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The Fly (1958) by Mark R. Leeper (a film retrospective).

November 19, 2021 | By | Reply More

‘The Fly’ (1958) is a film that surprised even its producers. They knew the story was a little silly and expected only a modest return on the film from a mostly young audience. Even the film’s name stars, Vincent Price and Herbert Marshall, could not take ‘The Fly’ seriously. The audience, on the other hand, found that there was much to respond to in the film. ‘The Fly’ cost $350,000 to make and grossed $3,000,000 on its release, considerably outstripping any expectation.

Based on results of this film, 20th Century Fox went on to make several other Science Fiction films. I would contend that the reason this film had the impact that it did is that it really is very much an archetypal story, an ‘Oedipus Rex’ for the scientific age. It is the story of a man who has just about anything a man could want and loses it all in a moment of hubris. Helene and Andre Delambre, the major characters, have a warm and loving relationship and they love life. Andre himself just follows his curiosity as his profession and that provides enough so they live very well. In one moment of pride and carelessness, it was all turned into horror.

It is interesting to note that this is a film with no human or even non-human villains. Essentially, everybody wants the best for everybody else. It is basically people after a disastrous mistake struggling to put things right again. It is most unusual to have a horror film in which there is no ill-will. People are even doing what they see as acting in young Philippe’s best interest when they so brazenly lie to him. Today, candour seems a little more in vogue.

The film was directed by Kurt Neumann, who counted among his films several low-budget Tarzan movies, ‘Rocketship X-M’ (1950), and more recently, for Fox, ‘She Devil’ (1957) and ‘Kronos’ (1957). With the possible exception of ‘Kronos’, there is not much there to suggest that he could have been responsible for how well ‘The Fly’ resonated with audiences. More likely it is the mythic elements from the story. ‘The Fly’ is based on a short story by George Langelaan that appeared in ‘Playboy’ magazine.

The original story took place in France, but here it was moved to Montreal to explain the French names while placing it in an environment that the audience could identify with. The plot starts almost immediately with a strange mystery. Andre and Helene Delambre (Al Hedison and Patricia Owens) seemed to be in love as much as any married couple could be. Andre and his brother Francois owned an extremely successful electronics research and development company. Things seemed perfect for them and it. But in the first moments of the plot, the idyllic life of the Delambres is over.

The night watchman at Delambre Freres has found Helene over the dead body of Andre. It seems he was killed in a factory press. What makes this all seem even stranger is that Andre should have known the press was coming down if it was. He would have had to have been a most cooperative victim in his own murder. What is more, Helene did not know how to operate the press. That just does not make any kind of sense.

Francois is called almost immediately by Helene and he in turn calls in Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall) of the Surete to do the policework. Helene admits to the killing, but refuses to give answer certain questions so that the action still just does not add up. Helene is free with some information, but other questions she insists that she cannot answer. The one hole in this behaviour is that she seems to have developed a fixation on seeing flies and any fly that can be caught. Francois finds out that Helene is looking for a particular fly with a white head. In an attempt to find out what really happened, he bluffs to Helene that he has the fly and convinces her that he will destroy the fly as she wants if she will explain why and how she killed Andre. She begins to tell her story.

In the flashback story, Andre unveils to her the device that has occupied much of his time recently. He has developed a matter transmission machine. It disintegrates solid objects placed in a transmission booth, transmits the matter to a receiving booth and reintegrates the object. In demonstrating the machine, it generally works, but has occasional malfunctions, not surprisingly for a new piece of technology. At first, the machine creates a mirror image of the object being transmitted. Then, for an unknown reason, it fails to reintegrate just when the family cat Dandello is sent. But eventually it seems to be reliable, transmitting a guinea pig and allowing her to reintegrate.

The machine seems to work and Andre invites Francois (Vincent Price) to see the machine in action. But instead of meeting his brother, he leaves a note that he cannot see Francois. At about the same time, Philippe finds a white-headed fly, but Helene makes him let it go. Andre refuses to leave the lab or be seen. That night he passes another note out of the lab saying he has had a problem. It seems he wants Helene to look for a particular fly with a white head. She is allowed into the lab, but Andre has a cloth over his head and his hand in his pocket. When Helene tells Andre that she made Philippe release a fly with the white head Andre is shocked enough to take what should be his left hand out of his pocket, but instead of a hand there is a sort of black claw. Andre can eat only liquids which he seems to noisily slurp.

It seems that Andre transmitted himself with a fly in the box with him and the two had their atoms mixed. Now he needs the fly to untangle the two. The next day, Helene and Philippe search for the white-headed fly. They succeed only in unknowingly letting the very fly they want get out the window.

Andre loses heart when the fly is not found and finds he is losing control of his head and hand. He knows he needs the fly to unscramble the atoms but he allows himself to cooperate with Helene. He transmits himself one more time in the absurd belief that it will do some good. Helene, ever the optimist, pulls the cloth from his head and finds herself looking at a human-sized fly head. Note: in the story it is a cat head with fly eyes, a side effect of the loss of Dandello.

