FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET
Italy - France | 1971
Directed by Dario Argento
Starring
Michael Brandon
Mimsy Farmer
Jean-Pierre Marielle
Color
| 102 Minutes | Not Rated
Format: DVD(R0 - NTSC)
Mya Communications
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
Movie Rating  
7
  DVD Rating   4   10 = Highest Rating  
As a big fan of Italian maestro Dario Argento I've been dismayed by the quality of his films over the last twenty years. Dissipated, diminished... The magic seems long gone. So it was with great anticipation that I sat down to watch an early Argento work I'd never before seen. Generally speaking, that anticipation was rewarded. 1971's Four Flies on Grey Velvet, the third film in his so-called "Animal Trilogy", is an aesthetically striking giallo from the period when Argento was perfecting his talents as a supreme visual stylist. His true tours de force, Deep Red and Suspiria, would follow within the same decade, and with this film it's easy to see how he'd eventually reach that creative peak.
   
Life would appear to be very good indeed for young musician Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon). He's got a groovy career as a rock drummer, lives in an expensively mod villa, and his wife (Mimsy Farmer, Hot Rods To Hell) is not only beautiful but rich. It all starts going to hell, though, when Roberto realizes he's being stalked. A mysterious man in a black raincoat and dark glasses seems to be shadowing him everywhere. Who is this guy? What does he want? Determined to find out, Roberto does some stalking of his own, following the man into an empty theater and forcing a confrontation. But instead of answers he gets quite a shock. The stranger pulls a knife; during a brief struggle Roberto causes the man to mortally stab himself. Taking photographs of the accidental killing is yet another mysterious figure, perched in a theater balcony and wearing a creepy, doll-like mask. Without a word, after snapping plenty of incriminating pictures, the masked figure silently disappears. Roberto is stunned by all this but has the presence of mind not to involve the police, fearing he could be charged with murder.
    At first he keeps the incident to himself. Then the Mask begins harassing him, making vague, threatening phone calls and planting items belonging to the dead man in his home. When, during a party, Roberto finds a photo of the killing slipped in amongst his record collection, he begins to suspect that the Mask could be an acquaintance or even a friend, someone that knows him fairly well. Investigating a strange noise in the house one night, Roberto is attacked and nearly garroted by the intruding Mask, who again fails to make clear what this sick game is all about. It can't be blackmail, since no demands for money are ever made. Apparently someone merely wants to torment Roberto, perhaps hoping to drive him insane before eventually killing him. Roberto has no choice now but to confide in those closest to him. Wife Nina is naturally distraught, arguing that running away is the only thing to do if the police are to be kept out of it. Oddball friend Godfrey (Bud Spencer), AKA "God" an oracle of wisdom and common sense despite his eccentric behavior advises him to hire a private detective to do some digging and arranges for a sharp-eyed bum to keep a discreet eye on Roberto's house.
    Meanwhile, the Tobias' snoopy maid has somehow discovered the Mask's identity, with a mind to do a little blackmailing of her own. Next day she turns up murdered, her throat slashed by what the police are calling a "maniac"...
    Far less convoluted than Argento's previous effort, Cat o'Nine Tails (1970), Four Flies on Grey Velvet is a relatively simple, straightforward giallo the 'who' and 'why' isn't buried within some byzantine riddle populated by multitudinous red herrings. There are only four onscreen deaths and the pool of suspects is comparatively small. (Like me, many viewers may be able to guess the Mask's identity fairly early on.) The real pleasure of the film is found in the bravura sense of style Argento, cinematographer Franco Di Giacomo and editor Francoise Bonnot bring to the proceedings. It's brimming with inventive flourishes, notably the POV shot from the inside of a guitar during the opening credits, the tracking of the weapon during a bludgeoning murder, and the use of an experimental high-speed camera in the final scene, just to name three standouts. An inexorable sense of impending doom is conveyed by the repeated motif of an execution by decapitation (Roberto keeps having the same terrible dream, again and again), with the blade coming closer each time. During this early period Argento relied chiefly on surprise and suspense instead of gore for his hallmark murder set-pieces; as with his debut feature, 1969's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, he ably demonstrates that the walls needn't be painted with blood to put viewers on the edge of their seats.
    This isn't to say Four Flies is without problems. Scripting is typically the weakest element of Argento films and that's certainly the case here. Its protagonist is particularly underwritten. We're not given an opportunity to get to know the main character before he's thrust into crisis, and Brandon isn't as engaging or likable a performer as, say, Deep Red's David Hemmings in consequence it's hard to identify or sympathize with Roberto, who often comes across as something of a jerk. I also feel that Roberto and Nina's marriage could've used some fleshing out since their relationship is important to the story. (Mid-film he drifts into a casual affair with her cousin, played by Canadian actress Francine Racette.) Rather than take the trouble to present more rounded characters, the script is padded with comedic bits involving quirky secondary players that don't, in the end, have much significance. Fortunately the broad humor actually works (with the exception of the lame jokes at an undertaker's expo); the stereotyped depiction of the flamboyantly gay private eye (Jean-Pierre Marielle), while dated by today's standards, comes across as quaintly amusing instead of bigoted or insensitive. (Marielle's swishy gumshoe is the most likable character in the film.) Less fortunate is the forensic technique that reveals the key to the mystery's resolution... It's total bullshit, almost pulling the film into sci-fi territory. Argento wisely presents it with a minimum of fuss, dispensing with it as quickly as possible.

