No matter how you slice it–no pun intended–4 mosche di veluto grigio (Four Flies on Grey Velvet) is a weird, sloppy mess, even for a Dario Argento film. The final part of Argento’s so-called animal trilogy, Flies was released just ten months after The Cat o’ Nine Tails, and the movie follows a horribly unlikable protagonist who is being stalked and harassed by a killer in a mask. Oh, also, the protagonist is a killer. Well, not really. I should explain, and I will try. Be warned: this review is chock full of spoilers, but it will save you the trouble of sitting through this stinker.
As the film opens, a drummer in a standard early seventies rock band, Roberto (Michael Brandon), realizes that he is being followed by a cloaked man. After practice, he follows the man to an abandoned opera house, where an altercation ensues and Robert stabs the man with his own knife. Roberto is then photographed standing over the man’s body with the knife. The following day, he receives the stabbed man’s identification in the mail. Then he and his bandmates have a party! Roberto goes to change a record, and finds a photograph taken during the previous night’s incident between two albums. He remains completely unaffected, either by the fact that he killed someone or that he’s getting the I Know What You Did Last NIGHT treatment. He finally tells his wife, Nina (Mimsy Farmer), what happened after he is nearly strangled in their living room in the middle of the night; she is understandably disturbed, but he mansplains her down. Do you like the main character yet?
Roberto’s maid (Maria Fabbri) places a phone call that reveals she knows who the blackmailer is and wants a piece of the action. She waits to rendezvous with them in a park, but gets locked in and killed after dark. It is then revealed that the man Roberto “killed” is still alive, and he and the blackmailer/killer conspired to make Roberto appear to be a murderer, for no initially apparent reason, although there is an eventual explanation. Is it ever explained how he and the killer know each other, or why he would be amenable to such a thing? Nope! After the maid is found dead, Nina tells Roberto she’s leaving town, like a sensible person would after multiple break-ins and a murder, but Roberto is mildly interested in seeing what happens next. I say “mildly interested,” because, compared to the level of intensity and interest displayed by Sam Dalmas in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Carlo Giordani in the aforementioned Cat, he seems to be completely apathetic to the danger to his own life, and only invested in saving his life insofar as hiring a preening, effeminate private eye, who takes the case mostly because he finds Roberto cute.
The private eye, Arrosio (Jean-Pierre Marielle) is one of the film’s saving graces, and a film that followed him solving the crime would have been a much more interesting endeavor than what does end up on screen. Before he is killed in a subway restroom, Arrosio tracks down information about a former mental patient who was considered by the staff to have been a “maniac” but was “completely cured.” At this point in the film, the killer, or the killer’s sex, becomes pretty obvious; the killer’s whispering voice does little to disguise the fact that she is a woman, and the way that the head psychiatrist at the asylum insistently refers to “the patient” in order to avoid using gendered pronouns is stilted and obvious. I guessed this twist so early in the film that I initially assumed it was the maid, before she ended up dead before the end of Act I. You might guess that the killer is Dalia (Francine Racette), Nina’s cousin, especially after she seems to hear the killer’s madness mantra–a man’s voice saying things like “I wanted a boy, not a weakling!” and “I never want to see you cry!” It’s also worth noting that fewer than sixty seconds pass between Nina’s goodbye and Roberto’s seduction of Dalia. What a class act!
Alas, Dalia is herself killed. The police want to run a ridiculous forensic test: using a laser projected through Dalia’s eye to render an image of the last thing she saw before she died. You may remember such a test from Fringe, or even failed Will Smith vehicle Wild, Wild West. It’s completely absurd, and the science is even more dubious than Cat’s XYY gene nonsense, but it’s also the clue that breaks the case and the explanation of the title: Dalia saw four flies in a line. That night, Roberto waits in the dark with a loaded gun and almost shoots Nina when she comes home. As Roberto begs her to leave, he realizes that her giant ugly necklace has a fly in the medallion, and that Dalia’s last vision was of the necklace rocking back and forth. Nina then gives a rant-filled monologue about how her stepfather wanted a son and tried to raise her as one, but put her in an asylum when his beatings failed to turn her into a boy (shocker); by the time she was released, he was already dead, so she sought out someone like him upon whom she could heap all her vengeance, and Roberto fit the bill. She is scared away, jumps in Roberto’s car, and speeds into the back of a large truck, dying instantaneously. End credits.
This is a bad movie. The most compelling imagery in the film occurs in Roberto’s recurring nightmare about being beheaded in a public square, apparently based upon a story he overhears at a party. So much of the plot is frontloaded with absurdity that by the time an explanation is given, you can hardly bring yourself to care. The tone of the film is inconsistent not only with Argento’s other works but within itself as well. There are times when it seems Argento was going for mild comedy, such as the recurring joke about one of Roberto’s neighbors consistently receiving a different neighbor’s misdelivered pornography, or the pranks and jokes of the two recurring homeless men with whom Roberto is friends (for some reason). Intentionally comedic or not, it doesn’t work. That Nina is the killer is apparent from pretty early on, and her motivation is telegraphed with far too many voiceovers and rotating shots of a padded room. Although the mask Nina wears is delightfully creepy, I wish Argento would have saved it for use in a better film. There are some editing choices that seem to be trying to be avantgarde (notably, people disappear from where they were standing in a park, again “for some reason”), but ultimately have no in-story justification. The only thing really novel about Flies is that a female victim, the maid, dies offscreen for once.
Considered by some to be a hard-to-find gem, I cannot in good conscience suggest that you spend your time trying to track down this movie or view it. The 2009 DVD released by MYA Communications restores the two minutes of Nina’s speech that were cut from previous U.S. releases, but I can’t recommend it, either. Although viewers have the option of viewing the film in English or Italian, there are no subtitles on the disc at all, save for the parts of Nina’s speech which were never dubbed into English due to being cut (the restored footage is in the original Italian). Unlike some of Argento’s other films, in which insert shots of printed text were shot in additional languages for easier international release, all onscreen text is in Italian as well, and there aren’t even translations of these in subtitle form either; as a result, the taunting notes that the killer leaves for Roberto are completely meaningless if you, like me, are unfamiliar with Argento’s native tongue.
Overall, I can only suggest skipping this film. If you are a completist like I am, you’ll probably find yourself watching this as part of the Argento oeuvre at some point. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond