Wednesday 17 June 2015

The Fly [1958]

THE FLY is an American horror film that was directed by Kurt Neumann for 20th Century Fox and originally released in July 1958.  It stars Vincent Price, Patricia Owens, David Hedison and Herbert Marshall.  Price plays François Delambre, a man investigating the bizarre death of his scientist brother Andre, seemingly at the hands of Andre’s wife Helene.

I will readily admit that prior to seeing this film for the first time a few days ago I had it pegged as a ridiculous campy classic, inferior to its 1986 remake by David Cronenberg.  I based that assumption on a few production stills showing ropey special effects and the presence of Vincent Price.  Now I’m a big fan of Vincent Price, who was probably the most versatile of all the great horror stars, but it has to be said that he did deliver several campy performances.

Herbert Marshall (L) as Inspector Charas and Vincent Price (R) as François Delambre

However, I’m happy to say that Price is here in one of his subdued, good guy roles and that the film is a sober and moving tale of a essentially decent man pushing back the boundaries of science one step too far.  Yes there are one or two moments that don’t work, especially one right at the last minute, but that is judging the film by today’s standards rather than in the context of its own time.  In actual fact the photography and visual effects are exceptional and look great in HD; the rubbery effects not so much but still passable.

The five stages of the teleportation process, beautifully designed and shot.

All that is in contrast, deliberately so I expect, to the plush soft furnishings of the Delambre household to a degree which recalls the middle-class cosiness of the families in Douglas Sirk’s films.  As in Sirk, the happiness is only surface-deep for Helene Delambre is neglected by her husband and coveted by her brother-in-law.  Andre is obsessively driven in his work and for all his genuine love for his wife it is displaced by his love for his work.  This flaw is what brings about his downfall, Shakespeare style.

The happy family in their happy home

The film has an arresting opening in which a man’s body is found crushed beneath a massive industrial press, completely obliterating his head and left arm.  A woman is witnessed fleeing the scene.  Initial investigations lead to Helene Delambre and then in flashback she relates how her husband met his fate.  That set-up reminded me of how a lot of film noirs are structured: a protagonist whose guilt is established from the outset – for the murder of a partner – who then recalls how he / she came to be there with a return to the present for the final determination of his / her fate.  It’s an indication that the film has aims beyond those of a typical horror film: to intrigue, to eschew moralising, to sympathise.

Unable to speak and struggling to think, Andre types heartbreaking messages to Helene

The body discovered at the beginning of the film

Some sci-fi and horror films, particularly in the 1950s, point the finger of blame at science itself for the horrors on display; witness the innumerable films whereby the monster is created through scientific experimentation, usually with radiation.  These films often show that it is left to the military to resolve the mess science has created by blasting the monster into oblivion.  Occasionally  science is less to blame than rogue scientists pushing the envelope too far, which is basically the same conservative, anti-intellectual position.  This second accusation is one of which it could be argued that THE FLY is guilty.  Andre Delambre is guilty of pushing the envelope too far, albeit with the best of intentions, and also of hubris  However, he is also shown to be a fundamentally good man who is on the cusp of a discovery so fantastic that it would change human life forever.  So I’d be inclined to exclude this film from those films which are characterised by a hostility to science and knowledge.

Vincent Price is of course one of the six great horror stars along with Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, John Carradine, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.  With Lee’s passing in June 2015 all are now dead and a chapter has been closed.  We’re currently in something of a boom time for horror film production: they are so plentiful that it’s almost impossible to keep up.  There are multiple franchises of which I have seen few instalments and in some cases none, including SAW, FINAL DESTINATION, WRONG TURN, RESIDENT EVIL and so on ad infinitum.  Unfortunately a lot of these films are chock full of bland teenagers and so proper iconic stars aren’t developing.  The only ones I can think off the top of my head are Jeffrey Combs and possibly Robert Englund.  There are of course minor icons such as Michael Berryman and Barbara Crampton but it’s a stretch to describe them as lead actors.  Sadly I think the era of classically-trained actors becoming movie stars is over, period, not just in horror, where it’s even less likely – perhaps because the gothic horror films which the aforementioned six stars made have fallen out of favour.

David Hedison as Andre Delambre

Of the rest of the cast of THE FLY it’s worth mentioning David Hedison, here credited as Al Hedison.  He’s one of very few actors I can think of who made a number of screen appearance before changing their name (excluding Italian actors who did so for English-speaking markets).  Indeed he is top-billed in THE FLY above Vincent Price.  Generally speaking, in the 30s and 40s contracted stars changed their name before their career had begun and it’s unusual to find one who did so after it had begun.  Anyway David / Al Hedison is most familiar as Felix Leiter, James Bond’s CIA oppo, in a couple of those movies.  He has a slick appearance which has played well on TV where he has done most of his work.

Patricia Owens as Helene Delambre

Patricia Owens is not an actress with whom I’m familiar; this is to date the only film of hers which I’ve seen.  She’s good though and a quick scan of her filmography demonstrates that she got some good parts – including as second billing to Brando in SAYONARA [1957] – in the early part of her career.  There are also a couple of entries which could make an appearance on Cinema Delirium in the future, such as GHOST SHIP [1952] and Richard Donner’s sci-fi film X-15 [1961].  Coincidentally Owens is in FIVE GATES TO HELL [1959] which was the directing debut of novelist James Clavell who wrote the script for THE FLY.

Karl Struss at work.  NB This image comes from the excellent website  Apologies for pinching it.
The superb Cinemascope photography is by Karl Struss who had been in the film industry since its infancy: he’d had a 40-year career by the time he worked on THE FLY.  He had worked on the original silent BEN-HUR [1925], Murnau’s SUNRISE [1929], for D. W. Griffith on ABRAHAM LINCOLN [1930] and on Rouben Mamoulian’s DR JEKYLL & MR HYDE [1932].  So a grade A cinematographer then and he was apparently also someone who was always at the forefront when it came to new camera technology and was particularly interested in 3D photography.  For reasons I haven’t been able to determine, in the late 40s he increasingly worked on far less prestigious films: his penultimate picture was THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE [1959] for Roy Del Ruth.  Del Ruth directed the original pre-Code version of THE MALTESE FALCON [1932] about which you will be able to read on Cinema Delirium in the near future.

Helene's reaction to seeing her husband's transformation

Director Kurt Neumann was a German ex-pat who had a long career making B-pictures for various studios, including several of the Johnny Weissmuller (and one Lex Barker) era Tarzan pictures for RKO.  Those films were always on television in the UK during the summer holidays and as such I remember them very fondly.  The Buster Crabbe serials were also often shown so kids like me in those days had what was virtually a Saturday morning picture house bill.  That’s a phenomenon which has totally disappeared from television here and indeed it’s unthinkable that kids would watch such stuff now.

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