Four Flies on Grey Velvet Review
When Dario Argento crafted his third film, Four Flies on Grey Velvet (4 Mosche di Velluto Grigio), in 1971, he was in the enviable position of being a well-established directorial name; an impressive achievement in a fledgling career. His supremely sculpted debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, had made a surprisingly substantial impact beyond the confines of the director's homeland, and far from being tarnished with the predictable stereotype of a shameless Italian rip-off peddler, the young director proved himself capable of nurturing energetic, creative, and painfully stylish giallo with an appeal transcending that of central Europe and making modest waves on transatlantic shores.
The opening scene of Argento's third directorial foray demonstrates a filmmaker with little sign of his energy and creativity fading. Indeed, the opening few minutes are positively exploding with ideas, and the pumping live seventies music - which would be barely out of place in an Austin Powers flick - pales as the real cacophony is a visual one, with slowmo flying drumsticks, cameras positioned within acoustic guitars and on the head of bass guitars, and stark cuts to an eviscerated, beating heart, affording the viewer no time for comfort. If Argento's giddy, child-like excitement behind the camera proves sometimes misguided, it's a small price to pay to see a director climbing a crescendo of creativity in his career.
Whilst the barely contained creativity shower subsides after the introductory sequence, the film retains a distinctive feel throughout, with Argento unashamedly pandering to his own whims by building a plot around a set of stylish visual ideas and smart death scenes; check out the impressive subway scene, the body sliding down the steps, and the park chase sequence, to name but a few. Whilst never touching the breathtaking highs of his classy debut or his mid to late seventies masterpieces Deep Red and Suspiria, Four Flies... still has sufficient merit and (albeit somewhat random) story-telling momentum to ensure a satisfying viewing experience.
Not only does Argento's almost inevitable weaving of a gender theme into his third work provoke further interest, but his commitment to character development is still evident to a level which would gradually fade as his output continued, eschewed in favour of stunning visuals and admittedly glorious grand guignol extravagance. This is evidenced by his management of the gay Private Investigator Gianni Arrosio, played in outrageously good form by Jean-Pierre Marielle. The director could easily be criticised for his seemingly one-dimensional depiction of the failed P.I., yet the character is treated affectionately, and provides one of the most enjoyable performances in the piece. This is in no small part thanks to the humour which Marielle brings to proceedings, and indeed, Argento again reveals something of a knack for one-dimensional humour in this work; it's not just during Marielle's sequences, but also during the misdirected mail conversation, and at the cringe-worthy funeral exhibition.
If there's one area which lets the film down, it's that of some of the other key performances. Where Marielle is colourful and lively, lead role Roberto Tobias, played by Michael Brandon, is a frustratingly hollow character. He seems incapable of communicating through facial expressions, and his actions feel continually forced. Wife Nina (Mimsy Farmer) also proves problematic, as she struggles to adequately balance the concern and anger demanded in the role. Argento would often be left wanting in terms of his ability to extract the best performances from his cast, and it seems that his main successes have come from those who can carry the roles with minimum intervention (check David Hemmings in Deep Red for evidence of such success). As if to compound matters, the unnecessarily sharp editing between scenes snatches further credibility from many of the performances here.
Yet for all that, the film is perfectly enjoyable for the casual viewer, and absolutely fascinating for the ardent Argento-ite. It's not just the inclusion of a varied and established cast (despite some of their shortcomings here), the depiction of some well shot death scenes, or the gentle humour which Dario seemed to have a basic knack for at this stage in his career. What makes Four Flies on Grey Velvet essential for those interested in the director is the fact that this is a transitional piece, a pivotal moment in his career which would lay a partial blueprint for some of his most important works. The signs of this transition are subtle, yet utterly intriguing. Whether it's the bizarre, nightmare-ish quality of Roberto's entrance through an unaturally large number of curtains at the theatre, the peril in the park where the walls seem to shrink as a victim runs from an unseen assailant, the accelerated movement from daytime to night also in the park, or the repeated dream sequence of a Saudi Arabian beheading, this is Argento pushing his creative and imaginative boundaries to discover where his rare talent would take him.
This transition did suffer a temporary hiatus; after Four Flies... in 1971, Argento went on to direct the disappointing The Five Days... in 1973. Perhaps this was a necessary diversion in the journey of a prodigiously talented man, as he continued his transition from hardcore giallo maestro towards a master of horror. 1975 would witness the pinnacle of his career with the near perfect Deep Red - a film that was still built on the solid foundation of giallo - and two years later Argento set the standard in full-blown horror with his garishly colourful baroque nightmare, Suspiria.
Four Flies on Grey Velvet fails to reach the giddy heights of either of Argento's later classics, and contains some strangely placed pseudo-scientific hokum, yet the opportunity to see the director honing his craft - even with the odd slip of his tools, here and there - should prove irresistible.
