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Thin stuff for the faithful - and a poor DVD transfer on the US release
on 20 September 2010
NB: As is Amazon's Wont, they've very unhelpfully bundled all the reviews for various editions and formats together. This review refers to the US Region 1 NTSC DVD release and Shameless' UK Blu-ray.
Long lost in a prolonged rights battle and unseen for years, Dario Argento's Four Flies On Grey Velvet may come from his most consistently inspired period but it's still such thin and often tedious stuff you'd half suspect he was keeping it hidden himself out of embarrassment until you realize that he's happy enough for the far worse Phantom of the Opera and The Card Player to still be out there. The chief problem is the disjointed and unconvincing plotting, but Michael Brandon's insipid performance as the unlikeable and uninterestingly passive musician being blackmailed after accidentally killing someone shows up just how rickety this one is without a charismatic or proactive figure to hold it together. It's not without its compensations and a couple of striking pieces of imagery - a recurring sequence of a Saudi execution, point of view tracking shots of approaching an office every time Brandon shifts gears in his car and an ultra-slow motion car crash - although Argento seems to be expending far more energy and visual flair into purely expositionary shots like letters being delivered or phone calls being made than the surprisingly few setpieces. Too often he relies on cheap gimmickry, be it Jean-Pierre Marielle's camp gay private eye ("Oh, you heterosexuals!") who has never solved a case or the old `image caught on dead person's retina' plot device, while the main character treads water. The less said about the clumsy comedy (much of which comes from brutally beating an Arab postman), the better. There's an appealing performance from Francine Racette that partially offsets Mimsy Farmer's hysterical overacting and a cameo from Bud Spencer that briefly threatens to liven things up but it's far more forgettable than it has any right to be in that unwelcome I-think-I'm-dropping-off-to-sleep kind of way. Even a second viewing of the film with lowered expectations feels a bit like clearing out the garage: you might find the odd item of interest but parts of it just feel like a tedious chore.
The Region 1 NTSC DVD may have much better picture quality than the bootleg copies floating around, but aside from being a slightly cut version the sound quality on the English soundtrack is very poor, making Brandon sound even more bored than he is to begin with and most of the women ironically sound like female impersonators. The Italian soundtrack is much better - but since only a brief section of the film is subtitled in English that's not going to be much help for most viewers. It's also unfortunate that the grading of a scene that was shot day-for-night that saw a park gradually grow darker has been graded so that it goes straight from broad daylight to near darkness. Not much in the way of extras either: English opening and closing credits, stills gallery, the Italian trailer, a US TV spot and a copy of the US trailer that's been mastered from what looks like an atrocious seventh-generation dupe video source.
Shameless' UK region-free Bluray release rectifies a lot but not all of those problems. There's clearly been some digital work done on the image that sometimes results in a slightly unnatural waxwork look in a few shots and the look of 70s colour magazine reproduction in some others, and disappointing it has the same problem with the grading in the park scene, but considering the legal difficulties the film has faced it's acceptable. The sound, however, is much better than the Region 1 DVD (again offering both English and Italian tracks but not forgetting to include English subtitles), and the disc offers the option to see the film uncut with poor quality snippets of restored deleted footage (nothing major, just snippets of dialogue or shots at the beginning and end of scenes where presumably there was reel damage to the negative that required replacement from old and worn dupe prints), or seeing it without those moments for those more concerned with consistent picture quality than completism. The exrtras package is better: worn dupe-quality English opening and closing credits, stills gallery, the Italian trailer that includes a lot of specially filmed graphics, a new UK trailer as well as trailers for plenty of other Shameless releases and, best of all, a 41-minute interview with assistant director and long-time Argento associate Luigi Cozzi.