Four Flies On Grey Velvet (1972, Dir. Dario Argento)
American Rock Drummer living in Italy, Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon) has become paranoid because of a strange man following him everywhere he goes. Eventually he decides to confront the man, leading to the stranger being accidentally stabbed with his own knife by Roberto in a disused opera house. A strange figure in a bizarre child’s mask photographs the whole incident. Soon afterwards Roberto begins to be taunted by photos of the murder and threats from the anonymous stranger in the mask. As Roberto tries to find out who’s responsible, the lives of the other people around him come into danger as well.
To be “underrated” doesn’t always just include those films that have been seen and not had their achievements recognized, but also those which have hardly been seen at all. In part one of a special two-part post looking at two films from Italian Horror/Thriller director, Dario Argento, we have his third film; which has only recently received a superb new remastered DVD release by Shameless. It was considered “unobtainium” for many years and, back when I was an Argento obsessive in my late teens and early twenties, it was the one film of his I desperately wanted to see, but couldn’t…
If you’re unfamiliar with Argento’s work, this film might be the best place to start. They are (at least for English and American audiences) somewhat of an ‘acquired taste’. Most people are introduced to his work through his superb (but utterly bonkers) supernatural masterpiece: Suspiria, though the casual viewer might well be better off starting (as I did) with one of his more traditional ‘Giallo’ thrillers (Deep Red, Tenebre, Cat O’ Nine Tails, Bird With The Crystal Plummage or this) before moving on to the likes of Suspiria and Inferno.
I myself discovered Argento’s films in my late teens. A UK video distributor, Redemption (who would also be responsible for the first full-length release of Witchfinder General), released Argento’s Deep Red (Profundo Russo), for the first time — uncut, in Italian with English Subtitles. I was intrigued, as it starred one of my favorite actors, David Hemmings (Blow-Up) and bought it and unwittingly discovered the work of (for me) the greatest Italian Horror/Thriller director of all-time.
A few years later, armed with the fabulous, lavishly illustrated book on Argento — “Art Of Darkness” -I began to track down as many of his films as possible. It wasn’t easy; very little of Argento’s work was available to watch on video at the time and eventually a trip to Italy and an Italian girlfriend enabled me to get my hands on a few more titles and later on a region-free DVD player meant I could watch some of the American Anchor Bay — distributed re-issues of his work. However, this film still eluded me and it was only when someone made a very low quality version available on a Torrenting site that I was finally able to see it for the first time a few years ago.
So,what is so special about it? What we have here, ultimately, is the missing link between his initial Giallo films (Bird With A Crystal Plummage, Cat O’ Nine Tails) and his later thriller work (in particular, Deep Red, Tenebre and Opera) with their more fantastical elements and a deranged killer who almost seems to be supernatural. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the film’s central gimmick — that the image on the retina of a dead person’s eye can photographed and examined is an element of the bizarre and ridiculous that could almost belong in the film we’ll be looking at next time: Phenomena.
Right from the start with the credits on a bright blue background and the shots of Michael Brandon’s character playing the drums it’s clear that there has been a quantum leap in Argento’s already superb filmmaking skills since his first two films. The incredible camera angles of the band rehearsing look forward to the cinematic vocabulary he would later develop in the likes of Deep Red and Opera. His bold use of primary colours (later to come to full fruition in Suspiria and Inferno) also find its first expression here. The subjective tracking shots (Roberto pushing through the curtains in the deserted opera house, the letter picked up of the doormat and carried by the maid) that would become one of his hallmarks in later films have there origin here too.
There’s a new boldness in the editing as well (perhaps due to editor, Françoise Bonnot, who had previously worked with Costa-Gravas). Witness the superb jump cut from Roberto opening the letter containing the dead man’s identity card to him being at the party or when the maid realizes all the other people in the park have gone and she’s alone. It’s the sort of editing Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell would employ in all of their films. There’s also the wonderful sequence where the camera traces the voice of the maid attempting to blackmail the murderer, back along the wires to the telephone exchange; which was apparently inspired by a similar moment in Francois Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses.
The music too has evolved since his first two films. Whilst the score, like that of his previous films, is still provided by the great Maestro of Italian film music, Ennio Morricone, we can see Argento’s love of incorporating rock music into the soundtracks of his films beginning here. According to the DVD’s extras, Argento originally intended to have Deep Purple write and perform the music for Roberto’s group. Ultimately, because of an issue of how many foreign workers they could have in the film and still have it be classed as an “Italian production”, Morricone had to compose the music instead. Apparently, this led to a falling out between composer and director that resulted in them not working together again until The Stendahl Syndrome. It’s not just the use of heavy rock that sets Morricone’s music for this film apart from his first two collaborations with Argento though: There’s far less of the aleatoric, experimental music that was used so strikingly in Bird with a Crystal Plummage, for instance. Here, the main theme (a beautiful haunting piece for organ and voice) has a lyrical quality more in common with Morricone’s later scores for Sacco and Vanzetti or Roman Polanski’s Frantic.
Whilst the acting in Argento’s movies invariably comes second to the visual motifs, it’s very interesting how Argento plays with the gender roles in this movie. Michael Brandon (familiar to UK tv audiences later as the brash New York detective, James Dempsey in Dempsey and Makepeace) as Roberto is a childish, rather brattish character. He’s not very courageous at all and ostensibly needs to be rescued at the end of the film. In fact, most of the men in the film, aside from the flamboyantly camp private eye Roberto hires (nicely played by Jean-Pierre Marielle and just nudging the line between over-the-top and spot on) are either rather lost or pompous idiots; whereas the female characters: Mimsy Farmer as Tobias’ wife, Maria Fabbri as the maid and Francine Racette as Tobias’ wife’s cousin are far stronger and proactive.
Those used to the typical American “slasher on the loose” films might well be surprised by the murderer’s eventual identity. However, if you’re familiar with Argento’s first film, Bird With A Crystal Plummage, this film, which uses a number of similar plot elements (They both borrowed heavily from the novel “The Screaming Mimi”) feels like a more polished and slick version of that same story.
Ultimately, it’s the superb visual set pieces that make Argento’s films so spectacular and thankfully we now have the chance to enjoy an early landmark movie from his career that set so much of the tone for his later work.
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Join us next time for the second film in this two part Argento special, Phenomena, plus an exclusive short documentary where I revisit the Swiss locations used in the film.