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Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Fly

20th Century Fox put out one of the last great A-budget production sci-fi movies of the 1950s. (a few months later in 1958, Paramount's The Blob would be the last.) The Fly became one of the memorable classics of this golden decade. It was popular enough to spawn a sequel just a year later and a third installment in 1965. As proof of it's classic status, The Fly was remade in the 1980s. Shot in color, in CinemaScope, the tale had a richness and a seriousness to it, even though it shared much with the B-movie sci-fi culture of its day. This may be part of its lasting appeal. Having Vincent Price star as Francois was a definite plus.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The movie opens with the grisly death of Andre Delambre, his head and arm crushed in a hydraulic press. His wife, Helene confesses to the crime. Helene is obsessed with flies, particularly a white-headed fly. Andre's brother, Francois, lies and says he caught it. Thinking he knows the truth, Helene tells how it happened.
In flashback, Andre, Helene and their son, Philippe are a happy family. Andre has been working on a matter transporter device -- the disintegrator-integrator. It works, but not quite perfectly. He refines it, and eventually builds a man-sized pair of chambers. Helene is worried that Andre has not come up from the basement lab for a couple days. She goes down to investigate. Andre is there, but communicates with typed notes only. He lets her in, but has a black cloth over his head. He tried to transport himself, but a fly got into the chamber too. They mixed atoms. Now he has the head and arm of a fly, and the fly has the miniature head and arm of a man. He needs Helene to capture that fly so he can try to reverse the process. She searches, but cannot find it. His human will is fading and the fly's "essence" is taking over. Time has run out. He smashes the equipment, burns his notes. He takes Helene to the factory and sets the press. He motions for Helene to push the button. She does, and he is put out of his misery. The police, upon hearing this confession, deem her insane, but guilty of murder. As the police are hauling her away, Francois and the Inspector see a fly trapped in a web in the garden. It has the head and arm of a man. "Help me! Help me!" the tiny man-headed fly calls out. The spider attacks. The Inspector smashes both with a rock. No one would believe them, but he is, now, just as guilty as Helene. He and Francois backpedal the facts such that Andre committed suicide. Helene, Francois and little Philippe resume a normal life. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Seeing a classic, the ancestor of many, holds a certain awe. Even though we know how it ends, the pacing and tension are kept tight. The Fly is a great example of the story of a well-meaning scientist snared in his own research.

Cold War Angle
Other than vague allusions to Andre's work being of some military value, there's little Cold War analogy in The Fly. It's more of the older theme about the dangers of science.

Ancestor of Many -- The tale of The Fly was so strong that it warranted a sequel in 1959 Return of the Fly, in which son Philippe attempts to recreate his father's work with a similar disaster befalling him. In 1965, a second sequel was produced, Curse of the Fly, which brought Henri Delambre and his two sons back to the same flawed experiments, but with horrific results. As with many of the 50s' classics, The Fly was remade in 1986, following the then-current Hollywood patterns. The story was solid, but nearly lost in the special effects which sought to be as disgusting as possible. On a lighter note, in the Disney animated movie Emperor's New Groove (2000) there is one small scene in which a fly is trapped on web, calling out "Help me, Help meeee..." which only folks familiar with the original would understand. A fun subtle moment.

Close To Text -- Based on George Langelaan's 1957 short story, the screenplay for The Fly follows Langelaan's text very closely. Helene being in an asylum hadn't actually happened in the film, but was alluded to as her likely fate. Andre's son was named Henri, not Philippe, in the short story. A more significant deviation is the ending. Langelaan has Helene commit suicide in the asylum. Hollywood prefers more upbeat endings. The tale didn't suffer for it.

Fleeting Humanity -- Amid the horror and mystery elements is a theme of humanity and identity. Andre, as the fly-headed man, begins to lose control over himself. Presumably, he has a man's brain still within the fly head. Yet, as time goes on, the man inside is losing control. The insect arm begins to act on its own. Knowing that the fly-identity would subsume his humanity, Andre's last 'human' act was to destroy himself in order to spare others.

Transporters -- Andre's device was not the first sci-fi movie device for disintegrating and reintegrating matter, but the prior two were obscure. The Four Sided Triangle, a British sci-fi movie of late 1953, featured a similar notion, though it was used to duplicate matter rather than simply transport it. Roger Corman's Not of This Earth ('57) featured aliens with a matter transporter device which they used to send blood (and people) back to their home planet. Andre Delambre's device brought the 'technology' to the mainstream.

Refreshing Change -- With so many movies set in New York, Los Angeles or the desert southwest, having this movie set in Montreal, with many french names and an 18th century ornate home, the atmosphere is so different.

Bottom line? The Fly is one of those must-see movies of the 50s sci-fi experience. It is a classic.


Mike Scott said...

Another classic '50s sci-fi film that (briefly) uses a matter transporter is "Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century". :)


Nightowl said...

Hi Mike,
Got to my blog pretty quickly today. :-)

Yes, Duck Dodgers (1953) is in there too (and it's one of my favorite cartoons). I was limiting myself to "serious" ( or fairly serious, if you exclude Abbott & Costello going to Mars) sci-fi live-action movies.

Wonder if matter transporters appeared in any of the early serials. I don't recall any in Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers, but haven't seen every installment.