Scenes That I Love: The Opening of Four Flies On Grey Velvet (Happy Birthday, Dario Argento)


Since today is Dario Argento’s 80th birthday, I’m going to share a scene that I love that he directed.

I love the opening of Argento’s 1971 giallo, Four Flies On Grey Velvet.  This was Argento’s third film as a director and it tells the story of an American drummer who gets caught up in a gruesome murder.  In the opening credits, we watch as Michael Brandon drums away and finds time to take care of a distracting fly.  In just a matter of minutes, Argento tells us everything we need to know about our hero and the role that he’ll be playing in this film.  Like the best drummers, he holds everything together and that’s a good skill to have because, in typical Argento fashion, his entire life is about to fall apart.

From Four Flies on Grey Velvet:

The Strangers in 7A (1972, directed by Paul Wendkos)


Artie Sawyer (Andy Griffith) is a man who no one respects.  Having recently been fired from his long-time job, he’s forced to take a job as a superintendent for an apartment building in New York.  The tenants don’t think much of him.  His wife, Iris (Ida Lupino), is getting tired of his self-pity.  The only person who seems to like Artie is Claudine (Susanne Benton).  The young and beautiful Claudine approaches Artie in a bar and, after flirting with him, reveals that she needs a place to stay.  Artie agrees to let Claudine check out Apartment 7A.  At the apartment, Claudine rolls around in the bed, dances seductively, and then reveals that she has three male friends who are going to be staying in the apartment with her.  Billy (Michael Brandon), Virgil (Tim McIntire), and Riff (James A. Watson, Jr.) all served in Vietnam together and now they need to crash at the apartment for a while.  Artie can either let them stay or they can reveal to his wife that he was at a bar, trying to pick up young women.

Led by the psychotic Billy, the three men are planning on robbing the bank next door.  When Artie, who is having doubts about whether or not it was a good idea to let four obviously unstable people live rent-free in his building, discovers their plans, he and Ida are taken hostage.  When the bank robbery goes wrong, Billy tries to use the hostages and a bomb as leverage for his escape from the police.

As far as films about bank robberies goes, The Strangers in 7A is no Dog Day Afternoon.  While it’s interesting to see the usually confident Andy Griffith play a loser, he never seems like enough of a loser that he would actually risk a job that he clearly needs just because Claudine flashed a little leg at him.  Even when he’s playing a character who is down on his luck, he’s still Andy Griffith.  Along with the lead role being miscast, the bank robbers are too generic to really be credible or threatening.  Susanne Benton is sexy as the femme fatale and Ida Lupino is sympathetic as Artie’s wife but otherwise, The Strangers in 7A is forgettable.

The Strangers in 7A was made for television.  At the time, Andy Griffith was still trying to escape being typecast as Mayberry’s amiable Sheriff Taylor.  Griffith was a convincing villain in movies like Pray For The Wildcats and Savages but he’s just not believable as a loser in this film.

A Movie A Day #182: FM (1978, directed by John A. Alonzo)


Hey, California!  Are you ready to soft rock!?

That is the question asked by FM, a movie about rock that tries to stick it to the man with some of the safest, least revolutionary music ever recorded.

FM is centered around Q-Sky, an FM radio station in Los Angeles.  Because the laid back station manager (Michael Brandon) allows his DJs to program their own music with little commercial interruption, Q-Sky has become one of the most popular radio stations in California.  The corporate suits, though, demand that Q-Sky play less music and air more commercials, especially one that is specifically designed to get mellow Californians to join the Army.  When Brandon refuses, he is fired.  Outraged, Q-Sky’s motley crew of DJs (who include Martin Mull, Cleavon Little, Eileen Brennan, and even former football great Alex Karras) barricade themselves in the station and lead a protest by playing their music without commercials.

That would all be well and good except that the DJs spend most of their time playing songs by such noted rockers as Jimmy Buffett, Billy Joel, and REO Speedwagon.  A major set piece of the film is Q-Sky’s attempt to secretly broadcast a Linda Ronstadt concert that is being sponsored by a rival station.  At a time when Johnny Rotten was still singing Anarchy in the UK,  Q-Sky’s idea of rebellion was to go from Bob Seger to James Taylor with limited commercial interruption.

