The little-seen Four Flies on Grey Velvet is perhaps most remarkable for it’s unusual spiritual underpinnings and Dario Argento’s deft attention for sexual signifiers. The title of this third and final film in Argento’s “animal trilogy” is as egregious as the weird science that literalizes the eye as a photographic camera. Rock star Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon) leaves his rehearsal studio and follows a mysterious figure into an empty theater where he struggles with the switchblade-wielding man. Roberto accidentally stabs the man, who falls evocatively into the theater’s orchestra pit. From a balcony, a masked figure captures the moment on camera. If Argento’s signature use of a black-gloved killer is noticeably absent, this is compensated by the presence of Brandon himself, whose striking features recall those of the giallo director’s. There isn’t much to Four Flies on Grey Velvet besides pent-up rage though much of the film’s sexual frenzy prefigures themes from Deep Red.
As homoerotic as it is homo-wary, this undercooked entry into Argento’s canon engages and rewrites Peeping Tom as a rock n’ roll anthem. Everyone from über icons Terrence Stamp and Tom Courtenay to rock stars Ringo Starr and James Taylor were approached to play the role of Roberto, yet Brandon nails Roberto’s hippie-sexual glam without calling too much attention to himself. Argento’s fiendish, odd ball opening credits cut between the image of a heart pumping atop a black title card and Roberto’s jam session as seen through the point of view of his guitar—a sign of Argento’s obsession with fractured sightlines. Before Roberto steps into the desolate theater, he bids farewell to his attractive bandmate. Long before Jean-Pierre Marielle’s detective makes his fey appearance, there’s a gay subtext written all over the way the men in the film exchange glances and show off their thin yet sculpted frames.
The film’s homocentric framework is heightened once Detective Arrosio appears on the scene. As played by Marielle, the character offends more than he provokes. Arrosio is all over the young man. “I suppose you’ve never had a homosexual experience,” says the showoff. Soon after Arrosio flirts with a local landlord, he meets his demise inside a train station bathroom. The stunning set piece prefigures the opening of Lamberto Bava’s senseless Demons (which was written by Argento himself) while emphasizing the film’s concern for gender confusion—the spectator’s eye immediately focuses on male/female drawings on the bathroom’s door. The longhaired Roberto’s Neapolitan looks are complimented by that of his short-haired wife’s. His relationship to Nina (Mimsy Farmer) is a relatively sexless one. Nina goes away and Roberto shares a retro-giddy tub moment with his wife’s cousin, Dalia (Francine Racette). Four Flies on Grey Velvet features Argento’s most evocative use of montage. Here, Argento meshes lengthy point-of-view shots with a series of Freudian flashbacks. A swish pan inside an asylum’s solitary chamber implies the killer’s insanity while a muggy voice (“I wanted a son, not a weakling!” and “You get hit once, you hit back twice!”) suggests a complicated parent/child relationship.
Roberto and Nina’s apartment is so classically adorned it could very well be a work of modern art. Argento’s use of light and shadow heightens the terror of the killer’s nocturnal visits. Dalia hides inside a bureau, her face gorgeously split in two by the light seeping into her hiding place and her face gorgeously reflected on the killer’s knife. Her theatrical death brings to mind that of Giordani’s in Deep Red. While the revelation of the film’s killer may explain the easy-access pass into Roberto’s apartment, Argento’s photographic themes are dubious at best. He squirms not only because of the nature of the killer’s nightly visits (they’re so gentle that he never seems to be in much danger) but also because he is never accused of murder despite the incriminating photographs (he doesn’t know that he’s been set up and that the mysterious knife-wielding man didn’t die at the theater). If Mark Lewis’s fondness for film is expertly linked to his past in Powell’s Peeping Tom, the Four Flies killer’s hobby is superfluous at best. Argento toys with the silly notion that a camera can photograph the last image recorded on dead people’s retinas. This association (the human eye vs. the camera’s mechanical one) is part of the film’s weird science and serves no purpose here but to further the plot along.
Roberto’s friend Godfrey (Bud Spencer) is nicknamed God for a reason. While Argento isn’t known as a spiritual director, Four Flies on Grey Velvet is curiously mindful of rituals of death. God is proud of his meager place in the world, never meets harm and manages to save Roberto from harm. As Roberto and God walk through a coffin exhibition, a potential customer complains to the showman that his golden coffin feels a little tight. The ghoulish entrepreneur replies, “None have come back with complaints.” If Four Flies on Grey Velvet is nothing more than a funky mess of gender signifiers, religious references and free-love associations, its highlight is a tour-de-force set piece stripped of any sexual, political or religious pretexts. Roberto’s maid smokes a cigarette inside a park, waiting to meet the film’s killer. Argento seemingly engages both Hitchcock’s The Birds and Jacques Tourneur’s Leopard Man in this remarkably taut sequence. Just as birds gathered behind Tipi Hedren in the Hitchcock classic and crippled her gaze, Roberto’s maid falls prey to both time and Argento’s elliptical use of montage (which emphasizes the unreliability of the character’s sightline). Once the park’s gates close, there is nothing to save her.