Wednesday, 27 June 2007
The Fly (1958) dir. Kurt Neumann
Starring: Patricia Owens, David Hedison, Vincent Price
The original version of “The Fly” is a classic B sci-fi film - a wildly high concept about a scientist who accidentally fuses himself into part man, part fly. But it’s not a typical B horror film. Andre doesn’t become a killer Flyman monster; the film has a surprisingly tragic quality that makes it stand out from its contemporaries.
The plot is quite manipulative. The film opens in the present after Helene Delambre (Patricia Owens) has just killed her husband gruesomely in a machine press. The entire opening act takes place as an investigation into this death. It’s told from the point of view of the police, and so we only see the aftermath including a few curious details. Helene won’t talk about what happened, and why she put her husband in the press. To the police she is insane. Her brother-in-law, played by Vincent Price, eventually persuades her into recounting the story.
The second act is a flashback, told from Helene’s point of view. We meet Andre Delambre, Patricia’s husband - a dedicated scientist and all around Parisian gentleman. Andre has been working on a groundbreaking experiment which can transport objects through the air from one box to another. The first time we see Andre demonstrate the machine to his wife, he transports a ceramic plate across the room. It’s a well staged sequence; impressive lighting and sound effects effectively build up and release the suspense of the experiment. It’s a success, until Helene turns the plate over revealing the print is written backwards - a wonderful beat of intrigue!
With more success Andre gets riskier and riskier and soon he starts to experiment with animals. Helene is suspect and warms Andre of the dangers of playing with science. Despite this Andre conducts the experiment on himself. We know something has gone wrong when we see a handwritten note on the door asking Helene not to enter. Though we don’t see it on screen we learn from Andre’s notes that when going through the machine, a fly trapped itself inside the box, therefore reconstituting the fly’s arm and head with Andre’s body. The only way he can make himself right again is by finding the fly which has his human arm and head.
Andre’s appearance is hidden from Helene (and the audience) by a blanket placed over his head. When Helene eventually yanks it off we finally get the reveal of the horrifically deformed man. To this day, it’s still a frightening sequence. The multi-lensed point of the view of the camera is funny and horrific at the same time. Patricia Owens has a great b-movie scream as well. After failing to find the fly Andre asks Helene to help him commit suicide with the machine press. The sequence is surprisingly emotional for a b-movie. And the second time Helene uses the press on his arm is absolutely tragic.
The finale in the present day is also the stuff of cinematic legend. When Vincent Price and Herbert Marshall find the fly with Andre’s head stuck in the spider web crying out “help me”, “help me”, I got shivers down my back.
The film draws out the suspense and reveals itself with careful pacing. As I mentioned, it’s very manipulative, giving only portions of the details of the story and changing the point of view when needed to hide the surprises. David Cronenberg’s version plays the suspense much differently by gradually turning Jeff Goldblum into the Fly over the course of the film. Several sequences in this version stand out including the suspenseful search to trap the fly in the house, Andre’s mad destruction of his studio, the tragic killing of Andre and of course the “help me” sequence at the end.
“The Fly” is a B-movie through and through though. The dialogue is so on-the-nose it’s humourous. Helen’s explanation of the responsibility of science is a not-so-subtle metaphor for rapid nuclear advancement, and police chief Marshall’s admission that “she wasn’t insane all along” hit the nail squarely on our heads.
But “The Fly” is all in good fun and one of the best of 1950’s science fiction films. David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” though more intense, scary, emotional and complex owes much to the original. Please check it out. Enjoy.
Buy it here: The Fly (1958)/Return of the Fly (1959)
Andre makes his cat disappear in this scene: