The Fly (1958)

© 20th Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.
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Released:  Friday, August 29, 1958  
Length:  94 minutes
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Genre: Horror
Rating: The Fly is not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America


Synopsis

Wealthy Helene Delambre (Patricia Owens) is discovered late at night in the factory owned by her husband Andre (David Hedison). Helene stands beside a huge metal press, which has crushed the head and arm of her husband. Held for murder, the near-catatonic Helene refuses to tell anyone—not even Andre's brother Francois (Vincent Price)—why she did it. Francois cannot help but notice that Helene reacts in mortal terror when a tiny flies zips through the room. Nor can he disregard the statement made by Helene's son Philippe (Charles Herbert) that the fly has a curious white head and leg. When Francois pretends that he's captured the fly, Helene relaxes enough to tell her story. It seems that Andre, a scientist, had been working on a matter transmitter, which he claimed could disintegrate matter, then reintegrate it elsewhere. After a few experiments, Andre tried the transmitter himself. Just as he stepped into the disintegration chamber, a fly also flew into the chamber. We aren't immediately shown the results of this, save for the fact that Andre afterward insists upon keeping his head and arm covered. Alone with her husband, Helene abruptly removes the covering, revealing that Andre now bears the head of a fly! His atoms have become mixed up with the fly, and now he is unable to reverse the procedure. Deciding that his transmitter will be a bogy rather than a blessing to mankind, Andre smashes the apparatus and burns his notes. He then instructs Helene, via body language, to crush his fly-like head and arm in the press. Neither Francois nor inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall) believe the story...until, while staring intently at a spider's web in the garden, they see a tiny entrapped fly with Andre's head and arm, tinnily screaming "Help me! Help me!" as the slavering spider approaches (If you're wondering why Vincent Price and Herbert Marshall do not look one another in the eye during this scene, it is because they couldn't deliver their dialogue without dissolving into laughter). Infinitely subtler than the admittedly excellent 1986 remake, the 1958 The Fly is one of the definitive big-budget horror films of its decade. Best bit: the prismatic "fly's eye view" of the screaming Patricia Owens. The Fly was adapted from George Langelaan's short story by James (Shogun) Clavell.

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The Fly Blu-ray Review


Horror films have often been the poor stepchildren of the film industry, relegated to B-movies or less than stellar production quality, including often less than A-list talent both in front of and behind the camera. Universal may have built much of its early empire on horror flicks like Frankenstein and Dracula, but at the time of those films' releases, neither Karloff nor Lugosi were confirmed box office stars, and the films themselves, while hugely successful, were hardly considered prestige releases. Universal itself consigned both of these characters to more and more B-films as the years rolled on, and other major studios, many of whom were loathe to tread into this supposedly questionable genre, often tended to do so only if their bottom lines were marginally affected, meaning much reduced budgets, lesser known casts, writers and directors, and quite frequently pretty schlocky end results. By the 1950s, Fox had started to imbue its few horror offerings with then popular science fiction subtexts, and so entries like Invaders from Mars, Kronos and She Devil started appearing. Arguably the best, and probably the glossiest, of these genre mash ups from 1950s' era Fox was 1958's The Fly, a film that was not really expected to do much business, despite a rather high budget and a CinemaScope framing, but which ended up being one of the year's box office standouts, and which went on to haunt any number of baby boomers' nightmares when it became regular television fodder in the 1960s and 1970s.

If you, your father or even your grandfather were among those who "only read Playboy for the articles", one of those might have been George Langelaan's short story "The Fly", which appeared in Hef's June 1957 issue. According to the great commentary included on this Blu-ray, the story was almost immediately optioned by Fox for film treatment, and perhaps rather incredibly James Clavell ( The Great Escape, Shogun) was hired to write the screenplay. Clavell has some serious issues to confront, including an unwieldy structure where the gist of the story was told in flashback and the suicide of the heroine while incarcerated in a mental institution.

Clavell wisely jettisoned the suicide angle, and only kept the threat of institutionalization as a motivating factor to get Helene Delambre (Patricia Owens) to spill the beans about why she, according to her own confession to her brother- in- law Francois (Vincent Price), killed her scientist husband (and Francois' brother) Andre (David Hedison, then still billed as Al Hedison). The Fly still has a rather unwieldy structure—at least by current day horror film standards—with a rather slowly unfolding tale that doesn't even get into the main flashback sequence until around the half hour mark.

