Monday 21 November 2011

Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)

What would the world of early seventies giallo cinema be without Dario Argento? For one thing there would probably be a lot less of it – a lot less fashions and production design that are almost as unbelievable as the plots, a lot less groovy soundtrack music, a lot less Edwige Fenech and probably a lot less J&B consumed (unless each movie that featured it just kept refilling the bottle with cold tea, but somehow I don’t think that’s the Italian way). Unlike his contemporaries, Argento never favoured placing that particular tipple in a prominent location in his movies (although it is here if you look hard enough), and he never cast Edwige Fenech either, which is a shame. All the other above elements however, are present in force in FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, a film that is a bit slow and confusing in places but makes up for it by being deliriously mental in others – again, a bit like most movies in the giallo subgenre.
            We begin with one of the most manic undisciplined pieces of music composer Ennio Morricone must have ever committed to paper, if indeed he ever wrote it down and didn’t just tell his assembled musicians to ‘pretend they were in a room filled with wasps’. Or who knows? Perhaps that’s what actually happened. Intercut with the titles is a little beating heart that we never see again once they’re over. There’s no real reason for this other than possibly to indulge Dario’s predilection for including random cameos from internal organs in his films (after all there’s a pulsating brain in OPERA). We then get to meet groovy drummer Michael Brandon who is being followed by a chap in dark glasses and a big hat. He pursues him to an abandoned theatre where red curtains open like they will in PROFONDO ROSSO before he seemingly kills the chap as a masked onlooker takes photographs, one of which is then surreptitiously placed in Brandon’s record collection at a party. Brandon’s married to mad Mimsy Farmer (although we don’t find out about the mental bit until the end, unlike the entire film which we already know by now is bonkers) who’s rich so they have a maid. She  knows who the killer is, but this being a giallo the only person she tells is the murderer themselves before agreeing to meet them in a deserted park after dark. Argento’s murder scenes are always one of the highlights of his pictures and this time he cleverly coveys her death mostly off screen by having her cries heard by bystanders the other side of a twenty foot wall. The fingernails scraping down the brick are a nice added touch. Mimsy disappears off with the police for reasons I couldn’t fathom and Brandon, who should be being accused of murder by now, is left free to employ a private detective who has a failure rate of 100%. Argento may have once been a superlative maker of horror thrillers but his comedy skills aren’t up to much. Perhaps a bit gets lost in translation but the comedy postman and the comedy camp characters we get in this film have either dated horribly or more likely never worked in the first place. It’s a tribute to actor Jean-Pierre Marielle that his detective character is still so likeable despite the stereotypical overplaying and his death because he has finally solved a case is doubly poignant. Fans of Italian cinema will raise a smile at Bud Spencer’s cameo as ‘God’, and his Professor sidekick is quite fun as well but otherwise it was probably wise for Dario to stick to the nastiness. Because Mimsy’s gone Brandon takes this as his cue to fall into the bath with pretty Francine Racette. Needless to say Francine’s soon at the end of the killer’s big knife, but not before being thrown down the stairs in a way that probably had Lucio Fulci thinking ‘I can do better than that’.
            There also seems to be some unwritten rule with these movies that the meaning of the title has to be explained as late as possible in the proceedings. In fact I wonder if at the time there may even have been  something of a competition between film makers about this sort of thing. Here we’re 84 minutes into the running time before we get the spiel about Francine’s retina retaining the last image she ever saw, but not before the remaining cast have viewed her body in the kind of morgue that can only exist in Italy – one with black and white marble columns that looks more like the foyer of a 1970s hotel than a functioning pathology lab.
            The Four Flies idea is a good one if intrinsically daft. No-one explains why Mimsy’s wearing a fly around her neck, but then she is a mad giallo killer so she probably doesn’t need a reason. “I was raised as a boy!” she screams at the denouement in a typical Argento murderer’s lament, “My father beat me! I was locked in an asylum for three years!” We still don’t know why she’s wearing a fly and we don’t have time to find out because off she goes in her car and her head’s come off and it’s The End. Would you really marry Michael Brandon just because he bore a resemblance to your mad father who you wanted to torture by a ridiculously elaborate scheme that involved paying someone to pretend to be killed by him before you threatened him in your own home but with a mask on so there was no way he could recognise you despite being married to you before admitting you were in a asylum where the rehabilitation programme presumably didn’t involve driving lessons?
            Oh how I love these films. God bless Dario Argento and all who copied him.


  1. Well watched it a few years ago. Not one of Dario's best still a good giallo due to its excellent atmospherics.

    Like Mimsey Farmer...yeah, in her heydey she really had that sexy short blonde look and starred in a few giallos(Autopsy and Perfume Lady in Black).One of the best of the Euro Giallo babes of the 1970s(though she is actually from Chicago).

    Bud Spencer too was good though I remember him more for his Spaghetti comedy westerns with Terence Hill.

    As for the lead man Michael Brandon, I remember watching him in the mid 1980s in the UK cop show Dempsey and Makepiece. Though I did not exactly recognize him in this movie as such.

    As for some plot points in the movie that are absurd...well its a Italian giallo. Expect plot holes.

    As for Dario making comedy...I am preety sure the comedy was unintentional which makes it even more funny.

  2. As for leading lady heroines who you find out to be the villan crazy killer in the end...I just watched a Thriller UK ep. called Screamer starring the excellent Pamela find out in the end, that she is the psychotic killer who likes to scream...

  3. One of the few Argento films I haven't seen. It definitely sounds like one for the TBW list, thanks!

  4. Cheers Matt! It was unavailable for some time but there's a decent Region 1 DVD of it out now. I actually saw it for the first time at ShocktoberFest in Bristol a couple of years ago when they had it on the big screen!