Andre sees Helene’s screaming face through compound eyes in one of the most horrific scenes of any film ever. Helene faints and Andre trying to control his body lays her out on a couch in safety. The horror gives way to tragedy as Andre tries to kiss Helene and realises that he is no longer physically capable of kissing or caressing her. In angry frustration, he destroys his laboratory and burns his notes. Pulling the cloth back over his head he writes on the blackboard asking Helene for help in destroying himself. More and more the fly hand seems to be following orders of its own, his last humanity is being lost. Andre takes Helene to the room with the press and with her help he manages to commit suicide, being crushed in the press to destroy all evidence of what happened to him.

Back in the present, Francois and Inspector Charas cannot believe the story. The Inspector is going to have Helene arrested and returns with a warrant for murder against her. Helene is expecting that having told the story her trouble are over and remains confident until she finds out that Francois did not have the white-headed fly. Helene is terrified that Philippe will see her being arrested and asks Francois to take him away. Francois and Philippe make small talk and Philippe, not realising the significance, says that he has seen the fly in a web. Francois is dumb-struck and runs to Charas insisting that he come and see. Charas follows reluctantly and is shocked to see a human-headed fly in the web just as a spider attacks it. Charas takes a rock and destroys the spider and the fly. Then, admitting to as much of a murder as Helene has committed, he and Francois concoct a story to cover up Helene’s crime.

The only really familiar actors in the film at the time were Vincent Price and Herbert Marshall. Both thought the film hilarious, particularly the scene of the fly in the web, and luckily they were relegated to what were actually very secondary parts. Patricia Owens is really the main character and deserved top billing with secondary credit going to Al ‘David’ Hedison. Ironically and luckily, both give better performances than Price. David Hedison went on to co-star in ‘The Lost World’ (1960 and then to have a long run on television in ‘Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea’ (1964-68), all for 20th Century Fox.

There is genuine suspense in the film’s mystery. Helene’s actions seem to be so out of character for her. Every conventional explanation has a good reason why it does not explain the facts. Andre had to have, at some level, cooperated with Helene, even if only to the extent to show Helene how to run the press. Yet Andre should have been able to commit suicide by himself had he wanted. Clearly, they both must have suddenly wanted Andre dead and that seems to make no sense. Then James Clavell adapted the George Langelaan story into a screenplay. Clavell is, of course, known best for a series of best-selling novels set in the Far East including ‘Shogun’. Clavell also wrote the screenplay for ‘The Satan Bug’ (1965), taking some liberties with the original story.

In this case, however, he maintained the original story very accurately. In so many other films, even the remake, the transformed human is dangerous and kills. While Andre is transformed, he never becomes a monster, in spite of being a horrifying sight. Andre loses his features and toward the end he loses control of himself, but he never loses his humanity. Kurt Neumann seems to have risen to match his script with high production values. The film has the very good look of a careful and high-quality production. It was shot in widescreen and Technicolor.

Sadly, even with its classical tragic story, this film also has its moments that are all too easily mocked. Conservation of matter would indicate that the fly’s head on Andre’s should be the size of a fly’s head. Similarly with the human head on the fly’s body, you should barely see the fly parts. The concept of the projection is different from the concept in the remake. The 1958 version has essentially a projector that moves atom for atom. It may distort the image at the far end, like reversing it, but it should not just switch selected parts. The remake has the device analysing DNA and essentially cloning it. I would say that this is a more absurd approach to matter transmission.

The simple fact is that humans play host to many small life-forms from eyelash mites to a variety of organisms internally. There are many forms of DNA the machine could pick to reproduce. Adding a fly just adds one more and why does it reproduce things like fingernails? That is non-living matter and cannot be reproduced from DNA. It has been mentioned that Helene disposes of her husband in the time-honoured tradition of disposing of flies, she squashes it in what is essentially a big swatter.

Not all of Neumann’s touches work. When the night watchman sees the dead body, his mouth drops open in an exaggerated scream, but instead we hear the ringing of a phone. Hitchcock could have made the scene work, but it really does not here. Neumann overuses the sound of a fly’s buzzing in the background and it becomes tiresome. For the sound of the electronic equipment, a rhythmic cello-string is used, borrowing an effect from ‘The War Of The Worlds’ (1953). The one unfortunate aspect of the script is that nobody asks the really interesting questions. What happens when you can transmit people across borders? Is the transmitted human really the same person or just a replica?

For at least some serious questions you must see ‘The Curse Of The Fly’ and David Cronenberg’s 1986 semi-remake. The fly’s head on Andre is quite well done and not made huge, as it was in the sequel ‘The Return Of The Fly’ (1959). There was no good way to give a fly a human head and little daub of white paint on the head is not convincing. It is surprising in the scene where Helene and Philippe are trying to capture what really is the right fly, they were not saying the fly’s head was white, an important detail and one they would look for.

This is for me one of the milestones of the 50s Science Fiction film, and I give it a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale.

© Mark R. Leeper 2021

Category: Films, MEDIA, Scifi

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