Title: The Fly
Year of Release: 1958
Director: Kurt Neumann
Length: 93 mins
Starring: Al Hedison, Vincent Price, Patricia Owens
“The more I know, the more sure I am I know so little. The eternal paradox.”
Before the famed David Cronenberg effort in 1986, came the 1958 original. I’d never seven seen it until relatively recently. I was thinking about covering the remake for this series, but I have a feeling there might be enough 80’s flicks here as it is, and the series might benefit from an entry dating from the late-fifties. You know, for context and stuff. So, here we are.
The premise: Canadian scientist Andre Delambre (Hedison) is found dead with his head and arm crushed in a hydraulic press. His brother (Price) comes on the scene to try to make sense of what has happened. Was a freak accident? Suicide? Gulp. Murder? The scientist’s wife (Owens) readily accepts liability, but says she’d rather not say why she did such a terrible thing. Which is not only unhelpful, but pretty odd. She then takes to her bed, and starts acting weirdly. It’s especially disconcerting when the housekeeper swats an insect and she freaks the fuck out. Apparently, she is becoming obsessed with a particular white-headed fly which buzzes around the house. From that point, the film shifts from a murder mystery to flat-out sci-fi horror.
Through a series of flashbacks it is revealed that her dead husband was engaged in a ground-breaking series of experiments concerning the transportation of organic matter in an invention called the disintegrator/integrator. The basic idea is to eventually be able to send things through time and space instantaneously, thereby doing away with costly and time-consuming modes of conventional travel. He has great fun successfully transporting inanimate objects like ashtrays, then progresses to Dandelo the family cat. That doesn’t go quite so well, as Dandelo fails to reappear but can nevertheless be heard meowing somewhere in the ether. Oops. Despite the missing moggie, curiosity soon gets the better of Delambre. He constructs a pair of man-sized teleportation chambers and proceeds to try to transport himself. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to him, when he tries the experiment he is sharing the chamber with a house fly which has snuck in, resulting in their atoms becoming merged. Yes, Delambre is now part fly, and the fly is now part Delambre. Hence the scientist with the missing head and arm, and the fly with the white head. Geddit?
Ignoring the obvious plot hole, whereby Delambre somehow ended up with the head of a fly but with his old brain in it, and the flipside of that eventuality where the fly ended up with Delambre’s head, but with a fly’s brain, yet could still scream “Help me!” when threatened by a spider, something picked up on by critic Carlos Clarens (who noted that the film, “Collapses under the weight of many questions”) The Fly can still be considered a landmark in cinema. Of particular interest is the sub-text, which warns against the march of progress and the often terrible price of success. Remember, this was the late 50’s, and the decade had already brought television, transistor radios and passenger jets. UFO flaps were common. It was a time of such technological and scientific innovation, all heavily influenced by fractious Cold War politics and the continuous threat of nuclear war, that anything must have seemed possible. All this would have made The Fly terrifyingly plausible. Furthermore, it might be camp and funny now, but by 1950’s standards, the famous “Help me!” scene near the end must have been utterly horrifying. And speaking of campy goodness, do yourself a favour and check out the original trailer.
Producer/drector Kurt Neumann, who also worked on Kronos and She Devil (both 1957) died of ‘natural causes’ at the age of 50, shortly after attending the premier of The Fly, not knowing he’d just made the biggest hit of his career. Without him, film went on to become one of the Box Office successes of the year, raking in $3 million from a budget variously quoted as being $325,000 – $495,000. Much of this expense was due to it being produced in colour, another innovation which was just coming into its own. The film went on to spawn two sequels, Return of the Fly (1959) and Curse of the Fly (1966). Sadly, neither were able to replicate either the success or the cultural impact of the original and sank without trace.
The Fly was based on a short story by French/British writer George Langelaan, an interesting character who had been a spy in World War II and was allegedly a close friend of ‘The Great Beast’ Aleister Crowley. The original version of the short story appeared in the June 1957 edition of Playboy.
Go here for the previous entry in the RetView series.