Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)

Director: Dario Argento

Starring: Michael Bradon, Mimsy Farmer

What’s it about?

Rock drummer Roberto Tobias is being stalked by an unknown man until a bloody confrontation in an archaic theatre leaving his pursuer dead. As Roberto reels from the shock of killing someone, he is photographed from a balcony by a soon-to-be blackmailer who is determined to drive him crazy. And they’re wearing the weird rubber mask you can see on the poster. Grim stuff.

Should I watch it?

If it has a Morricone score, it should automatically be on your “to watch” list. The now-expired legend manages to lift the most banal film with his powerhouse scores. Four Flies is not banal, though it is definitely cheese-baked in parts. American actress Mimsy Farmer, who also stars in the grisly Autopsy and disturbing The Perfume of the Lady In Black, plays Michael Brandon’s neurotic wife, who does absolutely nothing to make her jittery husband feel better. Brandon is fantastic in the lead role and it baffles me how he hasn’t become more well known.

Roberto hires a PI (played by the prolific Jean-Paul Marielle) who begins to investigate why he’s been targeted for blackmail. Arrosio may be offensive for queer viewers, but the character needs to be framed in context. Is he a comicaly-absurd (and strangely hungry) character or positively representating gay men in 70s Italy? It could be discussed in more detail, but whether it needs to be is another thing. There’s some recognition of the anxiety between straight and gay men which is played up for laughs yet still should be recognised as an valuable early queer cinema. The surprise campy stereotype becomes a deeply sympathic character that breaks the plot (and the movie) in half. “84 failures, a fantastic record.” is both hilarious and tragic, you’ll know when you hear it. Don’t let this paragraph distract you from the movie itself. The subway scene amps up the tension to an almost unbearable level.

Unlike other Argento giallo and horror films, Four Flies has some odd comic scenes in it, such as the inexplicable friendship between Roberto and God, a shack-dwelling fisherman with a parrot called Jerkoff. Plus there’s the black humour of the funeral convention which may raise a few eyebrows. It’s a strange shift when you consider this is a follow-up to the peerless Bird With The Crystal Plumage, however the interesting stylistic devices, such as the shot of the “four flies”, give a hint of some of techniques Argento would employ in Deep Red only a few years later. The shot from the inside of the crappy fake guitar is inexcusable though.

The 40th Anniversary Shameless bluray restores a few of the previously damaged inserts as well as cut frames. I disagree with the categorisation of this, Bird and Cat as an “animal trilogy”: the lazy critic who came up with that doesn’t seem to realise a fly is not actually an animal. There’s not as much brutality as there is from Deep Red onwards, but the climax is definitely unforgettable.