Kurt Neumann’s 1958 classic The Fly is about the most atypical monster movie you may ever find from the ‘50s (or just the era in general). Forgoing most of the aspects you’d expect to find in a monster film, such as a heavy bodycount, lots of handsome protagonists out to save the day or heck, even a “rampage” sequence… The Fly is much better off being regarded simply as a tragedy with science fiction trappings.
Helene Delambre (Patricia Owens) has just murdered her husband, Andre (David Hedison), in a hydraulic press at the family’s electronics plant. Andre’s brother, Francois (Vincent Price), cannot fathom why such a happy and devoted wife would murder his brother, nor can he fathom why she seems so obsessed with tracking down a mysterious housefly with a strange “white head”. Police Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall) isn’t buying the insanity plea and sits Helene down for a nice chat. Helene proceeds to spin a yarn involving her husband, his disintegrator/integrator device, a common housefly and a very, very bad mistake.
The Fly is a horror movie, there’s no two ways about that, but what you really have to ask after seeing it is… is it a *monster* movie? Yeah, it has a monster in it, but he’s so unlike every other monster you encounter in these sorts of films; bearing little resemblance in behavior to the popular monsters of the ‘50s which were often cast from the Universal mould. There’s a mystique about him (as he spends most of his appearance wearing a black shroud over his head) and a definite sense of dread, but he never attacks anybody or rampages across the countryside or, well, does anything wrong. He’s just a poor guy who got his noggin swapped with an insect’s and now has to seek assisted suicide from his wife. The sequel, Return of the Fly, would make the monster into something more akin to the average grotesque villain, but in this original installment he’s about as threatening as a leukemia patient.
And that’s one of the things that makes The Fly such a brilliant and unusual chapter in the subgenre. The suspense delivered throughout the movie isn’t so much derived from fear that, “Oh no, the Fly is going to go on a rampage and kill everybody”, but more-so in that, “Oh no, what if they can’t cure him? I hope everything turns out okay!” It flips everything audiences would anticipate from a ‘50s monster movie on its head, making for an experience with far more emotional impact and stronger characters.
Filmed in color and in Cinemascope, The Fly is a very pretty-looking movie for its day. While the width of the Cinemascope doesn’t really add a whole heck of a lot outside of allowing the audience a fuller view of Andre Delambre’s dungeonous laboratory, the color really does improve the picture. The opening scene involves the night watchman at the factory finding the gruesome remains of Andre dangling from the hydraulic press, and that first splash of bright red blood really catches you off-guard, exciting the senses more than some dark grey Bosco brand chocolate syrup would’ve done (no offense, Hitchcock). The big reveal of the Fly’s hideous countenance also takes a lot from the color, particularly the shiny green eyes that stand out against the nasty black fur.
Our limited cast of players is mostly likeable, which goes a long way in making this such a tragic film, as there aren’t any characters in the movie to hate. Vincent Price’s performance is, unfortunately, limited to a supporting capacity as he exists mostly to elicit the story from his sister-in-law and beg the police not to cart her off to the loony bin. David Hedison portrays such a friendly and loving husband-father that you really do feel sorry for the guy when he blunders and screws himself over. During the middle of the film, the big conflict is to find the housefly with his tiny head on it so that he can restore himself, which tragically they fail to manage until after he dies (I’m sure you’re all well-acquainted with the infamous “Help me!” scene). Patricia Owens plays an all-around likeable wife who seems to be the only one to get something of a happy ending by the film’s conclusion (narrowly escaping a straight-jacket).
If The Fly has any downside, I’d say that it’s a bit of a claustrophobic movie. Just about the entire thing takes place inside the Delambre house, very seldom stepping outside to their backyard or across the street to the factory. Like I said, this was a movie that benefits little from the Cinemascope treatment and at ninety-four minutes, being cooped up inside that house can start to give the audience cabin fever. If I had any other complaint, it’s that Charles Herbert (who plays Andre’s son, Phillippe) isn’t the best child actor you’ll ever encounter, delivering his lines pretty awkwardly and phonetically, but he’s a fairly nonintrusive character.
The 1986 remake of The Fly by David Cronenberg would take the “tragedy” angle to new heights and has become the more popular version of the film. But while Cronenberg’s version may or may not be an objectively “better” movie, the two films really only share a similarity between basic concepts and set pieces. Even if all you’ve ever seen is the Cronenberg version, I’d still recommend taking a look at the original. It’s far from your typical monster flick and a breath of fresh air within the subgenre.
Also, in the ‘80s we were THIS close to getting an official Transformers action figure of the Fly. What could have been…
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