Pigs take to the skies and Satan ice skates to work as Dario Argento’s long-lost third film, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, finally gets an authorised DVD release, courtesy of Mya Communication.
Warning: this review contains SPOILERS.
Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon), a drummer in a prog rock band, finds himself the subject of unwanted attention in the form of a mysterious man who keeps following him around. One night, he confronts his stalker in a seemingly abandoned theatre and, as a scuffle ensues, accidently ends up stabbing him with his own knife. The seemingly fatal knifing is witnessed by a mysterious masked figure watching the altercation from a balcony, who proceeds to snap photographs of Roberto with the knife in his hand and the body at his feet. Roberto, a man of the “do nothing, say nothing” persuasion, attempts to get on with his life, much to the chagrin of his frosty wife Nina (Mimsy Farmer), but quickly learns that pretending nothing has happened is not an option when he receives copies of the incriminating photos in the mail, followed by the murder of his maid. Convinced that going to the police is not an option, he hires a private detective (Jean-Pierre Marielle) to track down the blackmailer-cum-murderer…
A large number of fans of the films of Dario Argento continue to hope for a return to form from the maestro of the macabre. It’s fairly safe to say that the director’s current output is in the shadow of that of his classic period, but I’m always curious as to just what a return to form would supposedly constitute, particularly as many viewers seem mainly to condemn his recent films based on the absence of elements present in his earlier material: the baroque architecture of Profondo Rosso, the screaming Technicolor hues of Suspiria, the prog rock from Goblin that imbued many of his films from the late 70s through early 80s… Little of this is, as it turns out, present in Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and I do have to wonder, had it been released in 2009 rather than 1971, whether it would have been subjected to the same combination of ire and dismissal that has dogged his 21st century output so far, or whether people would simply have been baffled by the early 70s haircuts and fashion.
Of course, on the one hand, you could argue that Four Flies on Grey Velvet practically is a 2009 release, the reason being that, until now, it has been virtually unobtainable outside of grubby bootlegs, most of which, barring a still significantly less than ideal German DVD release from late 2007, verged on unwatchable. As a result, a considerable number of fans are now seeing it for the first time, and even those who persevered with the variety of compromised bootleg releases (unless they happened to catch one of those all-too-rare theatrical screenings) are, in effect, only now being given the opportunity to experience the film in a manner approximating what Argento intended.
The final instalment in what is unofficially known as Argento’s Animal Trilogy (referring to his first three films, all of which have the name of an animal in the title), Four Flies on Grey Velvet is very much a companion piece to its predecessors, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971). However, it serves as a vital stepping stone for the director en route to the unrestrained mayhem of Profondo Rosso in 1975. Plot-wise, it’s a conventional giallo revolving around Argento’s usual obsessions of memory, displacement and gender identity, but stylistically it shows him beginning to take greater risks, foregrounding unusual imagery often at the expense of the plot. The opening credits sequence, for instance, is a visual tour de force, going so far as to feature a shot from inside a guitar as a musician plucks its strings. Likewise, Roberto’s later visit to private detective Arrioso’s office intercuts shots of him driving with shots of the camera ascending the staircase to the office, the non-linear editing creating a bizarre juxtaposition of images and giving the impression that the car itself is actually driving up the stairs. However, most widely celebrated, and rightly so, is a car crash filmed at 1,000 frames per second, a truly jaw-dropping stunt staged by Argento and cinematographer Franco Di Giacomo using the high-speed German “Pentazet” camera.
You can of course argue that such obvious cinematic techniques at the expense of narrative draw attention to the fundamentally artificial nature of film, reminding us that we are not watching real life but rather something assembled in the editing room, and I suspect Argento’s response would be “So what?” The film doesn’t pretend for a moment to exist in the real world: the pseudoscience around which the central mystery revolves, based on the medieval notion of a dead person’s eye “recording” the last thing he or she sees, makes this abundantly clear. (Now that I think about it, this notion of the eye working as a “camera” of sorts seems itself to be saying something about the nature of film.) The whole thing takes place in a world that seems deliberately off-kilter, and one in which instability is at the heart.
At its heart, this is the tale of a rather sad, pathetic individual – one who isn’t meant to be remotely sympathetic. Therefore, when you consider that Roberto is actually meant to be emotionless and ineffectual, Michael Brandon’s oft-criticised performance actually starts to seem highly appropriate. This is a man who, believing himself to be at the very least capable of manslaughter, rather than confess to the police opts to bury his head in the sand and attempt to get on with his life, even when the bodies begin to pile up. His self-centeredness knows no bounds, most clearly exemplified by the fact that, having packed Nina off to stay with relatives, out of harm’s way, he immediately sets about bedding her cousin Dalia (Francine Racette). He’s by far the most unpleasant protagonist Argento has ever written, and as such complaints about Brandon’s performance as distant and emotionless strike me as missing the point.