The always reliable Martin Mull is always good for some laughs and this was the only movie directed by award-winning cinematographer John A. Alonzo so, if nothing else, FM always looks good.  With its ensemble cast and episodic narrative, FM tries hard to be an Altmanesque satire but, ultimately, it fails because the revolution is not going to sound like The Doobie Brothers.

(Even though The Doobie Brothers clearly rock.)

“Who likes The Doobie Brothers?”

Because Michael Brandon looked like Gary Sandy and Martin Mull possessed a passing resemblance to Howard Hesseman, some reference books state that FM was the inspiration for WKRP in Cincinatti.  However, the first season of WKRP was already in production before FM was released to theaters and FM was such a financial flop that it is doubtful it inspired anything.

Add to that, while Venus Flytrap probably could have made it work, Dr. Johnny Fever would never have fit in at Q-Sky.  Johnny’s frequent acid flashbacks would have unnerved the mellow Q-Sky vibes.  Herb Tarlek, on the other hand…

“It must be a struggle to match the belt with the shoes.”
“Sometimes, I can’t do it.”

 

Horror on the Lens: Deadly Messages (dir by Jack Bender)


Today’s horror on the lens is a made-for-TV movie from 1985!

In Deadly Messages, Kathleen Beller plays a woman named Laura who witnesses a murder and then becomes convinced that the murderer is after her.  She also finds a Ouija board that continually sends her the same message: “I am going to kill you.”  The police are skeptical of Laura.  Even worse, her boyfriend (Michael Brandon) is skeptical!  And, needless to say, Laura may have some secrets of her own…

Deadly Messages is a lot of fun.  Thank you to frequent TSL commenter Trevor Wells for suggesting this movie!

Enjoy!

The Films of Dario Argento: Four Flies On Grey Velvet


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After the good but somewhat generic Cat o’Nine Tails, Dario Argento returned to form with his third film, 1971’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet.

It’s not particularly easy to describe the plot of Four Flies because, much like The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, the storyline is less important than the way that Argento tells it.  The film tells the story of Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon), a drummer with an up-and-coming rock band in Rome.  In many ways, Roberto is a typical drummer.  He’s the guy who, even though he’s often obscured in the background, keeps things balanced.  He has a loving wife, Nina (Mimsy Farmer), a nice house, and worldly, politically woke friends who smoke weed and praise art.  Admittedly, one of those friends does tell a rather gruesome story about witnessing a beheading in Saudi Arabia which leads to Roberto having a reoccurring nightmare but otherwise, Roberto would appear to have a great life.

(Incidentally, Roberto’s nightmares are Argento at his best.)

So, why is this stable and easy-going guy suddenly being followed by a mysterious man in a suit?  And why, when Roberto confronts the man, does he discover that there’s yet another mysterious figure — this one wearing a mask — following him and taking pictures?

That’s the mystery that opens Four Flies on Grey Velvet but it’s not the only mystery to be found in the film.  In fact, this movie finds Argento at both his most macabre and his most playful.  At times, he literally seems to be seeing just how far he can push and how complicated he can make things before totally losing his audience.  The film may start with Roberto being followed and having nightmares but eventually, it comes to involve everything and everyone from Nina’s enigmatic cousin, Dalia (Francine Racette) to a beatnik named God (played by none other than spaghetti western mainstay, Bud Spencer) to a flamboyant private investigator (Jean-Pierre Marielle).  (By today’s standards, the portrayal of the gay detective has a few cringey moments but you have to remember that Four Flies On Grey Velvet was made in 1971.  It was nothing less than revolutionary for an Italian film of that era to portray an openly gay contemporary character in any type of positive light.)  To top it all off, the solution to the film’s main mystery is discovered through optography, the long-since discredited idea that an eye will “save” the last image seen before death.  It’s ludicrous but Argento pulls it off with a cheerfully over-the-top style that perfectly matches the film’s twisted plot.  After the toned down Cat o’Nine Tails, Four Flies was Argento’s way of reminding viewers of who he truly was as a filmmaker.