Mya's new DVD, the film's first ever North American home video release (in any format), arrives amid a blizzard of controversy.
   
The brouhaha chiefly concerns the disc's English-language audio track. From what I understand it was taken from a PAL master and consequently had to be altered slightly to synch up properly with the picture (or something of that nature hell if I know!), resulting in the English track sounding lower pitched. Even as someone who'd never seen the film before, I could tell that something was amiss. Voices of familiar dubbing artists European films from the 1960s-'80s use many of the same voice actors, and Four Flies is no exception just sound slightly 'off'. That being said, I also found it became less and less of a problem as the film went on... After a while I just didn't notice anymore. But again, this is only the perspective of someone completely new to the film. For those more familiar with it I can understand how this could be irritating. This issue aside, however, the English track is also a bit muffled-sounding at times, occasionally plagued with hiss, pops and crackles. Dialog is at least understandable; the music of legendary composer Ennio Morricone is less affected since his score is a relatively spare one most of the film has minimal accompaniment.
    A separate Italian audio track, which does not suffer from the pitch problem, is also offered. Since Mya didn't bother including English subtitles for the entire script, this will prove completely useless for 99.9% of North American consumers. Subs are included for one scene now restored for this DVD presentation that was never fully looped into English and consequently trimmed for U.S. theatrical release. Here it's presented in toto.
   
Thus the disc giveth and taketh away... for yet another note of contention has been sounded by Argentophiles about the Mya DVD. Cineasts familiar with various cuts of the film maintain that, despite the packaging's claim of a "fully uncut" version, anywhere from 40 seconds to nearly a minute of footage is actually missing albeit nothing involving the murder/suspense scenes or anything significantly impacting the characters. Being a Four Flies virgin I can only report that while watching it, none of the scenes seemed choppy or jarringly truncated. Whatever is missing didn't affect my viewing of the film in any way.
    Where the DVD seems to have pleased most everyone is in terms of its visual quality. I agree that the anamorphic 2.35 widescreen transfer is vibrant, sharp and
virtually pristine... even if, to my eye, certain scenes (set in Roberto's house, with the lights out) appear much too dark. Extras: Not a whole lot, really, just a trio of trailers, the English-language opening/closing credits, and an image gallery of stills and lobby cards. The two American trailers one appears to be a TV spot look pretty beat-up; the much better preserved Italian trailer is a freaky gas, employing bizarre imagery not used in the actual film. (The U.S. trailers are narrated by the instantly recognizable baritone of Adolph Caesar, who performed the same duties for the American promo of Deep Red as well as many trailers for AIP horror and exploitation pics of the '70s.) 3/11/09
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