The Fly (1958) ***
Okay, chances are I can’t tell you anything about this movie that you don’t already know, unless of course, you live in a remote settlement in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Or, at any rate, I’d like to think that’s the case. We are, after all, only dealing with one of the most famous sci-fi/horror movies of the 1950’s. But I suppose you can never be too sure, these days-- it sometimes astonishes me how many important old movies horror and sci-fi fans my age and younger don’t know about or haven’t seen. It might just be possible that some of you only know The Fly from David Cronenberg’s outstanding 1986 remake. If so, you’re likely to be a bit disappointed in the original, I think. Director Kurt Neumann lacks Cronenberg’s flair for the bleakly hellish, and his version of The Fly is hampered by the ponderous pacing that afflicted so many movies of its time. On the other hand, the 1958 version has much in its favor, including a surprisingly firm scientific grounding, a mostly well-executed murder mystery-like story structure, and a rare non-villain performance from Vincent Price that allows the world’s greatest over-actor to show that he could play it smooth when he really wanted to.
Like I said, the plot is built like a murder mystery. The film begins with the night watchman at the DeLambre Brothers electronics plant walking in on the closing phase of what looks like a hideous crime. He finds a man with his upper body mashed flat in a metal-stamping press and a woman, presumably the man’s killer, fleeing the scene. The guard immediately phones the police, and then places a call to his boss, François DeLambre (Price), to tell him about the incident, and to inform him that the fleeing woman looked to him like DeLambre’s sister-in-law, Helene. Immediately thereafter, Helene herself (Patricia Owens) calls DeLambre to inform him that she has just killed his brother and her husband, Andre (Al Hedison, from the 1960 version of The Lost World, who went by the name of David Hedison for most of his career). This is not exactly an easy situation for DeLambre to accept. Above and beyond the inevitable shock of being told such a thing, DeLambre’s mind revolts because this revelation is glaringly at odds with everything he knows about Helene and her relationship with Andre, which looked to be about as trouble-free as any union between two people can be. And yet, the body in the press is clearly that of DeLambre’s brother (it bears a huge and conspicuous scar on its right shin, a souvenir of Andre’s military service), and Helene is adamant that it was she that put Andre under the press.
On the other hand, it seems fairly clear that Helene is quite mad. Not only is she completely unrepentant about the crime she insists she committed, while simultaneously refusing to cite any motive whatsoever, she professes not to recognize her son, Philippe (Charles Herbert, from The Colossus of New York and 13 Ghosts), and she has suddenly developed a morbid obsession with flies. In particular, she is fixated on the capture of a largish bluebottle with a strange white head. Every piece of information that DeLambre turns up in his efforts to get at the bottom of Helene’s apparent insanity and the crime with which it seems to be connected only deepens his confusion and despair (what to make of the destruction of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of specialized equipment in Andre’s basement laboratory, for example?), until one night when he speaks to Police Inspector Charras (Herbert Marshall, of Riders to the Stars and Gog). It is Charras’s opinion that Helene is faking her madness in an attempt to escape the gallows, and he tells DeLambre as much. Then Philippe mentions that he briefly caught the strange, white-headed fly that is the object of Helene’s monomania, convincing DeLambre that Charras is right about his sister-in-law’s deception, if not about her reasons for carrying it out. He confronts Helene, who finally agrees to reveal all to him and Charras, on the condition that he kill the white-headed fly (which Helene believes he has in his possession) immediately afterward.
The story Helene tells is about as unbelievable as they came in 1958. As both DeLambre and the inspector were aware, Andre was a brilliant engineer, the technical mastermind behind the DeLambre Electronics empire. Andre even had research and development contracts from the Canadian military. (At least I think its Canada we’re dealing with here. It’s the only way I can think of to reconcile the fact that every single character in the movie has a French name, yet pays for things in dollars and drives conspicuously American cars [I know a ‘56 Ford when I see one, and there’s just no mistaking the legendarily grotesque ‘58 Oldsmobile for any other vehicle].) But Andre outdid himself with his most recent project; he’d actually managed to develop a fully functional teleportation device.
