Kurt Neumann’s 1958 science-fiction film The Fly has finally had its day on Blu-Ray, in a new release from 20th Century Fox. How very pretty it looks.
The Fly differs markedly from many other science-fiction/horror films of its ilk. Scientist Andre Delambre (David (Al) Hedison) is far from the typical mad scientist we’re used to seeing in stories like Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Andre’s greatest desire is to do good, not evil; his inventions are by way of helping the world rather than a simple desire to aggrandize himself. He’s trying to do humanity a service, and part of the film’s horror is in how little he deserves what happens to him.
The film begins almost at the end of the story. Andre is dead, crushed by a hydraulic press in his own factory, his head and arms obliterated beyond recognition. His wife Helene (Patricia Owens) is the culprit; she even phones her brother-in-law Francois (Vincent Price) to tell him that she’s murdered her husband. As Francois and the police inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall) investigate the crime, they discover some odd discrepancies. Helene does not know how to operate the hydraulic press, or so Francois says, and Andre and Helene seemed to have had a happy, loving marriage. Helene, moreover, appears relieved that her husband is dead. She also has a fixation on finding a certain white-headed fly, begging her brother-in-law to help her. She’s convinced that she’s done nothing wrong in murdering her husband. Passionately in love with her and desperate to save her from execution, Francois convinces Helene to tell him the whole story. It is this flashback that occupies the majority of the film.
The framing structure means that we primarily see the events through Helene’s eyes, and so we only have Helene’s word for what happened. Andre’s workshop has been destroyed and his notes burnt, killing any evidence of the truth in Helene’s story. Helene’s potential madness colors our view of the film: is she telling the truth as it happened, or is this all a formation of a diseased mind?
According to Helene, Andre succeeded in inventing a teleportation machine that breaks down matter and reconstitutes it in another machine. He shares his discovery with his wife, claiming that he has found a solution not only to basic travel, but to poverty and hunger (surpluses can be sent worldwide immediately, aid can be sent to needy nations). In fact, Andre does not even seem aware of the dangers of his machine, or the potentiality to use it for evil. In his eyes, he has created a machine that will do great service to humanity.
But Andre makes a mistake; testing the machine on himself, he accidentally melds his atom with those of a bluebottle fly. The transformation is never shown on the screen – Helene learns of it initially through typewritten notes from Andre. He can no longer speak and when we next see him his head is covered by a black cloth. The poetry of The Fly lies in putting off the final revelation of Andre’s monstrous transformation. He attempts to conceal himself from Helene, telling her to find the fly with a white head so that he can be reconstituted as his proper self. But the fly part of him begins to take over. When his transformation is revealed – to Helene as to the audience – the full horror of what has happened comes home via some pretty remarkable practical effects. Andre makes overtures of violence, his human hand caressing the face of his wife as his fly hand reaches towards her. It is this potential violence, the combination of man and atavistic insect, that horrifies Andre and drives him to beg his wife to kill him.
Just what would happen if Andre continued to live – if he would transform fully into a ‘fly-man’ – is never made clear. But the film’s implication is that what remains of Andre is rapidly being absorbed by the fly. Like Helene, the audience remains on Andre’s side. His transformation is the result of a small mistake with disastrous consequences. Here there is no moral high-ground and no lesson to be learned, despite a slightly tacked on moral at the very end. Andre is not a man brought low by his desire to play God, but a man who, as Francois later says, dared to be an explorer and killed himself as a result.
Unlike David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of the film, this version of The Fly does not spend any time on the slow transformation of Andre and his final death, but rather on his quick and pathetic decline, his sacrifice for his family, and most importantly his wife’s love, so powerful that it extends to putting him out of his misery. The next to final scene, when the truth of Helene’s story reveals itself to Charas and Francois, is horrible because it is so pathetic. Never have the words ‘Help me!’ carried such terrible power.
The most pleasurable aspect of this edition of The Fly is the exceptional color. The film was originally shot in CinemaScope and that element is impressively restored (as well as can be expected) for a television screen. The images pop, giving the full spectrum of color and light that previous DVDs simply could not. The clean lines and nuanced details seem far closer to what an original 35mm print of the film would have looked like.
The 4.0 DTS-HD Master Audio is slightly less impressive. Particularly in scenes with major music cues, the dialogue becomes slightly subsumed beneath the soundtrack. The ending of the film in particular suffers from a dip in audio quality, though this is likely a result of the original source and not a direct fault of balance on the disc.
Other features on this disc include:
- Commentary with Actor David Hedison and Film Historian David Del Valle
- Biography: Vincent Price
- Fly Trap: Catching A Classic
- Fox Movietone News
- Theatrical Trailer
For a Blu-Ray of a classical film, The Fly is very impressive. The Biography: Vincent Price feature seems a little tacked on – Price is really a secondary player in the film – but the commentary from Hedison, while a little talky, is informative both in terms of the film production and as an insight into the Hollywood of the time.
The images make the movie, and this Blu-Ray is a spectacular way to watch The Fly. While it shows its age in subject and the sometimes broad acting strokes of the main cast, it’s an enjoyable slice of horror cinema, a chance to see Vincent Price in a rare sympathetic role, and a full testament to just how good older films can be.
The Fly is a horror classic for a reason, and this disc reveals why.