Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Fly (1958)

“I shall never forget that scream as long as I live.”

It’s a fitting quote to start a review of The Fly, 20th Century Fox’s popular science fiction thriller.  Though the ending has been parodied countless times in popular culture, and David Cronenberg’s modern re-imagining updates the science to a more believable level, it doesn’t diminish the power of the original.

The tale is simple.  Scientist Andre Delambre (Al Hedison, later David Hedison of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) invents a teleportation device.  But, when testing it on himself, a housefly is within the chamber as well, resulting in a horrific accident that leaves him struggling to both find a way to reverse the process and maintain his humanity.

And here we go into SPOILER TERRITORY.  Yeah, the film is over 50 years old and pop culture has taken the sting out of the ending.  But seriously, if you haven’t seen this film, go watch it.  It’s that good.

Before we get to the spoilers, a happier moment from the film

Let's get the most obvious problem out of the way.  Unlike the remake, where the machine splices the scientist’s DNA with that of the fly, Andre’s head and arm is exchanged with the insect.  While this brings up some problems for modern viewers, (like how Andre’s mind was left intact in the fly's head and why the fly head is enlarged, while Andre's is shrunken to fit the insect), one can forgive such a shortcoming by remembering the film is over 50 years old.  

And, as the creature's revel comes late in the film, the audience should be more interested in the story and the characters than the implausibility of the transformation.  The script (by James Clavell, based on George Langelaan’s short story) plays with the audience’s expectations by starting like a police procedural.  A night watchman witnesses Helene Delambre (Patricia Owens) crushing her husband's head and arm in an industrial press.  Contacting her brother-in-law Francois (Vincent Price), she confesses to the crime, stating it was Andre’s final wish.  

Only after playing on her desire to find a white-headed fly is Francois able to trick Helene into telling the full story.  But even then, he and Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall) are unable to believe her, as she and Andre destroyed any evidence to corroborate her story.  The film’s conclusion suggests that Helene is insane and will be locked in an asylum for the rest of her life, at least until Francois and Charas find the white headed fly.

Maybe you shouldn't see what's coming next, kid

The script allows the film to build at a measured pace, giving the audience time to relate to, and sympathize with the main characters.  The setbacks Andre experiences working on the device fleshing out both him and Helene, making their actions a realistic outcome of the situation, rather than one forced by the plot.

The cast is terrific.  Owens is saddled with the role of dutiful wife, dealing with her husband’s tendencies to work while in a box seat of the opera.  The part might feel outdated to a modern audience, but Owens is so convincing, it makes her final decision plausible and quite logical. 

Hedison is great as the driven scientist.  And though his performance as the creature might lack the pathos of Jeff Goldblum’s performance, remember that Hedison was conveying the same loss of humanity without the benefit of dialog.  Buried under an amazing mask by Bill Nye, his actions are perfect as he tries to keep control of his humanity and convince his wife of aiding him in his final act, to keep others from following his path.

You knew I'd show you the monster.  How can I resist?

The supporting cast, including Price (yes, he’s a minor character) is solid. Though they have little to do during the middle act of the film, both Price and Marshall are quite believable in their roles.  And, regardless of reports that the two couldn’t stop laughing while shooting the film’s climax, they pull off the ending quite well.

And the ending is still chilling.  Sure, it makes no sense that the white headed fly could cry out in a human voice.  Yet the sight of Andre’s head and arm on a fly ensnared in a spider’s web, about to be devoured, echoes deep into one’s primordial mind.  One can sense the fly’s fear, given humanity by its screams, “Help me!  HELP MEEEEEEEE,” that just gets under your skin.  If you have any sense of dread at a spider in your home, this final moment will chill you.

Oh, it's just so creepy

The sets are beautiful, as if Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory were redesigned in neon colors.  Though modern viewers might find the sets rather garish and unrealistic, one has to remember the time in which the film was made and how futuristic they would appear at the time, rather than dismiss the film for being outdated.  And the DVD I watched (a two sided double feature with both The Fly and Return of the Fly) looks great.

Regardless of how often it’s been referenced in popular culture, The Fly can still reach a modern audience, as long as they are more interested in a strong story rather than making snarky remarks at a fifty-year-old film.  Starting as a standard police procedural (at a rather gruesome crime scene for the time), the film descends into an age-old story of man exploring realms best left alone.  And the final act is a moment you will never forget as long as you live.

Well, that's all for now.  I have pressing matters to attend to....

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