Sunday, March 1, 2009


In the current online brouhaha over the defects of the Mya presentation of Dario Argento's third giallo film, FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (4 MOSCHE DE VELLUTO GRIGIO, 1971), one issue seems to be underdiscussed: Is the film any good?

Well, FOUR FLIES is certainly a good giallo, with three effective suspense scenes, but for me it is the least of Argento's three "animal" gialli and perhaps not worth the emotionally-charged over evaluation of audio pitch and a missing few seconds here and there. True, it is disappointing that the Mya release did not get the film down right. Consumers have a right to expect the best presentation possible, and in this case, the film was promoted as being "full and uncut" from original negative elements. The back copy of the DVD even makes this sales pitch by having the appropriate explanatory text highlighted in bold:

Now FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET finally returns, fully uncut and with an astounding picture and sound quality. A long and accurate restoration work was made directly on the original negative elements, which have remained untouched for more than 30 years.

Clearly, considering that we now know that the film is cut and that the sound quality on the English dub is not what it could have been (though not as terrible as some would make out), whoever wrote the above either didn't know the truth or was simply lying. And the "long and accurate restoration work" missed properly color-timing an important park sequence.

What does shine is the pictorial quality of this release, pristine in its wonderfully wide Techniscope framing. And with the film being sourced from an Italian negative, the Italian audio is likewise blemish free, though lacking in the real life acoustic ambiance of the English audio. Check out the audio differences in the party scene that begins at about 34:04. While the English dub contains the background noise of the party when Nina, the Mimsy Farmer character, talks on the phone (as would naturally occur in life), the Italian dub evaporates it almost completely. Even if you choose the Italian dub, Mya does not provide English subtitles, excepting in the instance of the reinstated minute and a half of footage that comes near the end of the film and which was cut from the film's American release. Unconscionably, even Italian newspaper headlines in the film, as well as notes written by the killer in Italian, are not subtitled in English either.

It now appears that the English audio was lifted from a German bootleg release on the RetroFilm label, with the expected resultant loss in quality and tone, as were lifted the American trailers for the DVD's supplemental section, and the American opening and ending credits. This indicates that Mya had access solely to the Italian print and, presumably, the rights that went along with that print. One assumes that English language rights to FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET are retained by a company that Mya did not deal with.

It can't be stressed enough that Mya is releasing its DVDs with the least amount of expense possible. (Which is why English subs are lacking on all the company's releases unless there is no English audio available.) The guessing game has been that Mya has emerged out of No Shame, and we know what happened to that company. It went kaput in the United States and I'm sure lost a bundle of money. So the reason for the current cost-cutting business plan is obvious. Anyone who hopes that Mya will offer up replacement discs for a corrected version of FOUR FLIES can wait till rice becomes the national dish of Italy instead of pasta. It ain't going to happen, folks.

So we have to make do for now with what we have--which is the ability to see and evaluate a little seen Argento film from the early 1970s, in excellent visual quality.

The story kicks in with its mystery right from the opening credits. A sinister man, hiding behind sunglasses, keeps following around town a successful drummer, Roberto Tobias, to be finally confronted by Roberto in an empty theater. An accident appears to occur, with Roberto seemingly stabbing the stalker with his own knife, as someone situated in a balcony, wearing a mask, takes photos of the incident, a spotlight on Roberto. Aware of his predicament, Roberto must remain quiet, as further threatening and violent incidents hound him into trying to figure out who is his tormentor.

Argento keeps various red-herrings percolating throughout, so that you may just be caught off guard when the murderer is finally revealed. (Either as an indication of how good Argento is at this game or how little impact the film made on me when I first saw it about twenty years ago at an Argento retrospective--with Argento in attendance--I forgot who the murderer was!) Argento also slips in a few mysteries that may be red-herrings themselves. For instance: Why does the maid look mannish? Why do the stalker's sunglasses make contact with confetti twice?

FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET cleverly plays around with sexual identity, homosexuality, even perversity, juggling these issues among various characters and plot points. It's an effective sleight of hand that keeps one guessing and intrigued.

Acting-wise, the film comes up short, however. While Mimsy Farmer is generally fine in her role, and shines in it when necessary, the Brooklyn-born Michael Brandon is a surprisingly dull presence throughout. I don't know what Argento wanted of his performance, but Brandon's Roberto is the least interesting or sympathetic of Argento's main male characters in his early films. Why Brandon was chosen to carry this film is a mystery to me, but perhaps Argento was seduced by a certain similar look that Brandon had with him at the time. If so, the alter-ego choice fails to generate interest or spark.

I've only one favorite character here: The flamingly gay detective Gianni Arrosio, played by Jean-Pierre Marielle, who strikingly resembles photos of Fu Manchu author Sax Rohmer. Some may consider Marielle's portrayal cliched and offensive, but it's the only one that has novelty and zest. (A thankfully brief meeting between Arrosio and another gay man does go over-the-top, though.) Other side characters, such as the "God/Godfrey" one played by Bud Spencer, are mundane or too obvious to be of interest.

The DVD's back copy appears to have been stitched together, in part, with help from IMDB comments, a bad sign of sneaky plagiarism on the part of whomever wrote it. Example:

Back copy: "Roberto (Michael Brandon) is a young handsome drummer playing in a rock band. For the last week he has been stalked by a mysterious guy with dark sunglasses."

IMDB comment by "Coventry," posted on January 19, 2008: "Roberto is a young handsome rock drummer playing in a band alongside his friends. For the last week he has a guy with a fancy suit and dark sunglasses stalking him for no apparent reason."

I mean, come on, fellas, there are Argentophiles who would have been delighted to write your back copy for free and put a little more meat to the bone. But, I guess, it must be too much trouble to try to secure the services of such people, if you can spend half-an-hour on the internet and get something with ease.

The back copy is also set sloppily. There is no space between the first and second paragraph, while there is space between the second and the third, and the third and the fourth. And there is no space between the words "velvet" and "finally" in first line of the last paragraph.

When taken as a whole--the missing seconds, the audio difficulties, the borrowings from a bootleg release, the back copy's sloppiness and IMDB-sourced phrases--Mya's FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET emerges as a problematic release, disheartening in the lack of love and high standards that put it all together. That said, it is worthy of a purchase if you are interested in the giallo film and Argento in particular. A double-dip, however, in case another company comes out with a superior version, is unlikely for me. It's just not that good of a film to warrant luxuriant spending in these economically tight times.

Click here to order the DVD at 33% off list price.

Below, some more screen captures from the Mya DVD:

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I like the gay detective. Some might say a cliched character, but I found it a very endearing portrayal by a master actor. I actually think this is superior to BIRD and CAT in terms of story, style, music and cutting edge techniques and I prefer it to the wildly overrated DEEP RED. But I won't be buying this flawed DVD. I was very disappointed to hear of the cuts and the soundtrack issues. And now I understand Argento himself disapproves of this release. I don't think you can release a DVD behind the auteur's back. I'm sure it will be resloved and there will be a definitive corrected version in the future. I guess if I could get it for like 10 bucks or less, but the rights issues bugs me. Thanks for the review.