Sunday 23 September 2018

Four Flies on Grey Velvet

Fly In Me Eye

Four Flies on Grey Velvet
Italy/France 1971
Directed by Dario Argento
Shameless Blu Ray Zone B

Honestly. I must own about 6 or more different versions of this movie on DVD. Why? Because there was a massive delay when it came to getting this thing out in that format, for some bizarre reason... possibly something to do with rights issues tied up with the American company Paramount Pictures, if I was asked to speculate. So, in the early years of the format, we were all making do with a bootleg of the thing. Then, there was a more, ‘half official’ German bootleg in nice packaging and so we all double dipped on that thing. Then, after a good many years (over a decade since the dawn of DVD I think), Paramount finally released an official DVD of this in the US. Except, guess what, it wasn’t quite the full version of the movie (not even as complete as the various bootlegs on the market by this point) so then, as the years went by, more official releases from other countries emerged which, as they went on, got just a little better with moments not on the previous releases and in a better transfer or with different sound formats etc. So it went from becoming this ridiculous hole in anyone’s selection of Argento films to... well... the one with the most different variations on the street, probably.

The excellent Shameless Blu Ray of the full, uncut version (or should that be... even fuller, more uncut version) even makes reference on the film’s difficult home video release history in the kind of charming hyperbole I come to associate with boutique labels of this nature. The film is released on their label as “Dario Argento’s Lost Masterpiece” Four Flies On Grey Velvet. Well... it works for me... kind of. All I will say is that this Blu Ray looks, asides from some additional footage edits which I’ll get to later, absolutely stunning compared to some of the versions I’ve had to watch over the last decade or so.

The film starts off with a stop and start credits sequence, depicting a young Michael Brandon (who UK viewers might best remember from the TV show Dempsey And Makepeace in the 1980s) in the role of Roberto Tobias. He is playing the drums with his pop group in a couple of different locations and then cutting in and out with the almost threatening opening titles of a bloody heart beating out time as the furious Morricone score is silenced and then thrown back in on the next bit of footage of Brandon drumming... and so on. These opening credits include a wonderful shot where the screen is blacked out apart from a round hole in the centre of the screen, from which you can see the band... it’s only a little later when you see fingers strumming in close up on the other side of the opening that you realise the shot is supposed to be a camera view looking out from inside a guitar (although I’m guessing Argento and his crew might have achieved the shot with a more camera friendly prop of the same thing.

So by the time the credits are over and we hear Roberto talk to one of the other players, we realise he must be a fairly successful recording artist and, though I love Argento’s work and really like this movie, it has to be said this is such a light sketch of a scene representing the character’s day job that even the slight way in which the same kind of character is depicted in Deep Red by David Hemmings  (reviewed here) is more convincing than this... and in Deep Red it’s really not that convincing.

Anyway, Roberto’s eye is caught by a strange figure watching him and it’s someone who has apparently been shadowing him for a while now. He follows him into an empty theatre and confronts him but the guy pulls a knife and in the struggle, appears to fall onto the knife, leaving Roberto with the smoking gun in his hand (or in this case, the bleeding knife) and with a whole load of worry because he also notices a strange masked individual deliberately taking photos of the whole thing. Later on, the photos start turning up in places in Roberto’s house, along with strange warnings that he will be killed soon. What can Roberto do, though? He tells his wife, Nina, played by Mimsy Farmer, who would go on to star in a number of these Italian genre films (including the giallo Autopsy aka Sun Spots and the ‘not quite a giallo’ The Perfume Of The Lady In Black... which I reviewed here). She doesn’t know what to suggest but agrees Roberto shouldn’t go to the police while there’s hard evidence that he appears to have killed someone so he turns to a friend, God (aka Godfrey), played by Bud Spencer, for advice. He hires a private detective (Jean-Pierre Marielle in a really funny performance) as he tries to find out who is giving him so much trouble while, at the same time, having an affair with his wife’s cousin and also having to deal with another couple of murders as someone who knows what’s going on is killed when a ransom is mentioned. I really don’t want to say anymore about the plot or the unfolding story at this point because it’s one of Argento’s great movies and I don’t want to put in any spoilers.

