Four Flies on Grey Velvet was for years considered Dario Argento’s ‘lost’ movie. Available only via dodgy VHS bootlegs in a variety of unsatisfying cuts and prints, it was finally given a proper release late last year in the US. A decent little thriller, Four Flies is in many ways typical of early Argento; there’s some great twists and ambitious cinematography that look forward to the stellar work that was to follow, yet the film as a whole doesn’t quite hit critical velocity, and one is left with the sense that it’s slightly less than the sum of its parts.
Perhaps the film’s strongest asset is its story. A pre-Dempsey & Makepeace Michael Brandon plays Roberto Tobias, a drummer in a rock band who’s spent the last week being stalked by a mysterious stranger. Confronting the man in an abandoned theatre, Roberto accidentally ends up killing him, and is photographed doing so by a figure wearing a bizarre puppet mask. Roberto flees the scene, but in the coming weeks receives regular reminders of his actions from the photographer, in the form of pictures and other unsettling communications. This is a terrific premise, and Argento milks it for all its paranoid possibilities; in one scene, Roberto is rifling through a pile of records at a party only to discover a photo of himself holding a bloody knife between two LPs. Aside from Roberto’s curiously unsympathetic wife Nina, most of the other characters are ineffectual oddballs, which serves to emphasise his increased isolation and introspection. The world Argento presents is a cold one which yields little in the way of clues; the stark cinematography, which frequently establishes environments by languidly cutting between static shots of locations, drives home how far Roberto’s situation has removed him from home comforts.
There are some brilliant set piece moments as well. The opening sequence, where Roberto is bothered by a fly during band rehearsal, is dazzling. Equally successful is the scene where hapless private investigator Arrioso is pursuing a suspect on the metro; Argento’s economical, unflashy but perfectly framed direction makes this one of the tense high points of the whole movie. Other scenes are less successful; the killer’s pursuit of Roberto’s maid Amelia in the park, for example, is let down by some rather gimmicky jump-cuts that seem out of keeping with the restraint Argento shows elsewhere.
The film’s real problem lies in the rather leaden pacing. At 100 minutes, Four Flies could hardly be considered overlong, but there’s a fair amount of filler material that serves to slow the whole film down without adding much to the overall experience. Godfrey and The Professor are two fairly irritating characters who contribute little, and some of the chat at Roberto’s parties is pretty excruciating. Elsewhere, there’s some rather early-70s attitudes and conventions on display that haven’t exactly aged well; Argento’s portrayal of Arrioso’s homosexuality is fairly embarrassing by modern standards, and the occasional lapses into beatnik dialogue (“Hey man, what’s your trip?”) occasionally add some unintentional hilarity.
In classic Argento style, the story is brought to its endgame by a whacking great plot contrivance that seems at once ludicrous but also fairly in keeping with the bizarre, illogical world he portrays. I won’t blow the twist here, but suffice it to say it involves a hugely unlikely forensic discovery and some of the most revolting jewellery I’ve ever seen in a film. The murder scenes themselves, as well as the climactic final shot, are fairly exciting but feel a little flat compared to the baroque extremes some of Argento’s later films would go to. In many ways, this is Four Flies in a nutshell; like its predecessor, Cat o’ Nine Tails, it’s a solid and entertaining thriller that shows plenty of directorial flair, yet you’re waiting for Argento to slip his leash and show you something extraordinary. Declaring the giallo dead, Argento’s next film was historical comedy The Five Days; but when that bombed in Italy, he returned with Deep Red, which kicked off an astonishing fifteen-year fun of genre defining masterpieces. Four Flies on Grey Velvet isn’t a bad film, but as history proved, Dario Argento was capable of a lot more.