Though I spent the better part of my teen years obsessively tracking down, watching, and re-watching Dario Argento’s giallo films, the third title in his so-called “Animal Trilogy”—including The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971)—was difficult for me to find for many years. Insert a speech about how in my day, during the early years of the internet we walked uphill, both ways, in the snow, and with no shoes on, to find bootlegs of Eurocult films. When I finally did see it, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it and wasn’t even really sure that I liked it. For a number of years, I thought of it mostly as an important bridge between Argento’s astonishing debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and his first masterpiece, Deep Red (1975).
But the more I watch Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) over the years, the more it stays with me. It’s a strange and unsettling film and—particularly in comparison to Argento’s other films of the ‘70s and ‘80s—is oddly meanspirited. Unlike The Bird with the Crystal Plumage or Deep Red, it lacks a sympathetic male protagonist and also unlike those films, the central romantic attachment of the film’s lead lacks warmth or credibility. The marriage couple at the heart of the film are simply a pair of bodies sharing space and the almost existential sense of isolation isn’t buffered by the humor or indignation of some of his other films. It’s also important to note that Four Flies on Grey Velvet prefigures Deep Red and classics like Tenebre (1982) and Opera (1987) by using one of Argento’s most beloved devices: a traumatic flashback 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.
The implication is that these flashbacks are linked to Roberto (Michael Brandon, a dead ringer for Argento himself, though perhaps more handsome), 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 force a confrontation, but the man attacks Roberto and Roberto accidentally stabs him in the struggle. A masked figure up in the balcony begins taking pictures and Roberto flees, certain that he killed the stranger. He begins receiving pictures of the attack in the mail and has strange nightmares about a man being executed by beheading in what looks like Middle Eastern terrain. Soon he is physically threatened and his maid (Marisa Fabbri), 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—or his distant wife Nina (Mimsy Farmer)—from being the next victim.
As I mentioned, where Four Flies on Grey Velvet perhaps suffers the most—or maybe the point at which it is the most inaccessible—is that its protagonist, Roberto, is completely unlikable. Like all of Argento’s early protagonists, Roberto is a foreigner, an American, and like Deep Red’s Marcus Daly (the plucky David Hemmings), he’s a musician. He spends his time with eccentrics—a reclusive, burly artist (as in Bird with the Crystal Plumage, though here played by Bud Spencer rather than Mario Adorf), an openly gay private investigator (French actor Jean-Pierre Marielle, stealing the film as the single best character and I demand one day he gets his own spin off), and his wife’s cousin (Francine Racette) who is quick to have an affair with him. And of course 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 suffocatingly close to Roberto, yet just out of reach.
Much like his previous film, The Cat o’Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet makes a strange, perhaps 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 odd and surreal here, as if we’ve wandered into sci-fi territory without any warning. The first time I saw the film, I found it completely preposterous, but it’s really grown on me if only because it’s so incredibly bizarre and disorienting. It’s a nudge in the direction of films like Kurt Neumann’s The Fly (1958) or British horror film The Asphyx (1973, with a very underrated take on a camera capturing death).
This unexpected use of science also recalls the brief Eurohorror career of Mimsy Farmer. I recently wrote about her other glorious giallo film Autopsy (1975), where she plays a researcher writing her dissertation of a rash of suicides that might be an elaborate cover up for murder. She works particularly well here as Roberto’s wife, though she is somewhat underused. Farmer’s aloof, dreamy air added a sense of eeriness that few other actresses could mimic and Argento makes particularly excellent use of her ambiguous sex appeal, focusing on her boyish, somewhat asexual qualities. Her character becomes a mystery in and of itself and she serves as something of a remote cypher at the heart of the film, beautiful but untouchable. There is something unsettling about the nature of her relationship with Roberto, which is perhaps the most dramatic realization of the kind of fractured, disfunctional relationships between men and women that wind through Argento’s films.
Where Four Flies on Grey Velvet really 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. 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 (*cough* lazy) 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. Paired with a great score from Ennio Morricone—his last for Argento for many years—sequences like Roberto’s unexplained dream scenes featuring a man’s beheading are unforgettable and linger long after memories of the loopy plot have faded. The film might not rank among Argento’s 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.