While characterising Argento's cinema in the whole as one of excess, Maitland McDonagh (1992) argues that the concept only becomes truly relevant to his films beginning from Four Flies on Grey Velvet onwards. Although the preceding analysis of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Cat o' Nine Tails would lead me to question whether excess is truly absent from these films, I would agree with McDonagh that Four Flies on Grey Velvet is certainly more pronounced in its excesses. In particular, I will argue the following points. First, that it sees Argento's approach become still more poetic, with an increasing number of images articulating a double consciousness of character and camera. As with its predecessor, these images go beyond the violent set-pieces and centre around the protagonist and antagonist, Roberto and Nina Tobias (Michael Brandon and Mimsy Farmer). Second, that it again sees Argento pursuing his postmodernist strategy of eclectically drawing from both movement-image and time-image cinemas. This time, however, the distinction between the two types of image is more clearly gendered. The male is associated with the movement-image, the female with the time-image. Third, that through the film Argento again makes an implicit, or immanent, critique of dominant models of understanding, associated with science and masculinity in particular. Finally, that in addition to presenting increasingly familiar Argento themes and motifs, such as the irruption of a past trauma into the present; the puzzling aural or visual fragment; the acousmetre; and homosexual characters; the film also introduces some new ones, most notably theatricality.
As noted earlier, Colette Balmain considers all of Argento's gialli of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, along with the filone in general, to be a time-image cinema. Her basic method is taking each film in turn and demonstrating how it incorporates time-image concepts. If I agree with Balmain's method, I obviously disagree with her positioning of Argento as a modernist, time-image film-maker. I would agree, however, with Balmain's key point about Four Flies on Grey Velvet and the time-image, namely that it is a film in which “the powers of the false” are particularly important.
Protagonist Roberto Tobias is the drummer in a rock band. As such, he might be understood as an artist of sorts, and thus the most exalted of the four figures Deleuze considers in relation to the creative powers of the false. However, Roberto's approach to the truth within the film is again a banal one, particularly when he is contrasted with his immediate predecessor, the insightful and imaginative Franco Arno. This also marks out the distinction between Argento as the film-maker-artist and the first of his characters with whom he has been compared by commentators and critics: If Roberto is something of a critical self-portrait of the director, who at the time of the production was involved in a messy separation from his wife, this portrayal relies upon an creative capacity upon Argento's part that his character/creation singularly lacks.
Roberto's predictable responses to images are evident from the ease within which he falls into his wife's trap. This, I think, also helps explain one of the criticisms levelled at the film, that it really does not work terribly well as a whodunit. For example, to David Pirie:
“Full of slick visual conceits and glossy set-pieces, this is clearly Argento's most expensive and ambitious thriller yet. It's the more surprising, therefore, to find that - apart from the ingenious idea of the retinal image which gives the film its title - the script remains as flat and predictable as that of the most meagre Italian 'B' feature. The twist at the climax must be obvious, even to non-specialists in detective fiction, after about the first ten minutes, and it's the makers' apparent unawareness of this which makes much of the action so irritating, since the repeated use of subjective shots, shadows, oblique angles and other assorted devices to cover up the killer's identity slows the proceedings down to a snail's pace. […] The climax, considering how long it has been expected, is […] surprisigly effective [...] The power of the scene confirms that Argento's thriller would have worked much better if he had abandoned his painstaking attempts to disguise the obvious, and concentrated instead on heightening the atmosphere of hysteria and menace which he is clearly quite capable of sustaining.” (1973: ??)
I would argue that Pirie fails to adequately account for the differences between our position as viewer and that of Roberto himself: We may read the clues within the mise-en-scene that Roberto cannot. We may also approach the film with some familiarity with its predecessors, particularly The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and the surprise of its having a female rather than male killer. Nonetheless, it must also be re-iterated that at this point in Argento's career this trope still had a critical edge to it and has not yet degenerated into self-parody or pastiche.
Pirie perhaps also occupies a different position from that of the typical audience member, especially as he was here writing for a relatively elite audience. The Monthly Film Bulletin, in which his review appeared, at the time divided films into two categories: Those films deemed to be of especial interest to its readership and everything else. It goes without saying that European genre films were invariably placed in the latter, inferior, category. Related to this there is perhaps also here an implicit positioning of suspense above shock, or of the Hitchcockian “image of mental relations” over the alternatives employed by other directors.
What Pirie's criticisms, along with these possible responses to them, cumulatively suggest is that Four Flies on Grey Velvet pushes many of the creative tensions in Argento's cinema further than its predecessors. It short circuits the whodunit aspect that bit further. The titular fragment, this time a purely visual opsign, of the last image imprinted on the retina of one of Nina's victims, is introduced late on in the narrative. Moreover it does not appear again until the denouement, at which point Nina also explains why she has been persecuting her husband; it is vital that he know why before he dies. Roberto, it turns out, is the spitting-image of Nina's abusive father, who had wanted a son rather than a daughter and had raised her as if she were a boy. Unfortunately for Nina, her father died before she could extract her revenge. She married Roberto with the intention of accomplishing a symbolic revenge upon her father through him, beginning with his persecution and culminating in his murder.
As such, Nina can be positioned as a combination of two other figures who represent the powers of the false. These are the seeker of vengeance and the forger, both of whom we have already seen in different guises within Leone's cinema. Besides being less developed examples of the creative will to power than the artist (or indeed, the philosopher) there are other issues here: Nina's becoming, like that of Monica Ranieri in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, is more negative than positive. While she may be more of a becoming-woman figure than Monica, given her early life as a boy (if we assume her revenge is not also thereby becoming-man) she is unable to go beyond an ultimately destructive need for revenge. Her line of flight, that is, is again blocked.