Helene at that point launches into a story both for Francois and Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall), the policeman called to investigate the case. The flashback recounts the efforts of Andre to create a transporter device that can dissolve the atoms of objects and then reassemble in a new location (think "Beam me up, Scotty", though considerably more retro, this being 1958 and all). Andre starts with inanimate objects but soon graduates to animals, including the family cat, with at least some of his experiments not going exactly the way he had hoped. But when he is finally convinced that the technology is safe, he enlarges the units to two chambers resembling phone booths and decides to try transporting himself. Unfortunately a common house fly invades the chamber at the same time as Andre and the two species' atoms are interwoven, leaving David with the head and arm of a fly and the tiny fly receiving Andre's in return.

What may strike younger horror fans as odd about The Fly is how deliberately slow and measured it is. Even after the flashback begins at around the half hour mark, it's well over another half hour until the fly is revealed, and then what turns out to be the most disturbing image of the entire film doesn't come into play until the very closing moments. This is obviously a manifestly different technique than current day horror offerings, which tend to exploit big scares right out of the gate and then continue to offer (often manufactured) frights every few minutes for the rest of the films running time. The Fly may therefore strike some as weirdly "calm" for a putative horror outing, but that ignores the very palpable sense of dread which accrues once Andre initially refuses to let his wife or brother see him, and who upon relenting (to his wife, anyway) shrouds his head under a cloth and keeps his hand buried in his overcoat, Napoleon style.

The film is bolstered by some excellent performances. Both Price and Marshall bring a bit of old school gravitas to this outing (this was several years before Price became more fully associated with the horror genre). Hedison also does a really remarkable job in the last third or so of the film, where he's consigned to emoting only with his body, with his head completely hidden under a black cloth. But the film really belongs to Patricia Owens. Owens never really got her full due as an actress, despite having made scores of motion pictures and many television appearances. Though her role here is firmly in the "June Cleaver" mold of the perfect wife and mother, always clad in a stylish dress and usually with a string of pearls adorning her neck, she brings a very believable intensity to the part. Helene wavers back and forth between hysteria and determination, and Owens captures it all in one of the most winning performances in fifties horror.

The Fly is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.35:1. Fox has continually been one of the leaders in maintaining and restoring their deep catalog in high definition, and that trend continues with this largely impeccable presentation of a CinemaScope classic. It's a bit odd that Fox continues to license some of its pre-existing HD masters when it's obviously able to bring these titles out so well themselves, usually with some nice bonus features accompanying the main film as well. Just a cursory glance at the clips from The Fly included on the older Fly Trap supplemental feature shows just how nicely the elements have been spruced up for this release. The Fly's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 mix is similarly excellent, boasting at times really inventive separation and offering excellent fidelity and some surprisingly wide dynamic range. Dialogue is cleanly presented and is often quite directional, and the film's great foley effects and score are also represented very well. There are a number of fantastic little moments here, including the "disappearance" of the family cat, and, late in the film, that high frequency squeal for help that is unforgettable once it's been heard.

  • Commentary with Actor David Hedison and Film Historian David Del Valle. This is a fantastically charming and often quite funny commentary. Del Valle is "colorful" (as they say), bantering quite winningly with Hedison. Hedison has some great memories of the shoot, but rather interestingly, he talks about wanting to have the transformation take place in phases, somewhat similar to the Cronenberg remake.
  • Biography: Vincent Price is a typically fine Biography overview of the actor's life and career.
  • Fly Trap: Catching a Classic is a fun little piece concentrating on three "original" Fly movies. It's notable how brown and ugly the elements of The Fly appear in this featurette compared to the actual feature presentation on the Blu-ray.
  • Fox Movietone News recounts the premiere of the film in San Francisco, which featured several "guest monsters" (more than a few of them associated with Universal).
  • Theatrical Trailer
As David Del Valle mentions in the excellent commentary, he (as an 8 year old) went to The Fly expecting the "latest monster movie", and got something else entirely. The Fly may in fact strike some as too relentlessly low key to build much horror, and while it's true this isn't an overly bloody or gruesome affair, its mood is palpable and brooding sense of doom it creates, especially as things wend their way toward the devastating climax, is remarkable. This Blu-ray is yet another fantastic presentation of a catalog title by Fox, and it comes highly recommended.

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