Well, okay, so maybe it wasn’t quite fully functional. As Helene pointed out to her overexcited husband, the teleportation machine had an uncomfortable habit of reconstituting objects sent through it as mirror images of themselves. This flaw might be acceptable for a machine intended only to transport inanimate objects, but such a quirk obviously wouldn’t do if Andre wished to use it to transport anything living. Over the next few weeks, Andre worked obsessively to correct the flaw in his machine, and ultimately met with total success. (Of course, that was small consolation to his pet cat, Dandolo, which Andre accidentally vaporized in his first attempt to transport a living creature.) After perfecting his machine, Andre invited his brother over to witness his remarkable achievement, as he habitually did when one of his projects came to fruition.
But that night, Helene led François downstairs only to be met with a crudely scrawled “Do not disturb” sign taped to the door of Andre’s lab. At first, neither one thought anything of this-- if Andre had encountered a last-minute setback, it would be just like him to lock himself in the lab until he had the problem solved. That’s not what happened this time, though, as Helene discovered when she went down to the basement to check on her husband after François had gone home. There was another note on the door, this one typed, explaining that Andre had had an accident, and that he desperately needed Helene’s help. Whatever happened to Andre, it had deprived him of his powers of speech, done something strange to his digestion (Andre rejected the dinner that the maid had cooked for him, and asked Helene to bring him a bowl of milk and rum instead... ewww), and made him decidedly self-conscious of his appearance. And whatever it was, it had something to do with that same white-headed bluebottle. At this late stage of the game, it isn’t as though I’ll be giving anything away, so I may as well just come right out with it. What Andre had done was attempt to transport himself with his machine, but at the crucial moment, he failed to notice that a fly had entered the teleportation chamber with him. When he and the fly were reconstituted in the second booth, Andre discovered that a rather serious mix-up had occurred: he and the fly had switched heads and left forelimbs. You can see why Andre was so interested in catching that fly-- as long as it could be found, there was at least some chance of reversing the process and getting his correct head and arm back. But there was a catch, in that it had to be done soon, because with each passing hour, Andre found his mind becoming increasingly fly-like. “Mind says strange things,” as he typed to Helene. Of course, we know already how this is going to turn out; Helene would have no reason to crush Andre’s head in a piece of industrial machinery if that head were human, now would she?
The trouble is that Charras doesn’t believe Helene’s story. He thinks it only proves that she’s insane after all, and he wastes no time securing a warrant for her arrest. It seems that Helene’s fate now hinges on François finding the fly with Andre’s head. I’m betting you’ve seen, or have at least heard about, the scene in which he does just that, the famous “Help me!” scene. Philippe spots the fly in a spider’s web in the garden, leading up to a delightfully twisted sequence that has François and Charras staring in horror as the spider moves in for the kill, the human-headed fly squeaking for help over and over again until Charas crushes web, spider, and fly with a nearby rock. The fact that the spider looks like an evil muppet just makes the scene even better.
The importance of this movie from a B-horror fan’s perspective ought to be fairly obvious. But The Fly is also significant for the development of cinematic science fiction as a whole. This is the first movie that I know of that makes use of the idea that, if matter can be converted into energy as in nuclear fission and fusion, it should also be possible to convert energy into matter, or even to convert matter into energy and back. This is exactly the same principle that “Star Trek” would later adopt for its more famous teleportation device, the matter transporter. I have to wonder how many people in the late 50’s got their first exposure to this particular concept of sub-atomic physics from The Fly, and what percentage of those who did dismissed Andre’s explanation of how his machine works as pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo along the lines of The Amazing Colossal Man’s Amazing Unicellular Heart. I’d also be interested to learn the extent to which the idea of relativity-derived teleportation had penetrated literary science fiction by 1958; if I knew that, I would know for sure just how visionary this movie really was. In any event, it’s a lot more sophisticated than you might expect from a flick that concerns a man who one day finds himself the proud owner of a fly’s head.