Saturday, October 12, 2019

Stubs - The Fly

The Fly (1958) Starring Al Hedison, Patricia Owens, Vincent Price, Herbert Marshall Directed by Kurt Neumann. Screenplay by James Clavell Based on the short story "The Fly" by George Langelaan in Playboy (Jun 1957). Produced by Kurt Neumann. Run Time: 94 minutes USA Color Horror, Science Fiction

One of the more memorable science fiction horror films from the 1950s has its roots in World War II espionage. Paris-born British writer George Langelaan was an intelligence agent during the War and agreed to undergo extensive plastic surgery that would render him unrecognizable.  Channeling the motif of transformation, Langelaan wrote his 1957 short story, the tale of a French scientist experimenting with matter disintegration and reintegration who winds up atomically fused with a common housefly - with tragic results for man and insect. After being published in Playboy magazine in June 1957, the story came to the attention of executives at 20th Century Fox.

Originally, the film was going to be produced by Robert Lippert for Regal Pictures, one of the studio’s subsidiaries. However, Lippert had a bad reputation for not paying residuals to actors, which had him in conflict with the Screen Actor’s Guild. Feeling that might be a problem, 20th Century gave the film to Kurt Neumann. Neumann was well-known to Fox having previously directed   Kronos (1957) and She Devil (1957), both tales of good science gone bad.

To adapt the short story, Neumann hired James Clavell, who had previously sold a screenplay to RKO, Far Alert, also based on his wartime experiences. His adaptation is supposedly very faithful to the short story, though he moved the story from France to Canada and gave the story a happier ending.

Michael Rennie was the first choice for the lead role, however, he didn’t cotton to the idea of having his face covered through part of the film. Neither did second choice Rick Jason. Al Hedison, later David Hedison, was a relative unknown at the time he was cast as André Delambre.

The film was shot in 18 days during March and April 1958, using Fox’s CinemaScope. The budget was somewhere between $325,000 and $495,000. The film was released on July 16, 1958 opening at 124 theaters in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake City and Denver and opening in other theaters later. The initial theatrical release of the film would eventually be about $3 million.

Gaston, the night watchman (Torben Meyer) finds this in the press room at the factory.

The story opens, at night, outside the DeLambre Frère Electronics Factory in Montreal. Gaston, the night watchman (Torben Meyer), hears strange noises from inside the factory’s press room. When he investigates, he sees a woman standing at the press, her clothes bloodied. She runs off, leaving Gaston to discover the body of a man, his head and left hand crushed beyond recognition, in the press. There is lots of blood everywhere.

François DeLambre (Vincent Price) gets a call from his sister-in-law Hélène (Patricia Owens).

At home, in his smoking jacket, François DeLambre (Vincent Price) receives a phone call from an excited, Hélène (Patricia Owens), his sister-in-law and the woman we’ve seen running from the press. She tells him that she’s killed his brother Andre (Al Hedison) and asks him to call the police. But before he can, Gaston from the plant also calls to inform him of the murder, though Gaston doesn’t know the identity of the victim.

Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall) agrees to meet François at the factory.

François calls the club and asks if Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall) is still there.  The phone is brought to Charas who is in the middle of a game with another member. While they are not old friends, Charas remembers him and agrees to meet François at the factory.

When the jaws of the press are raised, they find Andre's body with its head and arm crushed. He is only identifiable by a large scar on his leg that he apparently got in the war. François is baffled as to how Hélène would know how to operate the complicated piece of machinery.\

Charas and François go to see Hélène at the house, which we later learn bumps up against the factory. They are greeted by the family physician, Dr. Ejoute (Eugene Borden), who tells them that Hélène is in a state of euphoric relief. They find Hélène seated calmly in the living room. She admits that she killed her husband but refuses to say why. She does, however, become very distracted by a fly buzzing in the room.

Charas asked to see Andre’s laboratory, which he must know exists. Down in the lab, François is shocked that the equipment is in shambles.

Believing Hélène may be insane, the doctor confines her to bed, and François assumes guardianship of her son Philippe,(Charles Herbert). There is even a scene, later, of the two of them having dinner with François cutting wine with water before giving it to the young boy.

Charas, however, believes Hélène is sane and informs François that he intends to ask for an arrest warrant the following day.

François watches Philippe,(Charles Herbert) while his mother recovers.

At dinner that night, Philippe mentions that his mother was desperately searching for a fly with a white head and a strange leg.

