Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)
It is strange the way that Dario Argento's giallo films are given a bit higher regard than those of other directors, save Mario Bava. Argento was heavily influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, to the point where he was once called "Italy's Hitchcock" before almost exclusively working in the horror genre, and he most certainly never set out to make an "animal" trilogy, as his first three films have come to be called. Gialli just have weird, incomprehensible titles in many cases, so Argento just kept up the trend.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage had been a goal of mine to see for years, both because it is his most Hitchcock-like and also because it was hard to find in the United States. It wasn't really until Deep Red that Argento started to go for exaggerated blood sprays that would become trademarks of his horror films, but it seemed that the same issues with getting the uncut versions of some of his films arose. The only "Animal Trilogy" film widely available in the U.S. for the longest time was his second, Cat o' Nine Tails, and even that was only to be found in a grainy transfer. Despite his popularity, Four Flies on Grey Velvet wasn't available in America until 2009. Happily it's the uncut, but there still isn't much in it that pushes it beyond the PG rating it was released by United Artists under after removing a bloodless beheading and a mild sex scene.
Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon) is the drummer in a rock band. He grows concerned when it appears that a man (Calisto Calisti) is stalking him. He follows his stalker and confronts him and, in the struggle, accidentally stabs his pursuer. However, a stranger wearing a babydoll mask takes photos of the incident and starts using them to scare Roberto.
After an intrusion in his home he confesses the murder to his wife Nina (Mimsy Farmer), who suggests they leave. At first he is reluctant, but after their made Amelia (Marisa Fabbri) is killed after trying to blackmail the stalker he agrees that Nina should go. With the help of Godfrey (Bud Spencer) and his friend the Professor (Oreste Lionello), former colleagues of Roberto's when he was homeless, as well as the aid of private investigator Gianni Arrosio (Jean-Pierre Marielle), Roberto begins to do what he can to find out who is behind everything as it becomes apparent his own life is in danger.
Four Flies on Grey Velvet doesn't dwell on blood, but on story, and does a decent job of sticking to it. There are a few weird moments, such as when Amelia is chased by the killer in the park or when the images caught in a victim's eye are used as a clue (a disproven bit of pseudoscience, but a popular theory at one time) but largely this is a straight mystery that unfolds in a straightforward, if not always logical, manner. It does have the usual giallo problem of the ending not exactly tying things up in a satisfying manner, since things happen that, unless the audience is to believe Roberto is an unreliable narrator, just don't add up.
It is also one of Dario Argento's most expertly directed films. There are many creative shots throughout, including an early slow-motion bullet sequence, that this should have stayed in circulation just for the cinematography and the creativity put into composing the shots. The camerawork is a lot more frenetic than normal for an Argento film, and much more difficult to do at the time. The last scene in the movie took multiple takes to get the sequence just right which, beautiful as it is, is typically abrupt.
The other thing that sets Four Flies on Grey Velvet apart from other Argento films is its sense of humor. Humor and Argento do not always get along, as evidenced by Five Days in Milan, the film that followed this one. Here, it works, even if the portrayal of a homosexual is very much a stereotype of its time, although not as problematic had this been an American movie. There is a running gag with the mailman, a hallelujah chorus when Godfrey (whose name is often shortened to God) is introduced, and a number of other physical gags throughout. Gialli are usually so fixated on blood and sex that they often forget to lighten the mood.
There are some problems with the movie, part of it being the existing print, in which the killer's monologue at the end inexplicably switches from English to Italian (without subtitles) a number of times. I guess it was an attempt to edit back in excised material, similar to one cut of Deep Red in which a number of parts edited from the U.S. version also feature dialogue only in Italian. I often do have a problem with how the movie ends with the action just coming to a stop before the credits roll, leaving a number of questions and loose ends. Michael Brandon is pretty bland in the lead role, but Jean-Pierre Marielle and Bud Spencer more than make up for it and, though less bloody than usual, the scenes leading up to the kills are as suspenseful as one would expect.
I will have to watch Cat o' Nine Tails again, but at the moment I would be one of those that puts Four Flies on Grey Velvet at the top of Argento's first three movies. Some slight supernatural elements that would evolve further in Deep Red start creeping in, the cinematography is wonderful and it is nice to have some humor to set this one apart. It's just too bad it was almost impossible to see for so long.
Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)
Time: 104 minutes
Starring: Michael Brandon, Mimsy Farmer, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Bud Spencer
Director: Dario Argento