Needless to say, the film is full of wonderful ‘only from Argento’ visual moments throughout and these alone ensure it is a joy to watch.

For instance, the camera eye view shifts to different people or sometimes inanimate objects. So a shot of Roberto walking through a series of curtains near the start is quite immediate and in your face in a way this kind of activity had probably not been shot before. There’s also a brilliant moment where a goblet at the side of screen is picked up and moves with the camera eye of the killer to bludgeon a guy. Later in the same sequence, the POV switches again to being the actual object itself and as the camera smashes down on the victim's head, the screen gets covered in his blood. The immediacy of shots like this really grab the viewer and call attention to the style in which the images have been constructed and edited in a really great way. I’d say the film’s visual richness is even more ground breaking than the previous parts of Argento’s so called Animal Trilogy, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (reviewed here) and Cat O’ Nine Tails (reviewed here).

More visual flourishes I wouldn’t want you to miss out on can be found in the ‘waiting in the park’ scene. As the time passes in a typically long and relatively dialogue free scene as a character is waiting for ‘the killer’ to turn up with some ransom money, the park empties out and gets dark. Argento doesn’t show this passing of time in a traditional manner here. Instead, when the character looks at a couple kissing or some kids on the roundabout, she sees them for a second or two before we jump cut to the same shot, devoid of any people. It’s a bit similar to David Hemmings winking out of existence at the end of Antonioni’s Blow Up, to tell the truth and one wonders if this was an influence on Argento here. Similarly, as the character is walking around and trying to find an exit, the sky jumps from daylight to moonlight on her in the blink of an eye. Not a choice a lot of directors would have made here, for sure.

Like pretty much all Argento’s work, especially from this period, the film also has some exquisitely designed visual compositions where the director makes full use of the environment to find new ways to frame his characters. Such as the case where the private detective comes to a stop across the street from a building. The camera is inside the building and looking out and down a couple of floors as the verticals along the window then frame the detective while he pauses and then, eventually, looks up into the camera. He also uses a lot of transition moments where a cut to a character’s head in relative close up at the front of a shot is perceived to be the extension of a scene but when the camera pulls back it reveals that we are in an entirely new setting with the same person, carrying on an entirely different conversation. Moments like these hold the interest and prevent the telling of the tale from getting too dull (let’s face it... and this is a rule of thumb for the giallo genre in general... with some of these scripts you really need a visually exciting approach to the material to keep things watchable).

There’s also a typical Argento trademark kind of shot when somebody phones the killer and he follows the course of the phone lines across the city in a series of cuts until we see the phone at the other end of the destination. Argento would, of course, polish this almost irrational idea of following a flow of seemingly irrelevant visual detail and do a similar thing all in one shot in the celebrated moment in his film Tenebre (which I reviewed here), when he takes the camera literally ‘around the houses’, so to speak, before we are witness to a double murder sequence.

Also, like most gialli I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a fair amount of them now), Argento makes it almost impossible to work out who the killer is, burying the main suspect under a mound of red herrings so, unless you can see the trick of the thing right from the outset (and I think the only time I did this with Argento was when I first saw The Bird With The Crystal Plumage), then you will possibly be a little surprised at the end. All through the movie Argento puts deliberately misleading moments in to try to point the finger of suspicion at somebody other than the true person behind the main protagonist’s tormentor. For instance, the deliberate smoke and mirrors of Michael Brandon going through his record collection at a party and finding one of the incriminating photos slipped in among them is something Argento quickly follows up with a shot of the housemaid seeing him do this and pulling a sinister looking expression on her face in reaction, leading the audience to think she might have a hand in things. The real cheat he utilises in this movie though... and I don’t know why nobody ever questions it after they’ve seen it... is to use the sound bytes from the killer’s unhappy childhood flashbacks superimposed over a series of shots of another character... thus throwing suspicion on them just by playing on the fact that the audience will immediately tie up the audio to the visual in their collective mind.

