traumatic flashback coming from an ambiguous source. Here, someone is being tied to a bed in an asylum and child abuse is implied. This theme of trauma from the past – particularly trauma linked to the family – is a common theme throughout Argento’s work and Four Flies is full of fraught relationships and bizarre characters.

Where Four Flies perhaps suffers the most is that its protagonist, Roberto (Michael Brandon, bearing an odd resemblance to Argento), is completely unlikable. Like all of Argento’s early protagonists, Roberto is a foreigner, an American, and like Deep Red’s Marcus Daly, he’s a musician. He spends his time with eccentrics – a reclusive, burly artist (as in Bird with the Crystal Plumage), an openly gay private investigator, and his wife’s cousin who is quick to have an affair with him – and his wife seems to be verging on hysteria. The film is driven by Roberto’s paranoia that he killed a man – a paranoia intensified by his refusal to take responsibility for the act. Argento succeeds in sustaining this claustrophobic air throughout the film, which is complicated by palpable sexual tension and confused identities, as well as the sense that the killer is always close to Roberto.

Much like his previous film, The Cat O’Nine Tails, Four Flies makes an ill-advised attempt to include science into its plot in the form of a strange experiment. The theory is that the retina records the last image a person saw before their death, so one of the victims has her eye tested (with frickin’ laser beams) during autopsy. They find a confusing image of “four flies on grey velvet,” a clue that will only reveal itself at the end of the film. This use of the human eye as a camera is an interesting idea that Argento would explore in more subtle ways with Deep Red, but it comes off as a bit preposterous here. While other directors have managed to effectively use improbably science in horror, such as both Kurt Neumann's The Fly and David Cronenberg's remake, as well as British horror film The Asphyx (a very underrated take on a camera capturing death), it is simply not Argento's forte.

Where the film excels is in its use of stylized violence. There are two moments in particular that foreshadowed some excellent effects, particularly the final moment where the killer – speeding away in a car – panics and careens into the back of a trash truck. The ensuing death is shot in glorious, agonizing slow motion. The glass shatters around the killer’s face, metal warps, decapitation begins, and all is eventually consumed by flames. The use of a violent car crash at the end of a giallo film was standard practice for an early giallo/Italian thriller director like Umberto Lenzi, but Argento turns it into a thing of absolute beauty, rather than just a convenient way to resolve a complicated plot. This and a scene where the camera captures a bullet in motion are poetic celebrations of death and violence that Argento would continue exploring throughout his career.

Overall, the plot is unsatisfying and has more filler scenes than perhaps any other early Argento work – along with some random comedy in the form of an abused mailman. The reveals are clumsy, characters are ill-defined, and all-in-all this feels like a dry-run for the more successful Deep Red, but it has some fantastic moments. The aforementioned finale is a thing of wonder and Mimsy Farmer works particularly well here as Roberto’s wife, though she is somewhat underused. Farmer became an Italian horror staple through films like Four Flies, The Perfume of the Lady in Black, Autopsy, and others, and her aloof, dreamy air added a sense of eeriness that few other actresses could mimic.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet comes recommended for some very fine moments and for its role as an important transitional film in Argento’s career. It’s also worth checking out the great score from Ennio Morricone – his last for Argento for many years, thanks to a dispute between the two. The film doesn’t quite rank among his classics, but it often rests on the verge of greatness thanks to a particularly anxious exploration of death and mortality not found elsewhere in the director’s films. Roberto’s unexplained dream sequences featuring a man’s beheading are unforgettable and linger long after memories of the loopy plot have faded. And after years languishing in obscurity, it is available on Blu-ray from Shameless and is well worth picking up.

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