Later, that night, François comes by the house, telling the police-hired Nurse Anderson (Betty Lou Gerson) that Charas knows he was coming over. In private, he questions Hélène about the fly. She thinks that has it and begs him for it. Instead, he threatens to turn it over to the inspector unless she tells him the truth about his brother's death.

After François promises Hélène that he will kill the fly, she asks him to summon the inspector, so she doesn’t have to tell the story twice. With Charas there, we go into an extended flashback.

Hélène then recalls a happier time, several months earlier when Andre excitedly showed her his new research project based on the disintegration and reintegration of atoms (what Star Trek would call teleporting).

Andre (Al Hedison) shows his wife his experiment down in the lab.

He shows her a plate they had been given as a wedding present and sends it from one transponder to another in a different part of the lab. Hélène is quite impressed but notices that the words MADE IN JAPAN, were now backwards on the bottom of the plate. This was an unexpected result and Andre tinkers with the equipment some more, having better success with a newspaper, which comes out readable after transformation.

Thinking he's solved the problem, Andre experiments on the family cat.

Thinking he’s solved the problem he puts the family cat through the process. The dish of milk comes through but not the cat, which becomes a disembodied meow. More tinkering and recalculations are required.

Andre goes back and tinkers more on his equipment.

Two weeks later, he demonstrates with a guinea pig, which reappears in fine shape. Hélène makes her husband promise not to experiment with animals and he agrees. He wants to wait a month to see if the guinea pig has any side-effects and Hélène volunteers to watch after her.

Hélène and Andre share a happy moment before things go bad.

A month later, the guinea pig shows no ill-effects and François is invited to lunch. However, when Hélène and François go down to the laboratory, there is a note from Andre saying he can’t sup with them, which turns out to be acceptable behavior from the near-genius Andre.

Not knowing the importance, Hélène has Phillipe release an odd white-headed fly he captures.
Later, Philippe shows his mother a fly with a white head that he trapped, and she makes him release it.

When the housemaid, Emma (Kathleen Freeman) returns with Andre’s uneaten dinner tray, Hélène goes down to the lab to check on her husband. Andre slips her a note under the door, detailing that he has had a serious accident and is unable to speak, and asking her to bring him a bowl of milk laced with rum.

She hurriedly returns with the milk and finds another note waiting for her. This one informs her that she can come into the room, room on the condition that she does not look at him. She finds him with a black cloth over his head. He gives her a note to look for a fly with a white head in the other part of the lab while under the cloth, he drinks the milk.

Helene can come into the lab as long as she doesn't look at her husband.

She can’t find the fly but tells him that Philippe set the fly free, and when Andre reaches out in frustration, she sees a fly tentacle extending from his sleeve where his arm should be. Hélène runs out of the room but still promises to find the fly.

The next morning, Andre hands Hélène a new note explaining that he had successfully transformed himself once and upon a second try, unknown to him, a fly entered the disintegration chamber with him and their atoms became entangled. If the fly cannot be found, Andre writes, he will be doomed to life as an insect and will kill himself.

Hélène immediately sends Philippe and Emma on a quest for the fly. They do find it, but after they trap it in the living room, it slips through a crack in the window and escapes.

We see Hélène's reaction to her husband's new look.

When she tells Andre this, he types Hélène a note, insisting that all must be destroyed, including himself. Hélène begs him to try the disintegration chamber one last time, and Andre humors her. After the process is completed, Hélène, assured everything will be all-right pulls off the cloth and finds a giant fly's head staring at her. When she faints, Andre tenderly picks her up and caresses her face, but his claw begins to twitch uncontrollably.

In his fly form, Andre breaks hie equipment and burns his notes.

Andre senses that his humanity will soon be overcome by the fly atoms goes about the lab and smashes his equipment, burns his notes and then motions for Hélène to follow him to the factory.

Andre writes on last note to his wife before the fly takes over his humanity.

There in the press room, he puts his head between the jaws of the press and gestures for her to close it. But Hélène has second thoughts and tries to pull him out. However, he pushes her away. When she sees that his fly tentacle arm is still visible, she puts it back into the press and crushes him again.

Hélène operates the press at the factory.

Back in current time, Charas does not believe her story and informs François that he intends to arrest her for murder. He would only believe the story if he could see this white-headed fly.

Charas tells François that he doesn't believe her story.