Also, in typical giallo fashion, each time you think you’ve cottoned onto who the ‘giallo killer’ is, they more often than not wind up dead themselves in the next scene and remove themselves from your mental suspect list. That happens a few times here and Argento even reverses that trick at some point by... oh right...spoilers. I won't go there on here.

Like Argento’s prior giallo films having at least a tenuous link to the actual events of the movie, the title Four Flies On Grey Velvet is a reference to a scene which adds further mystery to the identity of the killer in the final act. The old, corny chestnut about a person’s eyeball retaining the last image seen before death which can then be photographed directly from the retina is behind this title... an idea Argento wasn’t keen on using until he was told about the kind of shot he would be able to put in the film... the four flies being the final image photographed from one of the murder victim’s eyeballs. I have to say, the actual shot and pull back of a characters extracted eyeball being photographed through a lot of optical equipment does make for a striking visual moment and you can see why Argento was persuaded to go down this route here. Certainly he’s a director who, I believe, is quite happy to sacrifice credibility in the service of finding the perfect shot and this attitude is put to good use here. Also, until the crazy reveal as to what the four flies actually mean, it’s not going to give anything away to first time audiences, that’s for sure.

The film also has a beautiful Ennio Morricone score for Argento which is also a little more ‘poppy’ in places compared to his scores for The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and Cat O’ Nine Tails. However, the two fell out over Argento’s use of this score in the final film, from what I can tell and it was the maestro’s last score for Argento until the 1980s, when he scored The Stendhal Syndrome and Phantom Of The Opera. That being said, if Morricone had not left after this film, would we now have the style of typical giallo scoring which was pioneered when Argento discovered, through Daria Nicolada I believe, Claudio Simonetti and his group Goblin? Sometimes bad things happen for a good reason and it’s almost impossible to think of 1970s and 80s Italian giallo and horror scene without the influence of the Goblin sound, for sure. Or the music of the 1970s/80s American slasher scene which referenced it either, for that matter.

Four Flies On Grey Velvet is easily one of Argento’s best giallo films and it looks absolutely beautiful here. The Shameless edition Blu Ray really shows the movie off to its best with the one possible caveat being the jumps in the print... but that’s not their fault. You see, like a lot of these restorations where the longer Italian cut has been recreated utilising a much better print from the American release, you can tell just what footage was deleted from the original US/UK cut. One of the obvious giveaways, although I’ve never seen it done by a company quite so seamlessly as this excellent release, is that the colours and look of the film stock changes completely midway during a shot. Another giveaway is that, since the English language dub (which the English and US actors are actually lip synching to visually) was not created for certain trimmed scenes (or didn’t survive), a character will be speaking in English one minute and then, suddenly be speaking in a different voice in Italian with subtitles coming up the next... before hopping back in to English. Now this doesn’t, thankfully, happen that often here but the upside to both the stock change and language inserts is that you can work out exactly which scenes were cut for the US/UK releases and speculate as to why. Mostly it’s just the openings and endings of scenes where a few seconds of a shot have been trimmed to speed things up. However, I noticed that the start of a scene where one of the characters is introduced as Nina’s cousin is trimmed... presumably because the idea of the lead character sleeping with his wife’s cousin was considered a little risky by some censors (not by the general public, mind... just the censors). Another scene which has a lot of Italian inserts popping up is when the killer has been revealed and they make a long speech explaining some things. It does go on for quite a while, actually and I can see why it would have been thought better to trim by some. So, yeah, the downside of these restorations is not always such a problem when the nature of the original cuts can be unearthed, I reckon.

This latest Blu Ray is the best version of Four Flies On Grey Velvet to date and if you are an Argento fan then you will want this film in your library. It’s criminal that it was left unproduced on home video for so many years though. Almost as criminal as charging me money for each subsequent, slightly better version which came along afterwards. That being said, the extras on this one are fairly minimal, it seems to me and I’m wondering, now that Shameless have apparently gone into a closer partnership with Arrow Films, whether a full bells and whistles version might be somewhere around the corner with a load of extras and lobby card reprints etc. I hope so because, yeah, in the case of this particular film... I’d probably buy it all over again.

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