Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Films of 1958: The Fly

Based on the 1957 story by George Langelaan, The Fly (1958) is an unforgettable horror movie that has -- across the long decades -- spawned a full-fledged franchise. 

Sequels to the original film followed in 1959 (Return of the Fly) and 1965 (Curse of the Fly), while the David Cronenberg remake (1986) and its sequel, The Fly II (1989) bowed in the late eighties.

I must have watched the 1958 original a good half-dozen times during my upbringing in New Jersey, on The 4:30 PM Movie and in other syndication venues. The Fly is one of those movies that, once you start watching, you can’t turn away from. 

Even though you know how it is going to end.

Speaking of endings, the film’s horrific climax --- featuring a fly with a human head trapped in a spider’s web -- stands as a pop culture touchstone, and has been excerpted on series including The X-Files (1993-2002) and Millennium (1996-1999). That chilling denouement remains effective, even today, after being lampooned multiple times on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1989-1999) and The Simpsons (1990 - ).

Today, the 1958 film certainly shows its age, though it remains a thoroughly entertaining and immersive picture.  The Kurt Neumann (1908 – 1958) film stands the test of time, primarily, in terms of its commitment to scientific progress, even in the face of disaster.  As for scientific accuracy, that's a different story.

“God gave us intelligence to uncover the wonders of nature,” The Fly asserts, and so even though the film involves a nightmarish end to a noble experiment, audiences are left with the impression that man will move forward, and eventually conquer the universe itself.  That's a philosophy I can buy into, with hope and optimism.

So there’s, oddly, a hopeful message embedded in The Fly's dark and creative imagery.

Every time I watch The Fly, I recoil with horror from the results of the experiment, in particular the fly with the human head, trapped as a spider arrives to devour it. But I also appreciate that the film recognizes that sometimes there are casualties in the great march of human progress.

“You’re the first to see a miracle.”

Francois Delambre (Vincent Price) answers a telephone call from his factory night-watchman, Gaston, who tells him he has just witnessed a horror.  His brother’s wife, Helene (Patricia Owens), apparently killed her husband, Andre (Al Hedison) using a hydraulic press to commit the bloody crime.

Francois asks a police inspector, Charas (Herbert Marshall) to investigate.  Eventually, Helene is cajoled into telling the story of this horrendous murder.

It began when Andre, a brilliant and committed scientist commenced a “completely new line of research,” the instantaneous transport of matter across vast distances. He invented a device called a "disintegrator/integrator” and after much experimentation was ready to start with live experiments.

Unfortunately, Andre first tested the device on the family cat, Dandelo, and the experiment ended in disaster. Later, he tested it on himself, but something went terribly wrong. A house fly found its way into the matter transmitter, and Andre’s atoms were mixed with that of the insect. Specifically, his head and arm were replaced with fly equivalents.

Helene and her son, Philippe (Charles Herbert) went in search of a fly with a human head and arm, with Helen aware it was the key to restoring Andre to normal. 

Unfortunately, the fly could not be captured in time and Andre, fearing losing his mind to a fly intellect, demanded Helene help him kill himself. He led her to the hydraulic press, and the rest was history.

Inspector Charas considers the story preposterous, until he and Francois unexpectedly have a close encounter with a fly with a human head, trapped in a nearby spider’s web.

“Humanity need never want nor fear again.”

Today, it is not difficult to poke holes in several aspects of The Fly’s narrative. Most of these problems stem from the science as it is presented in the film.

I will review these problems briefly, just to give readers a flavor of them.  

The first involves Dandelo, the cat that Andre experiments with. Forget the fact that it is unethical and inhumane for Andre to experiment on the family cat. Let’s just consider the feline's fate.  He goes through the disintegrator/integrator and doesn’t come out. He never re-forms.  We are told his atoms are scattered through all of space. 

But, on the soundtrack, we hear Dandelo's plaintive (and disturbing) meows echoing about the laboratory. 

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that this scene qualifies as authentic nightmare fodder. But as science?  

If Dandelo’s atoms are scattered throughout the universe, how does he meow? He has no mouth, or tongue, or skeleton, or circulatory system, or…on and on. There's no way he could make a normal cat sound or vocalization.

That issue is relatively minor compared to the next one. 

Andre and the fly switch heads and arms, but how does the fly head and arm become human-sized, and how do the human head and arm shrink to fly size?  

Even if we permit that the organs trade enough matter for the size differentials, how can one explain that Andre -- for days -- retains his human identity, while boasting a fly head (and presumably, a fly brain)?  

If the transfer truly did occur as it seems to, then the fly brain would be in control from the minute the transfer is complete.  There would not be -- as suggested in the film -- a slow loss of identity and humanity, at least so far as I understand the science.  

In this regard, the 1986 The Fly is truly superior, since it involves gene splicing and the total DNA interweaving of fly and human.  The science in this film doesn't make any sense at all. 

(Though, as always, I'm open to reading any theories readers may have...)

Another problem involving this version of The Fly involves the details of the murder investigation. Even if Andre’s head were crushed in the hydraulic press, wouldn’t the police be able to determine that it was wrong in coloring, specific nature, and size? An examination of the corpse, it seems, would validate Helene’s story almost immediately. 

