Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Movie Review: The Fly (1958)

 There seems to be a kind of cardinal sin in horror film fandom, and that is to disparage a film that is considered a classic.  It is as if any film made in a particular era with the correct combinations or writers, directors, and actors should automatically be considered above reproach.  This simply isn't the way I think... if a film is bad, then it is bad. I do strive to place the film in context with the time it was made, especially with regard to special effects and socio-political limitations on acceptability.  Still, if a film is bad, then there isn't much more than can be said for it.

 I recently watched and reviewed the 1986 remake of The Fly directed by David Cronenberg, a film that is superb even when considered relative to more modern films.  It was inspired by the 1958 original, which "starred" Vincent Price.  I say "starred", because Price played what I would consider a supporting role in this film.  I hadn't seen the original in years, and since I was reviewing the remake, I thought I might revisit the original.

 The remake and the original both share in common the same basic concept; a scientist develops a teleportation device and during a test run is fused on a molecular-genetic level with a common housefly.  That is where the similarities end.  The film opens a janitor in a factory (apparently in France) being alerted by the sound of a machine press in operation.  When he goes to inspect the machine he finds a woman operating the press, which has been ran a second time.  The woman runs off, and the janitor discovers a grisly mess in the press that appears to be the remains of a man.  

 Francois Delambre (Price) is a private investigator and brother of Andre, a scientist.  Andre's wife, Helene, calls Francois to confess to murdering his brother.  Francois considers the call a prank being played on him by his brother and sister-in-law, only to receive a second call from Inspector Charas informing him that a body has been found which appears to be his brother and that his sister-in-law was spotted at the scene of the crime.

 Initially, when confronted about the incident, Helene confesses to the crime while refusing to provide any details or motive.  She does, however, appear to be uncharacteristically happy about the death of her husband.  Francois has been carrying a torch for Helene for years, and tries to provide an alibi by stating that Helene could not possibly know how to operate the press, but when questioned by the Inspector she describes its operation perfectly. The press itself was set at nearly its highest setting and pressure, so it is confusing as to why the press had to be operated twice.  Furthermore, Helene and her household seem obsessed with locating a fly with a white head.  Her young son, Phillipe, continues the search while being unaware of his mother's crime.

 Francois, desperate to get Helene to talk, lies to his sister-in-law about having found the fly with the white head, and insists that she tell him and the Inspector what happened in order to be given the insect.  The remainder of the film is her account of the events that lead to her husband's demise.  He developed a teleportation device, and though he was a bit obsessive about working out the kinks (at one point he teleports the family cat only to have it fail to materialize with only a ghostly meow echoing through the lab to suggest it had been lost in space), he still is a loving husband and attentive father.  Eventually he decides it is time to attempt to teleport himself and a fly accidentally makes the trip with him, resulting in Andre emerging from the device with a fly's head and leg for a hand.

 Initially, the audience is not shown the accident or its result.  Andre locks himself away in his lab and refuses to come out.  When his wife makes her way into the lab, Andre keeps his head covered with a black cloth.  He is unable to speak, and instead writes his wife notes about his needs; mainly that they must retrieve the fly with the white head.  Andre believes that if he is teleported with the fly again, the mistake will be corrected.  His short notes to his wife become ever more concise and sloppy as he feels himself losing control of the emerging fly within, a monster with apparently violent tendencies.  Andre begins contemplating suicide. 

 Helene insists that he try going through the teleporter without the fly to try to correct the mistake, but when she removes the cloth from his head after the attempt she discovers the horrible truth.  The fly looks at her through its multiple-lensed eyes as she passes out from fright.  Andre feels the creature he is becoming will harm his family if he does not do something soon, and in a fit of desperation and rage he destroys his lab and his notes, making any hope of reversing the accident vanish.  He and Helene go to the factory where he sets the press and places himself under it.  When Helene gets too close, the Fly reaches out for her from under the lowering press and nearly takes her with him.  Helene then places the fly-legged hand under the press and activates it again, obscuring any evidence of the incident.

 All that remains is to find the fly with the human head and hand.

 The Inspector does not believe her story, and explains to Francois that unless the fly can be found he will arrest Helene and charge her with the murder of her husband.  The next day, Francois sits out in the garden, awaiting the Inspector and the ambulance coming to collect Helene.  While sitting on a garden bench, the fly with the white head is trapped in a nearby web, and it calls out "help me!" in a tiny, squeaky voice which Francois does not notice.  The police go to make there arrest when Phillipe arrives, and Francois takes him away from the seen so he does not have to see his mother being arrested.  Phillipe tells his uncle that he has seen the fly in a web in the garden by the bench, and Francois rushes to get the Inspector to come find the fly.  When the two reach the web, they witness the fly being approached by a spider.  In what is probably the creepiest scene in the film, the fly is shown close-up, its human face crying out in horror just before the spider consumes him.  The Inspector smashes both the spider and the fly with a stone, and agrees that Helene is innocent.

 This film, frankly, could have been better.

 First of all, the death of Andre should have been saved until the near end of the film.  We know the creature's fate even after it is revealed, and we know Helene is never in any real danger.  Second, the film spend the first two-thirds of its time establishing the characters.  Nothing really happens until the last 20 or so minutes of the film, and even then we see so little of the creature that it is difficult to emphasize with the struggle of the man within.  The acting is top-notch, in particular when compared to the standards of the time.  The film's flaw is in its writing.  If the film is about the struggle of a woman to save the man she loves, then the majority of the film should focus on that struggle; the accident should happen early on and the psychological impact on both the husband and wife (and possibly the brother-in-law) should be explored.  Instead, you sit through an hour of what is fairly boring story waiting for the climax. 

 Worth seeing if only to say you have.

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