One of the great mysteries about home video for those of us who love Eurocult movies is how Dario Argento's FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1971) has managed to remain unreleased on tape, laserdisc, or DVD here throughout 98% of the world market since the introduction of the videocassette player circa 1980. That's more than a quarter century, and it's not from lack of trying, as I understand it.
FOUR FLIES (or 4 Mosche di velluti grigio) was Argento's third feature film -- following THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970, released by UMC Pictures) and THE CAT O' NINE TAILS (Il gatto a nove code, 1971, released by National General Pictures) -- and his first to receive US distribution from an actual major, Paramount Pictures. There may well be other exceptions to the rule out there in the world somewhere, but I'm aware of only one official release: a French VHS tape from Atlantic Home Video called 4 Mouches de Velours Gris; it's dubbed in French, of course, and sort of incompletely letterboxed with the sides of the main titles noticeably cropped.
Given the situation with the film, Argentophiles have had to resort to what is euphemistically called "the grey market," probably in tribute to this very film. Over the years, I've been able to find three different copies in addition to my French pre-record. I'm not fanatical about it, and I haven't looked recently, so there may well be other options on the grey market today, but what I've been able to find are: 1) a complex dupe utilizing the French tape visual track, with English dialogue slotted in; 2) a squeezed copy of a 16mm print of the English language version that is so squeezed, I can't fully unsqueeze it on my widescreen set; and 3) an excellent looking copy that opens with perfectly letterboxed main titles and then adjusts -- "Goddammit!" the viewer wails, striking the arm of his chair -- to pan&scan. Of these three, surprisingly enough, I found the pan&scan version most pleasing, if only because it alone summoned a hint of the beauty that must reside in a perfect print. The colors are bold and the image is consistently clear; it's like watching the film on television in the 1980s, but without commercial interruption. This version, in case anyone is wondering, hails from Video Search of Miami. (It also includes the padded cell scene missing from some prints, including the French tape.) I have no idea if VSoM have upgraded their copy since then, but this pan&scan version is/was one of their best-looking tapes, at least in my experience.
Watching FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET again for the first time in maybe ten years, I have to say I didn't care much for it... but, then again, I chose the French/English synch source for my first viewing. I suspect I was distracted by how the ambient sound of the tape kept shifting as the compiler shifted from the French and English sound sources. I was aware that it wasn't an optimal presentation, but there was a great deal about the film itself that annoyed me. Given its final resolution/explanation, the story -- or rather the situation -- makes no sense, and Argento spends so much time gagging around with his semi-comic supporting characters, it seems evident that even he was aware of how flimsy it was. I was so disappointed, in fact, that I turned to Maitland McDonagh's chapter in BROKEN MIRRORS, BROKEN MINDS and Kim Newman's chapter on the film in THE ART OF DARKNESS (all of two pages!) for illumination. Kim's piece may have been written to the order of finding something nice to say about it, and he struggles valiantly toward that end, settling on faint/forced praise like calling it one of Argento's "most cynical and cruel" movies. Maitland also gives it short shrift, just half a chapter, but in those few pages, she probes its psychological underpinnings with some success. Her insights primed me to give the film a second viewing, this time with the pan&scan print. (After watching the picture, which involves a woman driven mad by being raised as a boy, I couldn't help but smile at the irony that two of the film's chief commentators are a man named Kim and a woman named Maitland.)
Watching the film a second time, with sharper focus and sweeter colors and a smoothly consistent soundtrack, as well as armed with leads as to what to look for in terms of theme, I found FOUR FLIES somewhat more enjoyable... and I also came up with some ideas of my own. Argento's next picture, Le cinque giornate, an historical comedy, broke from the giallo mold that brought him fame, and I believe he was already showing signs of restlnessness here. FOUR FLIES is a kind of anti-giallo: the prog-rock musician hero (Michael Brandon), who lives on Via Fritz Lang (!), believes himself to be a murderer, which causes him to keep his distance from the authorities. Consequently, this is that rare giallo without any kind of ongoing police investigation; instead, Brandon finds his answers internally, by probing his dreams and by talking with God -- his friend Godfrey, that is, played by Bud Spencer. The mystery is ultimately solved and the film's title are explained in a single, far-fetched stroke, as the Italian police remove the eye of a murder victim, hook it up to some sort of nonexistent machine, and read the last image imprinted on its retina by death. At the time of the film's release, Argento insisted that such a machine was being used by some progressive police departments, but he surely stole the idea from the old Universal sci-fi/horror film, THE INVISIBLE RAY (1936).
Because of his essential passivity (not to mention his inability as a rock drummer to maintain any kind of beat or rhythm), Brandon is easily the least interesting of Argento's heroes; the movie comes to life most enjoyably when it redirects its attention to gay private detective Gianni Arrioso (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who defends his ability to solve the case by citing his formidable track record of having never solved a case before -- 84 unsolved cases, ergo he's due to solve one imminently! Arrioso's flitty, touchy-feely investigation is dated and stereotypical but also affectionate, and the scene in which he runs afowl of a hypodermic loaded with some kind of luminous blue poison that exists only in the Argento apothecary (found in the same outré universe as the Argento library and Argento airport) is surprisingly poignant. Mimsy Farmer plays Brandon's wife with the brand of porcelain calm and bared electric wiring that is her trademark; when she is revealed as the puppet-master behind her husband's carefully engineered torment (I'm not revealing anything here that wasn't revealed in the movie's stills set), she's as convincing a psychopath as Argento ever showcased. McDonagh's book reveals that FOUR FLIES was the only one of Argento's films in which the director did not stand in for his killer; she surmises that this is because Brandon's resemblance to the director satisfied his narcissistic needs, but I can well imagine the white-coiffed Ms. Farmer flashing her clenched teeth at Argento the moment he got too near her black gloves and sending him cowering to the nearest corner.
So why don't we have FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET on DVD yet? Is Argento suppressing it? Is Paramount unaware that they have it? Does Paramount still have it? I don't have the answers to these questions, but though I've already watched it twice in the past week, I'd eagerly give a definitive presentation a go if such a disc was released tomorrow. Until that day comes, those of us who wait are all hapless Argento heroes, straining toward the perfect recollection of an image just beyond our grasp.