The film’s brilliant opening sets the tone for the entire film.  Watch it below and thank me later:

It’s rare that anyone every really discusses the acting in an Argento film.  Argento has himself admitted that he doesn’t worry much about actors and many of his films have been released in badly dubbed versions, which often makes it difficult to fairly judge any of the performances.  That said, Roberto Tobias is one of my favorite Argento protagonists and it’s all due to Michael Brandon’s performance.  Brandon makes Roberto into such a nice guy and does such a good job of capturing his descent into paranoia that it’s impossible not to get caught up in his story.  (I would even argue that the long-haired and politically concerned Roberto is almost an autobiographical stand-in for Argento himself.)  Though I can’t really explain why without running the risk of spoiling a major part of the movie, Mimsy Farmer is also excellent.  Reportedly, Argento originally wanted to cast Mia Farrow and you can imagine a post-Rosemary’s Baby pre-Woody Allen Farrow in the role.  But I’m glad that Argento couldn’t get her because Mimsy Farmer gives a close to perfect performance.

Four Flies was the third and final part of Argento’s “animal trailer,” and, at the time, Argento declared that Four Flies would also be his final giallo film.  He followed up Four Flies with The Four Days, a historical comedy that was considered to be such a failure that, after its release, Argento returned to the safety of the giallo genre and gave the world one of his greatest triumphs, Deep Red.  However, if The Four Days had been a success and Four Flies had been Argento’s final giallo film, it would have been a triumphant note to go out on.

Here’s the very misleading trailer that was used for Four Flies On Grey Velvet‘s American release.

And here’s the even more obscure European trailer!

Back to School Part II #7: Cage Without A Key (dir by Buzz Kulik)


Cage-without-a-key_tv-guide-poster

For the fifth film in my Back To School series of reviews, I watched Cage Without A Key, a made-for-TV movie from 1975.

17 year-old Valerie Smith (Susan Dey) would appear to have everything.  She has a loving mother and a loyal best friend.  She just graduated from high school and has been accepted to a good college.  She’s looking forward to going down to San Francisco for the weekend before starting her summer job.  The future look great and, of course, that means that she’s about to make the biggest mistake of her life.

And she’s going to do it 70s style!

When her car breaks down on the way to San Francisco, she makes the mistake of accepting a ride from a long-haired guy in a Volkswagen microbus.  Buddy Goleta (Sam Bottoms, in full 70s weirdo mode) went to high school with Valerie and appears to have a crush on her.  Buddy also appears to be a little bit crazy himself as he tells everyone that he meets that Valerie is “my old lady.”  Finally, Buddy pulls over to a convenience store and kills everyone inside.  Since Valerie’s in the microbus, she gets arrested along with Buddy.  Since Buddy claims that he and Valerie are lovers, she’s convicted of being an accessory and is sentenced to a … REFORM SCHOOL!

(Cue dramatic music.)

The warden — Mrs. Little (Katharine Helmond) — insists that she’s not running a prison.  Instead, she’s running a very progressive school where the students all happen to be thieves and murderers.  The school even has pleasant euphemisms for all the standard prison film elements.  For instance, no one is put in solitary confinement.  Instead, they’re sent to meditation.

Anyway, while Valerie waits for her dedicated public defender (David Brandon) to prove her innocence and get her out of reform school, she finds herself being approached by the various gangs who run the school.  Valerie says she doesn’t want anything to do with any of that.  She just wants to fly under the radar until she’s set free.  But then she’s approached by a predatory lesbian and, as we all known from watching other prison films, nothing will make you join a gang faster than being approached by a predatory lesbian…

Okay, Cage Without A Key is not exactly Orange Is The New Black.  What it is, however, is a time capsule of the time it was made.  Everything from the slang to the clothes to the attitudes to the squishy, upper class liberalism of Valerie’s lawyer practically screams 1970s.

Add to that, classic film lovers will appreciate the fact that the evil gang leader is named Suzy Kurosawa!

