THE FLY is one of those films you’re probably familiar with if you’re a horror/sci-fi fan. I’ve seen it many times, but was under the impression it was a black & white movie (probably due to early viewings as a young’un, deprived of color TV). So when I rewatched it again in glorious Technicolor, I was pleasantly surprised. This tale of science gone wrong has held up well, and its iconic scene of The Fly’s unmasking still manages to jolt the viewer (even if you know it’s coming!).
The film’s framing device finds us witnessing Helene Delombre murdering her husband Andre by squishing his head and arm under a huge hydraulic press (and it’s a pretty gruesome demise), then calling her brother-in-law Francois to tell him. Francois is stunned, to say the least, and gets ahold of his friend Inspector Charas. They drive over to the Delombre Freres (the movie’s set in Montreal) factory, where they discover the grisly scene. Francois is only able to identify what’s left of Andre by the scar on his left leg.
Helene calmly confesses to the murder, but refuses to say why she did it. Francois and Charas go down to Andre’s lab hoping to find some clues, only to discover the place has been totally trashed. Helene, meanwhile, is oddly attracted to a housefly, and becomes hysterical when a nurse swats it. Son Philippe tells Uncle Francois about a funny looking fly with a white head and leg that appeared when “daddy went away”, and the brother-in-law lies to Helene that he has it. Relieved, Helene finally tells Francois and Charas the whole shocking story…
Andre had been conducting experiments in molecular disintegration/reintegration, able to “transport matter at the speed of light”. The experiments worked fine with inanimate objects, but when he tries it on the family cat, the feline’s atoms scatter into the stratosphere. Undaunted, Andre makes some adjustments and tries it on himself. But there’s a fly in the ointment, literally: a common housefly enters the molecular chamber with him, causing a disruption that gives him the insect’s head and arm, and vice-versa!
Andre can only communicate through written notes, and pleads with Helene to find the white-headed fly, so he can try to reverse the process. Her attempts prove fruitless, causing Andre greater frustration. Now comes the scene where Helene unmasks the hooded Andre, reminiscent of the scene in 1925’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. We watch in horror as Helene recoils at the sight of her husband, and we also get a fly’s-eye view of her terror:
Losing his grip on sanity, Andre goes berserk, smashing up his lab equipment. Realizing there’s no hope, and fearful of what he’s become, Andre asks Helene to assist him in committing suicide. They go to the warehouse the press is located in, and Helene does the job, where the film began.
Francois then admits he doesn’t have the fly, and Charas, thinking her story preposterous, books her on a murder charge. She freaks out in terror, begging them to find the fly. Charas says she’ll probably be declared insane, while Francois holds out hope in finding the fly and exonerating her. As the ambulance arrives to cart Helene away, Philippe tells his uncle the funny-looking fly is trapped in a spider’s web. The men run over to it and find the insect, with Andre’s head and arm, screaming “HELP ME! HELP ME!” as the arachnid is about to chow down on him. Charas, in shock and horror, smashes it with a rock to put it out of its misery. He realizes he’s now as much of a murderer as Helene, and the two concoct a story claiming Andre’s death to be a suicide, freeing Helene and shielding the world from the dark secret of Andre Delombre.
The cast does a terrific job of keeping the fantastic tale believable, including Al Hedison as the doomed Andre. Hedison would soon change his name to David and gain fame as the Seaview’s Captain Crane on TV’s VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA. The movie really revolves around Patricia Owens as Helene, a 20th Century Fox contract player known mainly for this and 1957’s SAYONARA. Vincent Price gives a restrained performance as Andre, unlike his usual scenery-chewing horror roles, and is quite effective. Herbert Marshall (Inspector Charas) was a veteran character actor who played in classic films like Hitchcock’s FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, THE LETTER, and ANGEL FACE ; his genre credits include RIDERS TO THE STARS and GOG. Child star Charles Herbert (Philippe) is familiar to horror/sci-fi fans for COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK, 13 GHOSTS, and the TWILIGHT ZONE episode “I Sing Thee The Body Electric”, based on Ray Bradbury’s short story. Familiar Faces include Kathleen Freeman and Torbin Meyer, and yes, that’s Queen of the Hollywood Extras Bess Flowers sitting in the balcony with Andre and Helene at the ballet.
Kurt Neumann was one of those directors who’d been around Hollywood for years without ever cracking the big time; THE FLY is probably his best known work. Screenwriter James Clavell was responsible for THE GREAT ESCAPE, KING RAT, and TO SIR WITH LOVE before publishing the mega-popular novel SHOGUN, made even more popular when it became a TV miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain and Toshiro Mifune. L.B. Abbott’s special effects are great, featuring some cool futuristic lab equipment. Kudos also goes to the sound department, adding to the film’s creepy atmosphere.
THE FLY is a bona fide horror classic, and produced two sequels (RETURN OF THE FLY with Price again and CURSE OF THE FLY). It was also remade by David Cronenberg in 1986 as an AIDS allegorical tale, one of the few instances where the remake is as good as the original. Those of you who haven’t seen 1958’s THE FLY (is there anyone who hasn’t?) should add it to your Halloween viewing list. Those who have… well, you already know!!