Mimsy Farmer, meanwhile, does what she does best. The role of Nina is not exactly a stretch for her, given how often she was called upon to play frosty, deranged femme fatales in Italian films of this vintage, but the casting is perfect, playing on her androgynous looks and foregrounding her as a “wronged woman” in the classic Argento tradition. That she is the killer shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to anyone reasonably well versed in the Argento canon, which after all has more than its fair share of lady assassins, but Nina’s rationale behind her killing spree is perhaps the most tragic of the lot. As with so many of the female killers in Argento’s films, Nina is ultimately a victim herself, having been abused by her father who, livid that he ended up with a daughter rather than a son, dressed her as a boy and instilled in her a culture of violent aggression, perpetuating a cycle of male-originated violence. Roberto’s undoing is his resemblance to her father – she latches on to him as a surrogate who she can “punish” – and I suspect that this goes deeper than his physical appearance. What, after all, ultimately damns Roberto is the stone wall facade he erects, refusing Nina’s multiple offers of support, continually pushing her away and, in his refusal to show her affection or indeed any real emotion whatsoever, in effect perpetuates her father’s tradition of lovelessness. (It doesn’t help that his immediate reaction to discovering that she is the killer is to do what her father did on a regular basis and start slapping her around.)
Perhaps the greatest impression, however, is left by French actor Jean-Pierre Marielle, in the role of homosexual private detective Gianni Arrosio, who boasts that he has never solved a single case and, consequently, believes himself to be the best man for the job because his spectacular track record of failures means that he must be well overdue a success. As the story goes, it was Marielle’s decision to play the character as gay, and the result is a fairly broad caricature that somehow doesn’t come across as offensive or mean-spirited. It would take until Profondo Rosso’s portrayal of Carlo and his boyfriend for Argento to paint a truly sympathetic portrait of homosexuals, but with Arrioso, he had already moved his characterisation of gay characters far beyond their dominant portrayal in most gialli as lecherous creeps. Indeed, his final scene is by far the most touching in the whole film as, having successfully identified the murderer only to meet his demise at her hands, he proudly remarks “I was right – I did it this time.”
Four Flies on Grey Velvet has its problems, to be sure. The pacing is a little sluggish in places, and the comic relief, provided by Roberto’s two friends Godfrey “God” (Bud Spencer) and “The Professor” (Oreste Lionello), is rather silly and jars with the movie’s tone. I also suspect that its status as the “lost” Argento film may have given it a reputation it can’t hope to uphold, inflating audience expectations to the point of them believing they are going to experience an undiscovered masterpiece. It is, however, a solid giallo and one which ably demonstrates that, in the 70s, few of Argento’s contemporaries could hope to match him even when he wasn’t firing on all cylinders. As far as the Animal Trilogy is concerned, this one is ahead of The Cat O’ Nine Tails (still, in my opinion, the weakest of Argento’s 70s films) but behind The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. A few years later, with Profondo Rosso and Suspiria, Argento’s style would undergo a dramatic shift, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet serves in many ways as the missing link between the director’s earlier output and his 1975-1987 “Golden Age”. As such, it’s essential viewing.
For Four Flies on Grey Velvet’s long overdue authorised DVD release, courtesy of Mya Communication, expectations were understandably high, the previously available bootleg releases having ranged in quality from dreadful to even more dreadful, and many of them missing material or jarringly reassembled from a variety of sources. At the very least, fans were expecting a great-looking presentation of an uncut print. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that clear-cut.
First, however, the good news. The film has been transferred in high definition from the original Italian vault negative, and the DVD downconversion (anamorphic and in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, of course) looks very good indeed. Given how bad most of the bootlegs looked, anything short of a revelation would suggest that something was very wrong indeed, and it’s safe to say that the film’s look here is indeed revelatory. For the first time, colours are presented accurately and the overall balance of brightness and contrast is well controlled, meaning that it’s now possible to actually see what’s going on in the final third of the movie! Detail is also pleasing, if a little softer than I would have liked. Grain appears to have been left largely alone, resulting in a natural, film-like texture. Furthermore, barring the odd stray hair or speck, print damage is non-existent.
On the downside, I noticed that this transfer is affected by the same slight stair-stepping effect that plagued many of NoShame Films’ US DVD releases. Mya seemingly rose from the ashes of that particular company, and I suspect that this points to them using the same scaling equipment, which unfortunately makes diagonal lines look a little rough. It’s not hugely distracting, but it’s an issue nonetheless, and one that I had hoped would have been ironed out after all these years. Still, you can rest assured that, unless you were lucky enough to catch a theatrical screening, you will never have seen Four Flies on Grey Velvet look this good before.
Unfortunately, fans will be disappointed to hear that more than 40 seconds’ worth of material is missing from this DVD. While Mya have admirably reinstated several lines of dialogue from the killer’s rant during the climax, deleted from English prints, four segments have been abruptly excised due, according to Mya’s spokesperson, to damage to the negative. These missing snippets occur at the point of reel changes and unfortunately disrupt the flow of the film, not to mention in one case (the introduction of Dalia) causing a crucial piece of information to be lost. If the negative was indeed damaged so severely, then there was little that Mya could have done to rectify the situation, but ideally they should have attempted to source the missing footage from elsewhere and include it as an extra. Either way, the words “full and uncut”, emblazoned prominently on the front cover, are more than a little hard to swallow.
