It’s easy to see why David Cronenberg was interested in remaking this semi-classic picture. Under the guise of a b-movie James Clavell’s screenplay from George Langelaan’s story of a scientist who turns himself into a half-man/half-fly is remarkably poignant and emotionally-affecting atomic age cautionary tale of science-gone-wrong.
The Fly (1958) dir. Kurt Neumann
Starring: David Hedison, Patricia Owens, Vincent Price
By Alan Bacchus
The opening of this picture is particular gruesome. Even with today’s desensitized brains the sight of Andre Delembre’s body partially crushed by an industrial compression machine is deeply disturbing. While it’s seen in long shot with ample amounts of blood are visible, its our internal vision of this troubling method of death which sticks in our minds.
Helene, who was present during the death, is on the hook for the murder. But there’s solemnness to Helene which just doesn’t ring true with that of a murderer. The call for insanity, led by a sympathetic Vincent Price playing Andre’s brother, stems from Helene’s obsessive need to find a housefly, a special fly with a white head and white leg – a task given to her by her spitely son Philippe.
We meet the deceased Andre Delembre while flashing back to Helene’s account of the seemingly fantastical story of his death. As an independent inventor and scientist the secretive Delembre is on track for his most important invention and scientific discovery yet. His basement layer, designed with teasing allure by Theobold Holsopple and Lyle R. Wheeler, is filled with strange devices and scientific equations. It’s important to note the cinematographer Karl Struss, the legendary German lensman famous for shooting FW Murnau’s Sunrise. His cinemascope technicolor frames are sublime and his lighting expresses all the fear of this chilling scenario.
As we all know Andre’s secret is a teleportation device able to deconstruct materials at the subatomic level and move them from place to place – in this case one enclosed pod to the other. But when he transports a ceramic plate, only to realize the inscription is backwards, the dangers of this device are cleverly foreshadowed.
By the nature of the title and our preconceied notions of the story we know where this is going to go, but Neumann admirably holds back his big reveals. Yes, Delembre eventually goes in the machine himself and yes, something goes wrong, a small fly entered the chamber with him. And when recomposed in the other pod, he’s made half man/half fly.
Neumann wrings out every drop of suspense in revealing Delembre’s grotesque new body. It’s from Helene’s eyes and first through the barrier of Delembre’s locked door of his lab, communications exclusive via knocks - one rap for yes, two for no.
Gradually Neumann opens up to Helene slowly revealing the extent of Delembre’s tragic failure. Andre’s head covered with a sheet is a delicious tease as to what’s underneath, as well his need to suck milk from a bowl from under the sheet, and his arm always in his pocket. Eventually we see the arm – a fly’s arm! What a shock! And when Helene rips off Andre’s hood revealing his fly head, by this time we’re all ready to jump out of our seats. And with Patricia Owens’ scream, as shrill as anyone’s in cinema, the moment is cinematic magic.
And yet what we don’t expect to emerge from this atomic-age monster movie is a sincere love story. Something clearly David Cronenberg connected with and tranferred into his version of The Fly. Helene’s dedication to Andre in spite of his malformity and her obsessive desire to save him is supremely noble and ultimately tragic leaving a long-lasting impression of this movie forever with our minds. Something David Cronenberg clearly never forgot.
The Fly is available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment