*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Dario Argento, master of slasher-surrealism, made the interesting Four Flies on Grey Velvet in 1971 … and it combines the low-key elements of his early Giallo period with the more colorful visual experimentation of his later films.
Roberto, a drummer in a psychedelic rock band, is being stalked by a man in fedora and sunglasses. When Roberto eventually tracks down and confronts him in an empty confetti-strewn opera house, there is a struggle: his stalker immediately wields a switchblade, but Roberto defends himself and somehow ends up accidentally stabbing the man, causing him to fall into an orchestra pit. SEEMINGLY dead! Meanwhile, some person with a camera, wearing an impish mask, is taking pictures of all this from the opera house balcony.
Obviously afraid that he’ll be incriminated in the murder, Roberto avoids going to the police. It is not long before someone else begins toying with him, slipping into his home to plant a photo of the killing. This person even sneaks in while he's asleep and kills his cat. Roberto first assumes that he’s being blackmailed, but it soon dawns on him that he is now the victim of some sick cat-and-mouse game designed to drive him bonkers. As he sorts through all the suspects (maid, wife’s cousin, mailman, etc.) with the assistance of his earthy bohemian friend and a swishy gay private investigator, the culprit does (not surprisingly) turn out to be right under his nose.
Like in all of Dario Argento's work, it's the filmmaking style that is the true star, not the actors. Argento rarely pays much attention to his performers, and this film is no exception, but there are a few treasures among the actors to be found here. Michael Brandon is apt (in that he’s not very expressive) playing the vapid, macho, and boring Roberto. Mimsy Farmer, who plays his wife, Nina, does eventually come alive at the end of the film (although in an overreaching manner) when she has her big meltdown/confession scene - otherwise, she’s pretty bland playing the “dedicated wife.” In many ways, you can’t blame Farmer since her character is so one-dimensional. A few of the supporting actors, however, stand out. Bud Spenser as Roberto’s comical friend, Godfrey, and Jean-Pierre Marielle as Gianni, the overly broad, flaming private investigator, are both very engaging.
While Four Flies is not as elegantly garish as Argento’s subsequent Suspiria, it's still visually playful enough to give you a hint of the baroque direction Argento would soon take. Charming moments include an opening montage of Roberto jamming with his band (its highlight is a witty POV shot taken from inside a guitar, looking out into a recording studio, as its strings are being strummed) intercut with a pulsating heart over a silent black screen and Roberto being surveyed -- in his car and in the park -- by his stalker. As Roberto drums away, a fly vexes him, which he eventually squashes between his drum cymbals; the build-up to the park murder of Roberto’s inquisitive and opportunistic maid stands out with its New Wave jump cuts (think Jean-Luc Godard making a thriller) where late day suddenly becomes night and a populated playground suddenly becomes empty, all within a split second; the climactic scene where the killer’s car accidentally collides (in super slow motion) with a truck – we see the killer’s stunned face through a crashing sheet of twinkling windshield glass, poetically juxtaposed with Ennio Morricone’s haunting lilting music. Four Flies’ naturalistic photography is also a charmer, focusing on earthy colors, unlike the much lauded theatrical look of Argento’s best known works.
Four Flies’ script is moderately interesting with odd touches throughout: Roberto’s recurring nightmare of a public execution/beheading washed in white sunlight, directly influenced by his friend’s grisly party anecdote; a goofy mailman constantly misdelivers Swedish pornography to the wrong addressee; Roberto and Godfrey attend a coffin expo that showcases ornately designed (some - futuristic) caskets; Roberto’s cute and cuddly bathtub romp with Nina’s cousin, Dalia; an implausible sci-fi device that can record the last image retained on a dead person’s retina, possibly revealing who the killer is if a murder is committed. Despite all this nice stuff, the script still has its weaknesses: basically, its flat lead characters and eye-rolling conclusion where Nina reveals herself to be Roberto’s stalker. Nina explains her motives in an overly broad monologue that sounds as Freudian as the explanation given at the end of Psycho... and its theory of gender psychosis. She reveals that the reason she is torturing Roberto is because he reminds her of her macho dead father with whom she hates – her father always wanted a son, and would dress her up as a boy when she was little and put her through constant male endurance tests, etc. It’s also interesting to add that Nina sports a boyish haircut, where her husband, the manly Roberto, has long locks.
For a Dario Argento film, Four Flies’ violence is pretty soft (it is PG-rated) except for a few nauseating close-ups of a jumbo needle penetrating a hairy chest’s spongy layer and a thick wire being entwined around a man’s coarse neck, its leathery skin in rolls. The murder that stands out the most, however, is when Dalia gets sliced on the forehead (an elegant slash like the mark of Harry Potter) right before falling down a flight of stairs (head-first, face-up) her skull plopping musically and cartoonishly against each step as she descends backwards. The coup de grace to this scene is when Argento’s camera tracks the killer’s perfectly vertical knife, dropping midair, disembodied, like a torpedo, silencing its victim’s scream.
As I stated before, the style is the most striking thing in a Dario Argento flick -- often, the skeletons of his films just aren’t very impressive. Again, it’s all in the way he dresses them up!
My rating: 7 out of 10