The long-awaited decent DVD release of Four Flies on Gray Velvet is a late-inning coup for anyone trying to lose their moral compass, and you should be trying, because it's harder than you think. Luckily, Argento's films--even at their worst--are never "safe" and always rich in moral ambiguity: Good guys are hipster artists driven to risk their friends' lives in finding the killer, more out of perverse fascination than genuine empathy for the victims; the killers have their reasons and police hardly matter except as deadpan mashers waiting around on the sidelines with their pages of red herring exposition.
In Four Flies for example, there's arrays of death iconography: an "experimental procedure" where lasers project the retinal image at the moment of death; a surreal trip to a coffin-makers convention with a bohemian named "God," and lots of... surreal chase scenes, psychedelic wallpaper, chic 70s menswear, and fantasias of being a successful artist jet-setting around Rome. There's also hot chicks, mincing gay stereotypes, and gruesome stabbing, but even us paranoid feminists can get into the kinky murders of Argento. He's always feeling the pain and everything's a double-edged sword of entendre and labyrinthine cinebolism.
If you're a big lover of Bird with Crystal Plumage you might long for another one of Morricone's children's music box leitmotifs to run through his score for Flies but like Exorcist 2: The Heretic, Ennio patiently waits until the film's half over to make his move: a discordant melange of nerve-jangling percussion, mashed piano keys, heartbeat bass and luggage dropped on harp strings all swirl in like a dust storm once the pin-drop quiet stretches and generic lounge psych jams are finis.
That's not to say Argento doesn't have plan for the long silences, with scared girls hiding in closets and hearing faint footsteps getting louder up the stairs all the time louder, silence in which one strains to hear the faintest scraping, its scary deja vu in that 'didn't I have a nightmare just like this as a child?' way only Dario best delivers. In addition to quietude, darkness: pitch blackness stretches sometimes over 3/4 of the frame, the combination of quiet and dark daring you to wonder if there's even a movie going on here. There is, and the stillness and shadow is a clear homage to Val Lewton and Jacquest Tourneur (a whole walled-in park sequence mirrors their 1943 masterpiece, The Leopard Man).
It may have been a little too quiet and dark on a cropped blurry dupe, but with the widescreen DVD from Blue Underground we can luxuriate in every darkened corner and realize that this movie predates and prefigures Lynch's Lost Highway in its poetic use of hipster musicians standing blankly around in the darkness of their retro chic decadent apartments, waiting... thinking... standing... As Roberto, Michael Brandon is like a handsomer version of Roger Waters but Waters could act, or at least occasionally move a facial muscle. Brandon is so out of it he thinks he's still sitting in the make-up chair (since he's had a long career I presume this was Argento's directorial note). And, as always, there's a hot frail androgynous girlfriend (Mimsy Farmer in short blonde hair). In Rome then, as well as in America, the pretty people are so privileged they become emotionally arrested zombies, frozen in place lest a camera catch their bad angle, alienating those around them until they're as ugly as everyone else.
There's a lot left undone that would have made this movie hum with the brilliance of Plumage, but there's no doubt it's Argento at the helm--in full control--so even if it doesn't add up to much, it's always "in the moment." And, for the psychotronic scholar, it's fun to connect this 1971 film to all that came before (Leopard Man, Peeping Tom, Psycho) and all that came after (Death Proof, Blade Runner, Eyes of Laura Mars). Who knows why it's so important for people like Dario, Ennio, and Lucio that someone's slow decapitation or eye-gouging should be accompanied by languid orchestral pop balladry?! Maybe it's some anti-Catholic thing, but goddamn it, those are the moments one lives for.
Another moment is the climactic "lost footage" restoration which adds sickly minutes to an already tense situation, the suddenly reverting into Italian is a great example of Argento's unheimliche conjuring power. In the Argentoverse scenes collapse and disappear only to return, decades later, in Italian with English subtitles.
I'm not getting Blue Underground kickbacks by saying this, but Argento's films are always worth owning instead of renting. They can be re-watched repeatedly without ever seeming like the same movie. They're as faceted as one's own inner romantic torment or open wound. Part of it, I think, is that our mind instinctively buries trauma, even imaginary ones if the vicarious dread is intense enough, so we "block out" all traces of the pain as it happens, leaving just a jewel-like shimmer in our retinae. What was it Caligula said? "Oh, If all of Rome had just one neck..." he said that because he was itchy for something that only a genius like Argento could provide, and he kept breaking necks to find it. Dario breaks the necks so we don't have to. Dario, the cinebolical Caligula of post-modern Rome!
Read my less worshipful piece on Dario's Mother of Tears here, and more worshipful piece on daughter Asia's Scarlet Diva here