Incidentally, Cage Without A Key was written by Joanna Lee, who readers of this site will probably best remember for playing one of the alien invaders in Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #37: Jennifer on My Mind (dir by Noel Black)


jommThe 1971 film Jennifer On My Mind opens with a lengthy montage of black-and-white photographs of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island.  These, the film tells us, are the men and women who came to America with nothing and who fought and struggled to have something.  The film itself deals with the grandchildren of those immigrants, who, as opposed to their ancestors, now have everything and who seem to be determined to reduce it all down to nothing.

24 year-old Marcus Rottner (Michael Brandon) would appear to have everything.  Following the death of his father, Marcus has inherited the fortune that his immigrant grandfather earned.  (The ghost of his grandfather shows up at one point and smokes a joint.)  Marcus will never have to work a day in his life, owns a nice apartment, and can go to Europe whenever he feels like it.  However, Marcus does have one problem: his girlfriend Jennifer (Tally Walker) just died of a heroin overdose in his living room.  Now, Marcus has to try to dispose of the body without anyone discovering what has happened.

The film alternates between showing Marcus’s attempts to get ride of Jennifer’s body and flashbacks to his romance with her.  We see how he first met Jennifer in Venice and how he fell in love with her.  Like Marcus, Jennifer comes from a rich family.  Her parents are alive but we never see them.  (Reportedly, scenes were filmed that featured Kim Hunter as Jennifer’s mother but they were cut after a disastrous preview.)  As she leaves Venice, Jennifer tells Marcus to visit her back in the states.

Which is just what Marcus does.  Marcus and Jennifer’s relationship plays out like a romantic comedy, except for the fact that Jennifer doesn’t really seem to care that much for Marcus.  After Jennifer jumps off a roof, Marcus takes her back to Venice and tries to recreate their earlier romance.  However, Jennifer just wants to go back to New York…

About ten minutes into the film, I nearly stopped watching Jennifer On My Mind.  Both Marcus and Jennifer seemed like such unlikable characters that I couldn’t imagine spending a full 90 minutes with them.  The fact that they were both rich and spoiled didn’t help.

But I kept watching because the first part of the film was set in Venice and I love Venice!  Watching those scenes reminded me of visiting Italy the summer after I graduated from high school.  It was a great time and, despite how I felt about Marcus and Jennifer, the film still brought back some nice memories.

However, then Marcus and Jennifer returned to New York and, since I don’t really care about New York the way that I care about Venice, I again found myself tempted to stop watching.  However, it was around this time that I started to realize that Michael Brandon was actually giving a pretty good performance in the role of Marcus.  So, I decided to keep giving the film a chance.

And then the ghost of Marcus’s grandfather showed up.  And then, the film gave us a scene of Jennifer hanging out with the two traveling “minstrels.”  And I thought to myself, “This is getting unbearably cutesy…”

But then, Robert De Niro showed up!  That’s right — Jennifer On My Mind is an early De Niro movie.  When Marcus hails a cab and asks for a ride to Long Island, the taxi driver is played by none other than Robert De Niro.  And while De Niro is only in the film for a few minutes, he totally steals those few minutes.  He plays a “gypsy” cab driver in this film and, as he drives Marcus to Long Island, he rambles about his sister, his drugs, and his fear of driving Marcus to see a bunch of “squares.”  De Niro is such an eccentric and energetic presence that he brings the whole film to life.

After De Niro’s scene, there was only 30 minutes left in the film and I thought to myself, “Okay, I can give this another 30 minutes…”

Written by Love Story‘s Erich Segal and directed by Pretty Poison‘s Noel Black, Jennifer On My Mind is an uneven but oddly watchable film.  If you’re looking for quirky love story … well, I really can’t recommend Jennifer On My Mind because it never really convinces you that Marcus and Jennifer are in love.  For the most part, their relationship seems to be one of convenience.  Jennifer wants drugs and Marcus can afford them.  Marcus wants a girlfriend and Jennifer is willing to pretend.  Instead, Jennifer On My Mind is more like a parody of true romance.  Marcus spends the entire film wanting Jennifer’s body and now that he has it, he has to find a way to get rid of it.

It’s undeniably uneven; for every scene that works, there’s another one that doesn’t.  But, at the same time, it’s undeniably watchable.  Plus, you get an early performance from Robert De Niro!

Jennifer On My Mind is currently available to viewed on Netflix.