Shameless Entertainment have long peddled a suitably shameless image of their wares; flick through the DVD and Blu-ray shelves (either physically or virtually) and the lurid yellow of their controversial product catalogue makes a bold and unashamed statement of what lies within. Indeed, parallels are not hard to draw between the blunt cover advertising of Shameless Entertainment materials, and the shock yellow of the original cheap paperback crime novels from which the giallo film genre draws its name. Of course, Shameless release a variety of subversive genre materials, and on one level, in the case of this giallo shocker, the design feels particularly appropriate, with its grimy cover design (which is, in a nice touch, reversible, offering the option of a slighlty less garish alternative cover) and sleazy images including the obligatory smattering of semi-nudity.
Yet the typically blatant cover design belies the real character and quality of this release. Rarely seen over the 40 years since its initial release in 1971 outside of some overly grainy, low grade versions, Shameless earn some prestige points by releasing the first Blu-ray edition of Argento's third animal trilogy work. And to their credit, the label have produced a transfer that finely balances the rugged character of the source material with the high definition demands of the modern Blu-ray viewer. Great care has been taken to ensure the film looks at its very best, with the film being remastered in high definition from the original negative.
This transfer seeks to avoid patronising its viewers, by presenting an appropriate level of grain, whilst sharpening the image sufficiently to meet the expectations of today's audiences. The final image is remarkably clean, with very little trace of flecks or damage. The colour spectrum is also handled respectfully, with the colours feeling natural and substantial without appearing forced or overly enhanced. An excellent scene showcasing the representation of colour is the moment in the theatre in the early part of the film; as Michael Brandon looks up at the masked photographer in an upper balcony, an enormous rainbow of colours is captured in the frame, and this scene alone demonstrates the quality with which this film has been presented.
Other notably effective moments include the grumpy maid's soiree in the park, with the rich, lush greens of the surrounding foliage, and the dazzling shots of Turin architecture.
The moments where this carefully remastered presentation struggles is during the darker scenes, of which there are a few. During these sequences it can prove difficult to identify the nuances of shapes in the dark shades, though I fully accept that there would be little that the remastering process could do to help here, and this is less of a criticism, and rather an observation.
The transfer places a strong focus on consistency, and the image remains consistent for most of the film. It's worth noting that the quality will dip in a few places. Shameless supply two versions of the film on this Blu-ray, the first being the standard cut of the film, and the second presenting the film with the so-called 'missing forty seconds' re-inserted in their restored state. Clearly, the 'missing' footage is identifiable from the reduced quality. The other notable moment occurs at the film's climax, and whilst I won't go into detail, those familiar with the film's final scene will be aware of why the quality is also subject to variance at this point. Despite this, in relative terms, the remastered image (with the diagonal line removed) is still excellent.
The film is presented in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and at a resolution of 1080p, so you can expect a proportionate and accurate widescreen image. It's also worth noting that the disc is region free, so overseas viewers can benefit from this strong Shameless release.
Compression is performed using the MPEG-4 AVC codec, and this performs a solid job as the film is presented consistently for the majority of the running time (taking into account the fact that the source material is responsible for some of the degradation).
A number of trailers for typical Shameless sleazefests automatically launch before the feature menu appears. These include the admittedly intriguing silly shocker from the nineties (with Rupert Everett, of all people) Dellamorte Dellamore, the depressingly unpleasant Cannibal Holocaust, and Fulci's underrated serial killer nasty The New York Ripper.
Shameless have provided a number of options for audio accompaniment. You can select the original English Mono, or Italian if you prefer. You also have the option of listening in English 2.0 DTS HD, or Italian Mono DTS HD. The recommended option is the English 2.0 DTS HD, featuring audio from the original magnetic soundtrack which has been remastered for this release of the film. The result is an impressively clean presentation, which benefits from a decent tonal delivery, yet contains very little evidence of hiss or extraneous noise.
There are two notable flaws with the audio however. Firstly, the soundtrack does suffer from some synching problems, with the characters' deliveries being perceptibly misaligned with the audio at certain points. The other issue to listen out for surrounding audio is the handling of the levels at some moments, where some noises in the higher range of the spectrum can be rather screechy and abrasive.
It's also worth noting that a small number of Mimsy Farmer's lines are delivered using the Italian audio soundtrack, where the original English source material is not available, and the tonal quality of the delivery drops momentarily at these points. Subtitles are provided at these times.
Whilst there isn't a huge number of extras on this Blu-ray release, the quality theme is continued as we are granted a 40 minute Exclusive Interview with long time Argento friend and collaborator (he co-wrote the story with Argento) Luigi Cozzi. And whilst Cozzi appears on a number of Argento releases, this is by far the best interview I've seen with him. Discussing many aspects of the film's development and mechanics, Cozzi is engaging and stimulating throughout, and with a number of photos and clips being cut into the presentation at appropriate times, this is an unmissable piece.
Other 'extras' include an stimulating enough Photo Gallery containing almost 6 minutes worth of stylish film stills and promo shots, an Italian and English version of the film Trailer, an Alternate Credits piece which features a different version of the opening credits in a non-remastered form, and the now obligatory Shameless Trailer Park.
English subtitles are available if you are watching the film with Italian soundtrack.
Shameless Entertainment have surpassed themselves with this presentation of Argento's 'lost' film, and whilst Argento's closing piece in the animal triumvirate suffers from some issues in terms of apathetic acting and flimsy science, fans of the director will find this not only an absorbing and satisfying release, but also an essential one.