Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Fly, 1958

I sort of loved this movie. It had its flaws, but was overall unexpectedly touching, even heartbreaking. Directed by Kurt Neumann in 1958, the movie was a huge hit, and spawned sequels and the famous remake in 1986 directed by David Cronenberg.

As for this version, I'll first focus on the things I liked, then look at--no, you can't make me say it, you can't oh stop please don't make me nuuhhhhhh--the flies in the ointment. I feel so dirty....

Things I loved:

Vincent Price as the doomed man-fly's brother, Francois Delambre. Similar to his role in The Last Man On Earth, Price for all his distinctly and charmingly supercilious tones and elegance plays an honest, desperate man with a believable warmth that grounds the movie. As much as I've always loved him, and given my predilection toward haughty sophisticates, I've never quite crushed on Vincent (possibly because he's been parodied ad nauseum), but this is the closest I've come to getting all infatuated with our dear Vince. There's something about these haughty sophisticates playing well against type that gets at me. It's very much why Gordon Zellaby in Village of the Damned remains my favorite George Sanders role.

Even if you're banking on a gimmick like a giant man-fly, your movie's ever only as likable as your characters. Which leads me to the next part of the movie I liked: the man-fly's wife Helene, played by the lovely and capable Patricia Owens.

Though brand me a skeptic if you must, I don't think she's a natural redhead.

What's a refreshing surprise, particularly for this genre, is that the majority of the screentime goes to Helene. We see the events through her eyes, her flashback. After an extended period in the present at the beginning of the movie, we witness what drove her to (durr, SPOILER) kill her husband with a gigantic metal press...dealy...thing (you know, that thing? It's metal and crushes things? You know, the thing!). 

Owens as Helene is not only likable, but sidesteps most of the usual tropes of the helpless heroine. Her lines are good and she has more sense than her husband the man-fly (okay, okay, his name is Andre and he's played by David Hedison who for some reason goes by Al Hedison in this). She's not afraid to frankly state she's nervous about her husband's new-fangled transporting invention, and that her darling might just be playing God a touch--though with the most benevolent intentions, of course. 

She's got a head on her shoulders and up until the end where she does that usual screaming and fainting business, she controls her emotions enough to try saving her husband, while still showing believable fear and franticness. 

What's especially moving about her character is another thing I loved about this movie: because Helene and Andre are established as a good, caring couple, without acting too sappy or trite, it makes his transformation and isolation in his lab all the more heartbreaking. I didn't expect to tear up at the end. But I did.

I was about undone at this scene, where he's losing his marbles to primitive fly instincts and scribbles furiously on the blackboard to his wife that he wants her to destroy him, but he can't resist one final message that I'm not ashamed to admit guts me:

Oh, man. And with his big ol' Dr. Strangelove fly-claw hidden away in his pocket so she doesn't have to see it...this shit is sad.

So, let's get our mind off it by nitpicking a few of the things that bugged me (this pun was unintentional and you can't prove otherwise don't judge me tools).

Remember how in my last post about child actors, I was all, "nothing's worse than watching an erudite, sophisticated man forced to succumb to the charms of a decidedly charmless child?" Yeah, well I got a huge dose of it here with Vincent Price acting the mushy uncle to little Charles Herbert's odious son of Mr. and Mrs. Man-Fly, Philippe. Luckily he's not in too many scenes, but he's far from endearing, and the ickiest wholesome lines are reserved for him. He basically ruins the ending of the movie, where he says, "Gee! I want to be an explorer just like my father!" Total cheesecake. Fitting for an Andy Hardy flick, not for scifi horror, thank you. However, it helps a little that when I looked up the plotline for the sequel, he does indeed follow his father's footsteps and becomes Man-Fly, Jr. Excellent.

Boy, I'm a bit of a curmudgeonly shit, aren't I? But the kid's just so blah. And the most American boy you could find, too, when the setting is in France.

Which leads to another thing that kind of got to me. The French setting. I mean, kudos, I guess, to sticking to author George Langelaan's original setting, but was it really necessary? I didn't notice the setting particularly effecting the events, which it doesn't have to, but it's still a little jarring. Because frankly, the kid's not the only one who seems so American--Owens, Hedison, and just the general vibe of the movie is very American.

