Dario Argento envisioned 4 Flies On Grey Velvet as his last giallo (an Italian genre that mixes horror with police procedure). He could never have predicted that his next movie, the political satire titled The Five Days, would flop and that he’d return to the giallo genre with his masterwork, Deep Red. So 4 Flies On Grey Velvet has a special importance in his filmography: it’s not just a movie; it was intended to be his testament, the acme of his work on the giallo.
Does it succeed in this? I’d say it did a splendid job. 4 Flies On Grey Velvet was the last entry in his ‘Animal Trilogy’, and if Argento hadn’t made another giallo again he’d have a consistent body of work to be proud of.
The movie introduces us to bass player Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon), member of a funky band, married to Nina (Mimsy Farmer) a beautiful and rich woman. He lives in a stylish, comfortable villa; he’s popular at parties. In sum, he leads a perfect life.
But Roberto then notices a man stalking him. Wherever he goes, the man is right behind him. And he’s not even making an effort to remain out of sight. One night Roberto loses his patience and confronts the stalker at an abandoned theatre. Circumstances cause the man to die accidentally but Roberto is photographed by a person wearing a creepy, baby-like rubber mask. Soon a mind game begins between this watcher and the protagonist.
Some people may think that Dario Argento only makes movies with one formula: mysterious killer bumps off victims one by one until amateur sleuth stops him. I wouldn’t argue with this description. But his earlier work showed some creativity within this formula. 4 Flies On Grey Velvet is a good example: the antagonist here is more concerned with making Roberto’s life hell – leaving incriminating evidence at his house, killing his cat, taunting him on the phone – than randomly killing. There’s a more intimate relationship between protagonist and antagonist here than in his other movies, in which an witness to a murder becomes unwillingly involved in the investigation. The victims here are mostly circumstancial: they have to be killed because they know who the killer is, or are on the verge of discovering his identity. In Argento’s movie before this one, The Cat O’ Nine Tails, the killer had the same motive.
The movie is not without its narrative problems. Dario Argento focuses so much on the art direction and cinematography, that he ignores the editing and screenplay. There are characters in the movie who don’t seem to have much of a purpose – including my beloved Bud Spencer, in a hilarious but arguably dispensable role as a friend of Roberto.
Also in Argento’s movies the viewer seldom has opportunities to try to discover the identity of the killer. There are no red herrings and no suspects, like in classic mysteries. This makes the climatic scene of revealing the killer’s identity always disappointing in his movies.
But he’s redeemed by the fact that he always does it with visual elegance and inventiveness. Indeed the camera work is the best thing in his movies. Argento understands the language of cinema better than most directors – he knows how to tell a story just with images (perhaps that’s why his dialogue is usually weak), not just in the way he frames a scene but also in the way he makes the art direction a character in itself, and in the way he uses colors in the background.
Amidst this visual feast, the actors do a good job with the screenplay they have. If they’re not great actors, if their characters aren’t that complex, at least they have to ability to be instantly likeable. From the moment Roberto stars being stalked, I feel his fear and want him to triumph. Mimsy Farmer and Bud Spencer give efficient performances. But Jean-Pierre Marielle gives my favorite performance, in a short role, as a homosexual private investigator. Although he has all the mannerisms of a stereotypical ’70s cinema homosexual, Marielle gives his character sensibility, wit and charisma. Plus he gets credit for being the only person to discover the killer’s identity by his own intelligence.
A good giallo wouldn’t be complete without music, and Ennio Morricone composes one of his best horror scores here. I’d consider it the best from the ‘Animal Trilogy’, but ironically a disagreement about the music between composer and director ended their collaboration until the 1996 movie The Stendhal Syndrome. The opening theme is a funky/jazzy composition, intercut with the beating of a heart (an effect Giorgio Moroder used later in Midnight Express). The last theme in the movie is one of the most beautiful Morricone has ever composed, an orchestral piece with vocals that transmits sadness and tragedy, much like the end of the movie itself.
All in all, 4 Flies On Grey Velvet would have been a great finale for Dario Argento’s work in the giallo. Thankfully he continued to make them for many more years, but this movie stands out as one of his strongest and most enjoyable movies.