The Fly is not, as I'd incorrectly assumed, a black and white movie starring Vincent Price as a scientist-turned-fly-headed-monster, but a sci-fi horror tragedy, in Technicolor Cinemascope, with Price in a background role as the brother of the scientist, played by Al Hedison. I love it when a movie goes completely against my expectations, and The Fly was not the movie I assumed it was.
I'm much more familiar with David Cronenberg's version of the film. The 1986 version is one of my favorite films of all-time -- a conceptually disturbing science-fiction gross-out, fueled by an honest-to-goodness love story. Is the original so different? Not really, except for the gross-out part. Hedison isn't puking on his food or saving his body parts in a medicine cabinet, but the narrative is still fueled by a tragic love story, and the disturbing concepts are just as strong in the 1958 film as they are in the remake.
Does the film's structure work?
The film opens with Helen Delambre, played by Patricia Owens, fleeing from a crime scene where her husband has been crushed to death by a hydraulic press. The press is owned by her brother-in-law Francois (Price), and he's the first person she calls before confessing to the murder of her own husband. While the investigators put together the details of the grisly crime scene, she's kept under house arrest, obsessing over an unusual white-headed fly that no one can find.
Francois lies to Helen, telling her he has the fly, so that she'll reveal the details leading up to the murder. The body of the film is told in an extended flashback, to happier days between Helen and her scientist husband Andre, as he attempts to create a teleportation device.
Note Vincent Price's patient, compassionate reaction to Helen's initial phone call. It's a great character moment as it establishes that Helen is deeply loved and trusted by Francois. Because he trusts her, we trust her too. We're interested in her story immediately, in a way that we might not be if the film played out chronologically.
It probably comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the story that Andre ends up having an accident with the "disintegrator integrator" -- an accident that turns him into a human fly. When we first see him he's dead, then we get to know him as a scientist and a loving husband through Helen's backstory. After the accident, and for a good portion of Andre's screen time, he's shrouded with a black cloth over his head.
So, we know the movie's called The Fly, we know Andre's head was crushed like a grape right before the movie begins, and, yet, we don't get a big monster reveal into well over an hour into the movie? Talk about building suspense! The scenes with the shrouded Andre communicating with Helen via typewriter are among the film's most compelling. Not only are they heartbreaking, every scene makes you salivate for the big scene when Andre's cloth is removed. When it finally comes, it's no disappointment. We're so invested in Andre and Helen by this time, that you completely buy into the horror of their situation -- regardless of what's under the shroud.
Should Francois and Inspector Charas have let the fly live?
After Helen wraps up her story, and the police are ready to carry her away, her son Phillipe alerts Francois to the white-headed fly his mother's been talking about. It's in the garden, caught in a spider's web. Francois and Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall) race to the scene to find a truly horrifying sight -- Andre's head and arm fused to the body of a common housefly. The hairless Andre twitches and screams as the spider approaches, leading Charas, in an impulse move, to smash both of the bugs to death with a nearby rock.
What could Charas have done differently? Tenderly plucked the Andrefly from the web, re-uniting him with his wife? It strikes me that Charas' intent was to blot out the nightmare vision of Andre as a human-insect hybrid, not necessarily to kill Andre. The men can't believe what they are seeing, and Charas simply acts out of instinct, not realizing the ramifications of his actions until immediately afterward.
Francois accuses him of murder, but it's probably something closer to euthanasia. Was Andre pleading for help because he wanted to be saved from the spider, or was he pleading for a quick death, in the same manner that the other, more human Andrefly asked Helen to assist him in executing?
1958 Versus 1986 -- Which is the better version of The Fly?
I'm pleased to report that both Fly films are different enough to completely stand on their own six legs. Cronenberg's has more special effects razzle-dazzle, but Neumann's has a more complex story. As a matter of fact, Neumann's The Fly feels remarkably modern for a fifty-year old film, particularly when compared to the other sci-fi horror films of this time period. He gets good, convincing performances from the entire cast -- quite a feat with such strange material -- and, when it's time for the film to deliver one last creep-out -- Andre on the web -- it delivers in spades.
I don't think one is "better" than the other; I'm just happy that I discovered another really great movie.