Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Double Coffin For Double Deaths

The American Cinematheque ran Dario Argento’s 1971 giallo FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET a few years ago which was my first viewing of this impossible-to-see film. I was unimpressed. I can’t exactly remember my thoughts at the time but maybe the thriller element seemed a little too light in tone for my tastes. Why I thought this I couldn’t really say. Fortunately, I decided to give it another try at the Egyptian this past Saturday night as part of their Italian Grindhouse series and with this viewing I found myself thoroughly enjoying the movie. Go figure. I’m not sure why and I know it wasn’t my mood but this time it wound up clicking for me. Yes, I’ve taken a look at more giallos in the past few years but this film feels considerably different than many others so it can’t be due to an increased familiarity with the form. I suppose it’s possible that I just found myself more open to the uniquely idiosyncratic tone it projects throughout. Maybe you always need to remember to keep an open mind.

Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon), a drummer in a rock band, begins to notice a strange man following him everywhere he goes. One night after a recording session he spots the man again and after he chases him down into an abandoned theater, a struggle between the two men results in the stranger being stabbed to death by his own switchblade. At this point he realizes he is being watched by a mysterious masked individual who has photographed the entire incident. Keeping the secret from his wife Nina (Mimsy Farmer), Roberto, who begins to experience a recurring nightmare about decapitation, soon finds himself terrorized by the masked stranger as people around him begin to turn up dead.

It’s certainly one of Argento’s most eccentric films, populated by an array of individuals who seem oddball even for him. It’s a strange character to have as a lead since his feelings about killing somebody, even accidentally, don’t extend much further than worrying whether the police will learn about what happened (some of this gets explained, some of it doesn't, but I'm delibertately avoiding spoilers). Many of the people on-camera come off as off-kilter, particularly the ones who seem to be continually invading Roberto and Nina’s swank pad for their endless parties, but few of them seem all that compelling. They’re just slightly sleazy in that good old seventies way. It’s how these bland characters are framed by Argento’s eye which makes them as interesting as they get to be. The strong stylization in the Techniscope imagery indicates a great deal of confidence on Argento’s part with this film, moreso than even his classic directorial debut THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, which screened second (hey, I’d only seen it 27 times before so I stuck around to see that as well). PLUMAGE is more successful and has the stronger story of the two, but in that film Argento’s use of the camera still feels like its being developed. Here, the plot has its strong points, but is still a little hazily constructed at times—someone suggests to Roberto that he go see a private detective and he does…about twenty minutes later. Maybe more than any of his other films, it’s the extremely striking suspense sequences throughout which manage to attain a true sense of a nightmare in their essential illogic. At times they make extremely little rational sense but in the context of this film it somehow winds up making them more effective (I noticed that this isn’t the first time that an Argento character is seen sitting on a bench, observing daily life, only to soon meet a bad end). Frankly, some of these sections are so good that it really makes me wonder what I was thinking a few years ago. That being said, it is still at times a strange movie tonally. It’s hard for me not to wonder about the English dub job with at times a total-lack of any real ambient sound, extreme even for one of these dub jobs, only adding to the genuinely unusual feel. Is this intentional? Is there another version of the film in the world where the soundtrack is altered to the point where it could feel like a considerably different experience?

Part of the interest around FOUR FLIES has been its near-lack of availability. Released by Paramount here in the States and by others elsewhere in the world, the film has never been released on video (again, at least here in the states) and certainly isn’t available on DVD, at least not legally. The fact that this seems to be a worldwide issue makes me think there’s more than just disinterest on Paramount’s part going on, but that’s just guesswork. At the least, the fact that the print screened by the Egyptian contained a British rating certificate at the top indicates that maybe Paramount doesn’t even have any 35mm prints of the title readily available. Happily, there was a big crowd at the Egyptian for the screening and the amount of applause that was heard during the explanation for the film’s title (You know, the old last-image-a-person-sees-before-death-caught-in-their-retina trick. Makes sense to me) indicated to me that this was an audience of the faithful. Maybe not everyone there had seen it, but they knew what they were there to see.