The next day, as François resignedly waits in the garden for the police to arrive, a fly with a white head trapped in a spider's web squeaks "help me" at him, but he cannot hear the tiny voice over what sound like church bells.

Waiting for the police to arrive  François can't hear anything over the peal of church bells.

Charas with attendants from the asylum arrive to take Hélène away. At that time, Philippe tells François that he saw the strange fly in the garden, caught in a spider’s web.  Charas goes along to humor François.

Philuppe shows François and Charas the white-headed fly in the spider's web.

However, when they get there, François and Charas see a fly with Andre's head grafted on. The fly continues to call out “help me” but the spider keeps moving in for the kill. Just as the spider is about to devour the fly when the Charas crushes both insects with a rock. Now convinced of Hélène's story, the inspector declares Andre's death a suicide.

The fly has Andre's head and is about to be devoured by the spider.
Sometime later, François explains to Philippe that his father died in the search for truth.

François tells Philippe that his father died in search of the truth.

This is one of those horror films were less is more. We don’t see much in the way of special effects, save for some moments when Andre has a fly’s head and when we see the white-headed fly have Andre’s face. Of the two, the Andre with a fly’s head works better than the latte one. While the “help me” is memorable the special effect is sort of clunky and, save for camp value, has not aged well.

A couple of notes about these effects. When Andre has a fly’s head, a rubber sheath was fitted over the actor’s head with a mobile proboscis attached to a wooden plug which Hedison held in his mouth and wriggled. Hedison was apparently never happy with the makeup, but makeup artist Ben Nye would claim, "I never did anything as sophisticated or original as The Fly".

For that last “help me” scene, actor Vincent Price would later recall "We were playing this kind of philosophical scene, and every time that little voice [of the fly] would say ‘Help me! Help me!’ we would just scream with laughter. It was terrible. It took us about 20 takes to finally get it".

The film would be one of those that would link Price forever to horror films. What began with his appearance in House of Wax (1953) would continue on with The Fly, House on Haunted Hill (1959), Return of the Fly (1959), The Tingler (1959), The Bat (1959), House of Usher (1960), Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), Tower of London (1962) and on and on. Price had been a very versatile actor, previously playing in a variety of genres, including film noir, drama, mystery, thriller, and comedy. There is a still a subtlety to his role of François.

Herbert Marshall, best remembered for roles in Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932), Alfred Hitchcock's Murder! (1930) and Foreign Correspondent (1940), William Wyler's The Letter (1940) and The Little Foxes (1941), Albert Lewin's The Moon and Sixpence (1942), Edmund Goulding's The Razor's Edge (1946), brings a certain dignity to the role of Police Inspector Charas.

Al Hedison, would later call himself David Hedison, and is probably best remembered for his role in Irwin Allen’s TV show, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. He would also appear as CIA agent Felix Leiter in two James Bond films, Live and Let Die (1973) and Licence to Kill (1989). The Fly was only his second film and he gives a good performance as Andre, though a good part of his screen time is spent with that rubber mask and/or black cloth over his head and with him having no lines of dialogue. Still, he makes for a non-stereotypical mad scientist.

Her appearance in The Fly would be the high-water mark in the career of Patricia Owens, even though she would appear in 40 films during her career. Owens carries much of the film's narrative and she in many ways would be considered the star of the film. She gives a good performance but there is nothing as memorable in the rest of her body of work.

I usually don’t talk much about child actors but I did want to point out that Charles Herbert’s performance as Philippe doesn’t grate on you the way some actors his age can. He’s not trying too hard to be cute or precocious and it pays off here.

The film was successful enough to not only to produce two less than memorable sequels, Return of the Fly (See Entry), and Curse of the Fly (1965) but a remake. David Cronenberg directed the Fox remake of The Fly (1986) starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. That film’s box-office success would lead to its own sequel The Fly II (1989) with Eric Stoltz and directed by Chris Walas.

If you’re looking for the sort of over the top horror that the Cronenberg film is known for, then you will be sorely disappointed with the original film. This was made for a general audience and relies less on horror and gore and more on the murder mystery side of the story. I saw Cronenberg’s film when it was first released and am happy to say that I prefer the original’s drama to his gorier remake. Cronenberg’s film also is The Fly in name only as that film’s story ventures far away from what the original short story was about.

More of what we think of as a Hollywood studio film, The Fly is long on story and short on the reliance of special effects. I wouldn’t say it was a perfect film but I would recommend it to anyone who likes story over spectacle. Special effects may have improved but the original’s story is better.

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