Further problems emerge in the form of the audio. Mya have provided two audio tracks: one English, one Italian, both in their original mono. English subtitles have been provided for the aforementioned lines that have been reinserted into the climax, which are in Italian only, but Mya have neglected to provide subtitles for the rest of the film, meaning that those without a good grasp of Italian will be unable to watch it in that language (and the hearing-impaired will be unable to watch it at all). Whether because of restrictions imposed by the licensing agreement or sheer laziness, the lack of subtitles is a significant problem, made all the more infuriating because, while the Italian track generally sounds fine, the English track is, to be blunt, nothing short of a joke.
By the sounds of it, Mya have sourced their English track from the unauthorised 2007 German release by Retrofilm, which is of poor quality, suffering from an inordinate amount of background noise, warble and other associated artefacts. More problematically, however, the pitch has been messed up. Everything is a good couple of semitones too low, meaning that women now sound like gruffly-spoken men and men sound like Don LaFontaine. Perhaps even worse, Ennio Morricone’s lyrical score has been butchered by the pitch change and now sounds like it’s being played back on an old cassette tape recorder that needs the batteries changed. A quick comparison with either the soundtrack CD or indeed the Italian audio track on the DVD will reveal that this is most assuredly not what how it is meant to sound. Mya’s spokesperson made the outlandish claim that this is how the audio is supposed to be sound, which is patently ridiculous because this then means that not only are every previous available version, the officially released soundtrack CDs and LPs and their own Italian track wrong, somehow Michael Brandon and Mimsy Farmer have also been pitched too high in every film and interview in which they have ever appeared. I don’t think I really need to spell out which is the more likely explanation, but here goes: Mya messed up on the English track and are now back-pedalling furiously, attempting cover their own mistakes rather than admit to them. I’d actually go as far as to say that they must have been aware something was wrong with the sound, as they sourced the opening and closing credits’ music from the unaffected Italian track, resulting in these segments being played at the correct pitch.
I attach, for your listening pleasure, two different audio samples. The first is taken from an earlier unauthorised release, slowed and pitched down by 4% to compensate for PAL speedup. The second is taken from the Mya DVD with no processing applied:
- Mya DVD
All this points to a deeply flawed release. On the one hand, the film has never looked better. On the other, it has never sounded worse. Likewise, while new material has been added to the climax, footage has also been lost from other key scenes. The relevant quotation, I believe, is “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.”
A summary of Mya’s responses to the criticism directed at these problems can be found here.
In comparison with many DVD releases of Argento films, Four Flies on Grey Velvet comes off looking rather sparse indeed. An interview with Argento, in particular, would have been greatly appreciated, if only to find out what how he actually feels about his “lost” film. However, one can perhaps forgive Mya for not pushing the boat out in terms of extras given that the fact that the film itself has received a legitimate DVD release is bonus enough.
- Trailers: Three trailers are provided: the original Italian theatrical trailer, the US teaser and the US theatrical trailer. Of these, the best-looking by far is the Italian trailer, in its original aspect ratio and with a decent level of detail. A rather effective trailer it is too, using the inherently creepy image of the mask worn by the unidentified photographer in the film’s opening scenes as its central motif. The US teaser, meanwhile, a shortened and re-edited variant of the Italian trailer, is cropped to 1.33:1 and obviously taken from a dupe print, but is still appreciated for posterity purposes. The US theatrical trailer, finally, looks pretty awful, so blurry and riddled with blocking that it looks little better (if at all) than the copy of the same trailer that is doing the rounds on YouTube.
- English opening and closing credits: With the transfer for the film itself having been minted from the Italian fault negative, the opening and closing credits were understandably in that language. For completist purposes, the English language variants are provided here, clearly taken from the same source as 2007’s unauthorised Retrofilm DVD. Simply watching these should provide a good idea of how significantly the Mya DVD improves on even what was previously the best release of the film.
- Photo and poster gallery: A self-playing collection containing numerous images of mostly high quality, barring a handful of blurry and over-compressed ones which look like they were downloaded from the web. All the bases are covered here, from the ubiquitous Italian and English-language publicity materials to a number of French promotional images (the film was a co-production between Italy and France).
While the very fact that we finally have an authorised copy of the film with reasonably good image quality is a cause for celebration, Four Flies on Grey Velvet’s official DVD debut is, alas, far from the unmitigated triumph for which many of us were hoping. On the one hand, it’s probably a minor miracle that the film is available and looks as good as it does. The missing footage and audio problems, however, are significant enough for me to suggest that Mya should strongly consider a recall to correct, at the very least, the sound pitch. This disc gets a relatively tepid recommendation from me: it is, on balance, the best release of the film to date, but it is my firm hope that either Mya or another company revisits this title in the future and does it proper justice.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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