And about that vibe: it's another thing that got to me. The whole direction and feel to the movie is very 1950s suburban Americana, and on one level it works in that the bland normality maybe hit home for Eisenhower American audiences that even nice, ordinary people like themselves can have terrible accidents like Andre. However, as much as I admired Owens' acting, the cheerful tone Neumann stuck to made her reactions at times unbelievable. Take that ending: she's been cleared of an insanity and murder charge, which is great and all, but as someone points out on the message board at IMDb, she's just so damn perky. The husband you adored is dead! You had to kill him! It was awful! You had to do it twice! His head! It was that of a fly's! You should be more traumatized, you doofus! I mean, thank you for not being a cringing damsel, but still! Show more of that emotional fragility from the really well done scene where you're trying to capture the fly with his head on it (seriously, that was a great sequence--very suspenseful and taut).

As for the big reveal where we see the fly head attached to the human body...well, let me put it this way. I've carped before about how there's too much CGI these days and not enough old-fashioned Jack Pierce makeup and so forth (probably haven't ranted too much about that here, but I have outloud in real life, where I also exist sometimes). But frankly, I wish I could take some of the improved special effects from today into the Way-Back Machine and improve the head, make it more realistic. I know I shouldn't demand too much from a low budget scifi film from the '50s, but I think they could have done better. The head really doesn't look like anything you couldn't get from a Halloween store, even back then. 

I feel like the scene where she first sees his feeler is creepier. And by "feeler" I mean his fly-tentacle-claw, not anything double-intendre-y, you creeps.

HOWEVER. They more than made up for that disappointing effect with the infamous "Help me! Heeeelllp meee" scene. True, the itty-bitty chipmunk voice was borderline ridiculous, but there's nothing not disturbing and traumatic about these images:



  1. I'll let the hair pass, but the lipstick...no.

    If you liked The Fly, you really should see "The Architects of Fear," an episode of The Outer Limits. It's roughly the same story (husband transforming into monster, wife is confused and frightened) and it's completely heartbreaking.

    I haven't really seen The Fly all the way through, but I'll definitely check it out, thanks to your recommendation.

  2. This may be the first time I've seen a still of Buzz Boy's head. Whooft! Is that really all there was to it?! Even as a fairly wimpy 9-year-old, I find it hard to believe it scared me as much as it did.

    Now that I think about it, though,it's quite possible I saw The Fly just before I got my first pair of (badly needed) glasses back in '58. The combination of a precociously morbid imagination, plus the Miracle of Blur-O-Vision must have combined to create something in my mind far more hideous than ol' bubble eyes up there.

    On the other hand...oh yeah. The spider web scene. Yeek. Kept me richly stocked in legitimately-delivered nightmares for weeks afterward.

    And ya gotta give Al/Dave props for his work in that minute or two, at least. No question, those ARE the eyes of a man who is about to be eaten by a goddamn venom-dripping monster ten times his size.

    Still have to quibble with the special effects, though. Why does he have human shoulders?

  3. Rachel, the lipstick, hair, and eyebrows could all be softened and naturalized, if you ask me. But hey, gotta dig that fluorescent vibe the technicolor gives them all!

    Y'know, I just recently saw my first Outer Limits episode and loved it. It was "The Sixth Finger," starring everyone's favorite U.N.C.L.Eite David McCullum and the adorable Jill Haworth. So I think I'll try and get the DVDs, especially if they do a Fly homage. Thanks for the tip!

    John, I'd still probably have been scared if I'd been a wee little nine-year-old. It's not really the effects that get you, but the suspenseful dread the scene builds when Owens takes off the cloth covering his head. And you're right about Al/Dave. I definitely should have given him more props for his performance. As the human Andre, he's certainly not as magnetic as Price, what with the comparatively thankless role of the idealistic, family man scientist. But yeah, dodgy shoulder effects or no, the most disturbing part of that spiderweb scene is his terrified face as the big eight-legged guy creeps toward him.