The Fly – USA, 1958

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‘The fly with the head of a man… and the man with the head of a fly!’

The Fly is a 1958 American science fiction horror film directed by Kurt Neumann. The screenplay was written by James Clavell (his first), from the short story “The Fly” by George Langelaan. It was followed by two sequels, Return of the Fly and Curse of the Fly and was remade in 1986 as a film of the same name by director David Cronenberg.

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The surprisingly intricate plot of The Fly sees work-at-home scientist Andre Delambre (David Hedison, billed as Al Hedison) dead in his den with his head and arm crushed in a hydraulic press. Although his wife Helene (Patricia Owens) confesses to the crime, she refuses to provide a motive and exhibits behaves erratically, even for a murderess, with a particular fascination for flies, including a supposedly white-headed fly.

Andre’s brother, Francois (Vincent Price), lies and says he caught the white-headed fly and, thinking he knows the truth, Helene explains the circumstances surrounding Andre’s death. Through a flashback sequence, we see Andre experimenting with teleportation, snappily titled the disintegrator-integrator (rappers, take note), first testing out the equipment on a cat (an abject failure) and then a guinea pig (rather more successfully). Happy with his 50% hit-rate, he upscales his efforts to human-sized operations and uses himself as the first passenger – actually the co-pioneer, as an unseen fly also takes the maiden voyage.

The unhappy combination of DNA leaves Andre with the head and arm of a fly, the hideous noggin draped with a black cloth to shield the eyes of onlookers and with a typewriter to hand to communicate the sorry state of affairs to Helene. Elsewhere, a super-intelligent fly with Andre’s head is similarly disappointed with the situation and Andre urges her to catch it so that he can attempt to reverse the experiment.

As Andre’s brain becomes increasingly insect-like, he realises that time has run out and he leads Helene to a factory with the aforementioned press so that he can be put out of his misery. As her recounting of the story to the police concludes, she is, perhaps understandably, lead away to a rubber room but in the garden a familiar face makes an appearance in a spider’s web…

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The Fly has an ingenious plot which from the outset is utterly captivating. The original short story by British author and journalist George Langelaan, initially appeared in a 1957 edition of Playboy (he later went on to have several of his stories dramatised in Rod Serling’s post-Twilight Zone series, The Night Gallery). This in turn was adapted as a screenplay by James Clavell, whose other notable conversions include The Great Escape and To Sir, With Love. It sticks very closely to the original story, though 20th Century Fox insisted only a slightly less depressing ending (only just, mind).

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The film was directed and produced by one of the great nearly-men of Hollywood, Kurt Neumann. A German who re-located to tinsel town at the birth of the talkies, he taught himself English as he went from job to job and perhaps it was this that hampered his career slightly.

Neumann found his niche firstly directing several Tarzan films then science fiction, most notably Kronos, She-~Devil and the influential Rocket Ship X-Mone of the first films since Hitchcock’s Spellbound to utilise a theremin and as such, sparking a genre-lasting trend. He had seriously been considered a contender to direct Bride of Frankenstein, before James Whale was tempted out of self-imposed exile, typical of Neumann’s luck.

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Casting was more problematic. The lead role of Andre was initially offered to Yorkshireman Michael Rennie, already well known from roles such as Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still (a replacement for Claude Rains) but he rejected the part on the basis that he would be unseen for most of the film, disguised by both a cloth and make-up.

Rennie’s replacement, Hedison, had barely appeared onscreen before, though later enjoyed significant success on television, appearing on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Love Boat and Fantasy Island. Hedison, to his enormous credit, is indeed the man under the enormous fly cranium. Despite her pivotal role in the film, The Fly did not lead to any further film parts of note for Owens, something of a surprise.

Vincent Price was already a big name in Hollywood but only House of Wax in 1953 had been a significant acting role in a horror film; The Fly was to usher him into the territory for which he is best known, despite essentially being something of a side-character (he plays a far more leading role narrating and appearing in the film’s trailer).

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The make-up effects are truly startling, made all the more dramatic by the unveiling, which brings to mind the unmasking of Erik in 1925’s Phantom of the Opera. In a similar vein to that film, Owens had not seen the make-up before the reveal, the alarm on her face being more ‘real life’ than act. The make-up effects came courtesy of Fox’s head of make-up Ben Nye, something of an overlooked artist in the field.

Nye’s other notable work includes the titular character and all the villains in the 60’s TV series, Batman and as one of the lead artists on 1968’s seminal simian epic, Planet of the Apes. The very of-the-period score come courtesy of Paul Sawtell, also composer of the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea TV series and creator of the themes used in Russ Meyer’s cult classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! 

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A commercial success, the film grossed nearly $2 million at the US box office alone, dwarfing its meagre budget of around $700,000. Sadly, Neumann died only a month after the film previewed, not living to see his creation become an icon of the era. Although spawning two sequels, Return of the Fly in 1959 and Curse of the Fly in 1965 (both also well worth a viewing), the film has lived in the shadow of Cronenberg’s 1986 remake, which is a huge shame.

As good as the King of Body Horror’s film is, the original has a far more subtle touch and an unremitting gloom, somewhat uncommon in horror films of the time. It has aged well and beyond the slightly kitsch fizzy, popping science lab is a film of great artistry and a dark heart.

Daz Lawrence, Horrorpedia

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Cast and characters:

  • David Hedison (credited as Al Hedison) as André Delambre
  • Patricia Owens as Hélène Delambre
  • Vincent Price as François Delambre
  • Herbert Marshall as Inspector Charas
  • Kathleen Freeman as Emma
  • Betty Lou Gerson as Nurse Anderson
  • Charles Herbert as Philippe Delambre
  • Eugene Borden as Dr. Éjoute
  • Torben Meyer as Gaston

Trivia:

There is a clip of The Fly in ‘The People vs. Ichabod Crane’ episode of TV series Sleepy Hollow

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