As the title suggests, Four Flies on Grey Velvet is the most abstract film in Dario Argento’s first trilogy. Both The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Cat O’Nine Tails drew a sharp distinction between two types of Italians – the rustics, who might be capable of committing crimes or embarking upon transgressions, but were essentially human in their outlook on the world; and the dissociated gaze and voice of the serial killer, who often seemed to transcend the human and become one with the camera itself. Four Flies on Grey Velvet deepens this dichtomomy by drawing the 1960s counterculture into the realm of the rustics and presenting even the hippest avant-garde as powerless against the gaze and voice of the serial killer. This is an inherently comic and even absurd premise and leads to more experimentation with genre than in Argento’s first two films, along with more hallucinatory dream sequences and asides. In the process, the killer becomes more of a stalker than a slasher, concerned above all with the acts of watching and listening when they are abstracted from bodily constrictions.
Argento signals this first engagement with the counterculture by way of a new flamboyant soundscape, signalled by the rock band that ushers in the opening sequence. We move from a multilayered keyboard to a POV shot from inside a guitar to the macabre image of a drummer killing a fly with a cymbal. The film that unfolds takes place against the backdrop of an album recording, producing periodic studio sequences that recall Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil, while the first crime takes place in an abandoned music theatre. Yet these vestiges of rock and musical theatre just make it all the more surreal when we return to the silence of the street, the residues of the neorealist past where this new abstraction of sight and sound tends to make its tendrils felt. No sooner have we acclimatised to the rock music of the counterculture than Argento is ushering us down a deserted arcade, completely empty apart from a woman who throws petals at the protagonist’s face. The street is more abstracted here than in the previous two films, on the verge of losing all physical coordinates, and occasionally rupturing to reveal the detritus of a lost neorealist past, such as a shack by a river that turns out to play a particularly important role in the development of the investigation.
As the street, and the neorealist residues it represented, start to dissolve into abstraction, Argento’s elaborate pans start to take on a new quality as well. In The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Cat O’Nine Tails, these flamboyant shots transformed spaces into interfaces, and vertical into virtual surfaces. In Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Argento starts to direct these pans towards more abstract pools of darkness, zones that seem to exist somewhere beyond physical space, as in a long shot that takes us along a series of phone lines before ending with a 360-degree swivel in a psychiatric institution. These sequences are about networking as much as representing space, and it is from their intensified darkness that the killer emerges to wreak havoc upon the rusticated counterculture who form his victim pool.
Conversely, the regular rustics of Argento’s films feel even quainter – especially his perennial gay character. More than any of his neorealist or New Wave forebears, Argento depathologises gay characters, presenting them as just one species of rustic among others, all of whom have far more in common with each other than with the looming gaze and sound of the transhuman serial killer. This time around, we’re presented with a gay detective, who in some ways feels like the ultimate rustic in Argento’s early work – closer to an endearing television character as he investigates the crime in a makeshift car that is always falling apart. As in William Friedkin’s Cruising, the cruisey gaze of this gay character provides him with a unique optic into the subterranean rhythms of the city that the serial killer inhabits – he meets a prospective hookup while scouting out an apartment building and is ultimately murdered in the beat-like restrooms of a deserted railway station. Yet unlike in Friedkin’s film, the gay protagonist doesn’t absorb any of the killer’s pathology; he remains a rustic to the end, irreducibly and empathetically human in contrast to the killer’s disembodied gaze and voice.
As arguably the most ambitious of Argento’s earlier films in evoking this gaze and voice, Four Flies on Grey Velvet ends with one of the most striking conceits in his entire career. A medical specialist informs the task force that it may be possible to project a laser through the retina of one the victims to recover the last image refracted before death, producing the central tableau of the film – a disembodied eye, suspended in a glass sphere, through which is projected the image of four flies on grey velvet. This is our closest approximation of the eye of the serial killer as an autonomous entity that is coterminous with the camera itself, and sure enough this final image also represents a cinematic projection of sorts. For the four flies are “still” images of a swinging pendant, which in Zoetropic or Cinemascopic fashion is distilled back into four “frames” when imprinted upon this abstracted eye. It’s a poetic summary of the first part of Argento’s career and its driving thesis – that the early 70s form a new era of what Deleuze would call “pure optical situations,” figments of sight and sound that have started to exceed human agency to become an eerie spectacular economy of their own.