In a nutshell, these are the elements that age the picture in a significant way today. 

However, I don’t feel that these issues actually hurt The Fly significantly in terms of  the film's visceral impact.  


Well, there is a nightmarish, dream quality to the reality of the film, and some of the incongruities actually lend to the irrational, dream-like quality of the story. The most effective passages in the movie are those in which Andre lurks in his basement laboratory, a black cloth draped over his head.  

Andre moves about stealthily, hiding his true appearance, and the audience imagines all sorts of horrors hidden beneath the cloth.  The fly head is actually still pretty effective in appearance, but not as effective as that cloth is. 

The ebony cloth hangs like a shroud not only over the scientist’s head, but over the march of human progress as well. There's something incredible and highly resonant about the idea of science "blanketed" by the truly irrational; the monstrous.  The daylight of discovery gives way to an eclipse of nightmarish monstrosity.

Helene’s mental state, sometimes lucid, sometimes not, also lends an important element to the dream/nightmare aspects of the film. She is trapped in a dream world from which she cannot awake; one in which she and her son are engaged in fruitless, bizarre activities (attempting to catch a specific fly) to help her husband return to her, to be restored to humanity.

The scenes with Helene -- in her beautiful, very modern, mid-20th century home -- chasing a fly with a net, border on the insane. Her real life has given way to an absurd purpose.

Juxtaposed with the weird, nightmare imagery, is The Fly’s sincere belief that Andre’s experiment is but a bump on the road to a grand future. 

There’s a remarkable scene here in which Helene laments the fast march of progress. She thinks everything is moving too fast, too quickly for people to assimilate her.  Andre replies, brilliantly, that to their young son, all this progress will be an accepted fact of life, and nothing to fear.

This is very true. 

A generation ago, homes did not have computers in them. That was an advancement of the early eighties that changed, forever, the family household. Lately, we have seen iPhones and tablets incorporated into daily life, and again, to the younger generation, this seems completely normal. Not like something that should be feared.

Each generation assimilates technological progress almost effortlessly.

But fear is the first reaction to the unknown, to the shock of the new, and The Fly’s Francois aptly describes Andre as an explorer in a dangerous country. That is a great metaphor. Andre is the first to chart the unknown world that could, one day, be common place. The danger of that frontier is worth it to such explorers, for the betterment of all mankind. They take such risks knowingly.

The film actually ends with young Phillipe noting that he wants to be the same type of explorer as his father was.  

That isn’t just the plot of the 1959 sequel, but the promise that in the march of generations man will always drive forward, in spite of the setbacks, in spite of the catastrophes. It is inevitable. 

So The Fly is one part "don't tamper in God's domain," and one part, "the march of human progress can't be stopped."  

Between those two poles, rests a terrified, mutant fly, screaming, "Help me...!" for cinematic immortality.


  1. One of the most traumatizing scenes in movie history. The parody on The Simpsons Halloween Special did me a world of good.

  2. Such a classic. The climax is still, to this day, one of the most disturbing, unsettling, sickest, climaxes in movie history. Real nightmare material.

  3. Sheri3:15 PM

    John, I agree with your overall impression of "The Fly" and despite the plot holes you describe, I find it a dramatic movie. This movie--this story--is less about the fly itself than about *human* horror and the risks of toying with nature. As such, I find it more moving than Cronenberg's remake precisely because it is less literal: it tries less to dramatize the physical transformation than to depict the cost to the human psyche of rapid technological advancement. I am less invested, and therefore less interested in, the much more literal remake.

    The metaphorical approach to the material in the 1958 version, with the shroud you so rightly focus on, allows more emotional investment by enabling the audience's imagination--one of the ways in which the less-is-more school of filmmaking can be more fulfilling. It's what Hitchcock knew that so many filmmakers do not. I'm thinking of "The Elephant Man", where David Lynch made adroit decisions about not aiming the camera too directly at John Merrick until the drama called for it. He is mostly hooded, silhouetted, cast as a distorted shadow on walls, or viewed obliquely. It would have been unreasonable to expect Merrick to spend the entire movie behind a screen as in the stage play, which would have been totally uncinematic, but I think Lynch's choices with the camera and the use of shadowy black-and-white worked to highlight the fact that "The Elephant Man" is more about people's reactions to Merrick than it is about Merrick himself. The shroud in "The Fly" serves the same purpose: what frightens Helene is less her husband's physical changes than his cognitive and emotional ones.

    Vincent Price represents us in the narrative, as the person who is at first skeptical of the story while trying to help Helene, humoring her a bit at first and then progressing to full investment in the situation as he learns more--and then having to convince Charas as well as help Helen maintain her precarious sanity. The scene where the fly is initially spotted in the house but released by the housekeeper is excruciatingly suspenseful and so well placed in the story arc. Kathleen Freeman as the housekeeper is so excellent that I'm drawn right into her portrayal and forget her marvelous comedic turns in every Jerry Lewis movie made from Artists & Models onward! She was brilliant in both comedy and drama.

    I always found the little human-headed fly crying "Help meeeee!" to be not nearly as funny as Charas killing it with that huge rock! I mean, could he have found a bigger rock to hit it with? Maybe a safe to drop on it?