Thursday, October 3, 2013

THE FLY (1958)

Kurt Neumann, 1958
Starring: David Hedison, Patricia Owens, Vincent Price, Herbert Marshall

Helene Delambre confesses to murdering her scientist husband Andre by crushing him in a hydraulic press in the Delambre family factory. Her brother in law, Francois, as well as police Inspector Charas, and Helene’s doctor are all convinced she could not have murdered Andre, as they had a happy marriage, but she refuses to explain further. They fear she has gone mad when she acts strangely and begins obsessing about flies. Francois tricks her into telling the story to him and Charas by claiming he has caught a peculiar, white headed fly. 

She relates that Delambre, a celebrated scientist, began experimenting with transporting matter in his lab. When his experiments with inanimate objects proved successful, he celebrated with Helene and secretly moved to living objects. After a false start involving the family cat, he managed to successfully transport a guinea pig. Unbeknownst to Helene, he attempted to transport himself, but failed to notice that a fly found its way into the container. Deformed, unable to talk, and desperate to hide his face from Helene, he begged her to find an unusual fly with a white face or else he would have to destroy himself. She is unable to find the fly for a few days, so while he still possesses vaguely human mental faculties, he destroys his research and they set off for the factory...

Though at its heart The Fly is a ‘50s sci-fi/horror creature feature, it is more intelligent and subtle than many others in the subgenre and actually begins as a murder mystery. A woman claims to have killer her husband and we must figure out why. Despite the film’s many fine moments, it should come as no surprise that the science is pretty awful and Delambre’s explanations of his experiments are grating, “cat molecules” being high on the list. The film does benefit from a serious tone and fortunately lacks the forced comedy that plagued a lot of early American horror. 

After the initial premise is set up, the film is a bit slow for about half an hour, establishing the relationship between Delambre and his wife, but things really kick off at the hour mark. Oddly we are never shown the most important experiment, when he enters the chamber with the titular fly, but instead we see things from Helene’s perspective. I found this to be almost as interesting and a good way to circumvent limited technical effects. When the fly creature is finally shown, the effects are laughable by today’s standards. And of course the horrible cries of “Help me!” from the human-headed fly have been parodied so many times that it’s difficult to take them seriously. 

Based on George Langelaan’s novella (1957), the script from James Clavell (The Great Escape) changes some things from the original story. In addition to a larger role for Delambre, there is also a much happier ending. Director Kurt Neumann (Return of the Vampire) was yet another German expatriate filmmaker who travelled to Hollywood for work before the second World War. He worked on a number of B-level horror films, though The Fly is his best and most famous work. There is some nice cinematography from the great Karl Struss (Island of Lost Souls, The Great Dictator, the 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), another German expatriate in Hollywood. The film definitely benefits from the bold colors that for some reason were abandoned for the two sequels, which were both shot in black and white. Ben Nye was responsible for the make up and worked on films as far ranging as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir to Planet of the Apes before forming his own, now famous company.

Vincent Price gives a good performance here, as always, and is surprisingly cast as a character that falls somewhere between hero and innocent bystander. Herbert Marhsall (Foreign Correspondent) is warm and likable as Inspector Charas and he and Price apparently had a great time together on set, laughing it up over the silly fly effects when they weren’t pretending to be serious and horrified. Patricia Owens (Hell to Eternity) has the meatiest role in the film and makes the most of her well written character that avoids the often offensive damsel in distress horror tropes of the ‘40s and ‘50s. She is, of course, the true hero of the film. David Hedison (Live and Let Die, License to Kill) has little screen time, but is sympathetic as the ill-fated scientist Andre Delambre. Their tragic relationship is very well portrayed, particularly when Delambre scrawls out a final love note to his wife before going to his death.

If you like ‘50s horror, The Fly comes highly recommended. Anyone expecting this to be remotely like David Cronenberg’s The Fly will be disappointed, as that is one of the finest horror remakes put to film, but there are certain faint similarities. Regardless, the original is worth watching at least once and anyone who likes classic sci-fi horror will find a lot to love. The Fly is available on DVD in a collection with surprisingly fun sequels Return of the Fly and Curse of the Fly

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