The bulk of the cast is a little too colorless, although Mimsy Farmer does have a genuinely interesting screen presence. Francine Racette as Cousin Dalia is pretty fetching as well (love that bathtub scene). But the most memorable performance in the film easily comes from Jean-Pierre Marielle as private detective Gianni Arrosio. Introduced to surprise the lead that the detective he’s hiring is a homosexual, Arrosio is a mincing stereotype (“You’re thinking that this fairy is going to jump on a chair and scream bloody murder if he sees a mouse”) who knows he’s a mincing stereotype. It’s one of the surprises of the film that the character, who tells our hero that out of 84 cases he hasn’t solved a single one, proves to be more capable than he lets on and in doing so turns out to be the most human individual in the entire film. It occurs to me that structurally the character might be inspired by the detective played by Walter Matthau in MIRAGE but in this film it feels like one of those occasional characters in Argento films who, in how the actor clearly does more with the part than what is on the page, turns into something genuinely unexpected. This might be one of the best examples of that.

What’s interesting is how maybe the last time I was turned off by some of the more comic elements of the film—the running gag with the mailman, the scenes with Roberto’s vagrant buddy “God” played by Bud Spencer—and true, some of these bits don’t work so well. But this time it occurred to me that FOUR FLIES may work best as a very dark comedy of manners, an examination of the near-impossibility of communicating with others, even those who are closest to you. The more I think about it, the movie seems very personal, possibly indicated in how much lead actor Brandon actually resembles Argento. I was struck by the black humor of the exposition scene set for no obvious reason at some sort of funeral convention with many different coffins on display. One salesman hawks a special one for two, saying that it’s “a double coffin for double deaths”. Within the eccentricities of the film I get the feeling that Argento is trying to ask if it’s really possible to know and connect with a person you want to love. The final moments set to that haunting Ennio Morricone music seem touching to me because of this notion, not because of how it affects the plot, but because of what it possibly says about the film’s director. The shocking method of how the final scene prolongs what is inevitable seems to acknowledge this impossibility. Ultimately, there’s nothing that can be done about those feelings and maybe that’s the film’s ultimate position on such relationships. Or maybe I’m just in a mood these days. Either way, I find myself thinking about this film, this badly dubbed, freakishly plotted Argento film from the seventies more than I ever thought I would when I walked into the Egyptian for this second viewing. There’s something great about that.

You have just read the Mr. Peel’s Sardine Liqueur review of FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET.


Fred said...

I think the problem with Four Flies on Grey Velvet is that Michael Brandon is a very weak lead in the film. He is such a passive cipher that it is difficult to care what happens to him, which in turn makes it difficult to follow the film. It is a shame because Mimsy Farmer does a good job, even if the role is similar to others she played in the past. I don't know if the problem is Brandon or it is because of the script or Argento's direction, but the same can't be said of the leading men from his other early giallos (Tony Musante, James Franciscus and David Hemmings). Each brought more energy and personality to their characterizations, and have in common an obsessive/compulsiveness bordering on almost obnoxious and assholey behavior. However, you really can't stop watching these guys. Their acting added to each of their films, which can't be said of Brandon, which may be why his career (before and since) didn't match those other actors and is mainly seen (or actually heard) today providing the narration and vocals for the American versions of the Thomas and Friends children shows.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I'm going to guess that the problem is a combination of Brandon not bringing much personality to it and Argento not offering much help. He doesn't make much of an impression and I don't have much to say about his performance but the style of the film throughout was almost enough to make me focus on other things. I didn't really like him or care about him but I found myself having a great time with the movie anyway.

Jeremy Richey said...

Excellent work Mr. Peel. I have added a direct link to this to go along with my FOUR FLIES visual tribute week at Harry Moseby Confidential. Great and fascinating read as always...

Tanner said...

Great review! Very thought-provoking. I was at both those Egyptian screenings, too... but I was at the second one because I loved it so much the first time! Actually, I really think Four Flies is my favorite Argento film. I'm glad you liked it more the second time round. I think you really hit the nail on the head by calling it a comedy of manners. I think you're right about the themes, and more than any other of Argento's gialli, Four Flies emphasizes the dark humor. I could see the tone seeming weird compared to the others, but judged on its own, I think those semi-awkward comic bits with God and the mailman are really signalling us on how to watch this one.

Even Michael Brandon's performance works for me. (Although I can see how it might be off-putting.)Everything about this one just clicks.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thanks to you both for the kind words, it means a lot. I look forward to a third FOUR FLIES viewing now, even if I have to wait a few more years for the Egyptian to show it yet again. Maybe I'll like it even better than the second time.