With the fallout of the Manhattan Project and the ending of World War II, there was a lot of anxiety and fear over the power of an atomic bomb and radiation poisoning could wield over the planet. This fear and dread gave rise to a new genre of science fiction and horror films (ie the Atomic Age of Horror). One of the greatest B movie horror films that were produced during the 1950s was Kurt Neumann’s The Fly.
The Fly tells the tragic story of Helene (played exceptionally well by Patricia Owens) and Andre Delambre (David Hedison). Helene contacts her brother-in-law, Francois (Vincent Price), and informs him that she has killed Andre by crushing him in hydraulic press.
The tragedy of Helene and Andre is played out in an elaborate flashback (which is a majority of the film). Andre, a brilliant scientist, has experimented with matter transporting. His transporting of small animals and objects from one transport tube into the other has merited success. However, when he is confidant to experiment on humans, he is not met with the same luck. When a fly enters the tube with him, he is horribly disfigured. As such, he cloaks his face in a black cloth. The scene where Helene pulls the black cloth from Andre’s head, exposing a giant head of a fly, is one of the most famous scenes in horror film history.
So the question is: if Andre’s body has the head of a fly, then where is fly with the head of Andre?
Helene and Andre (his body anyway) deduce that the only way to return Andre to normal is to get the “fly with the white head” and place both in the tube to recreate the incident. Unfortunately, they are unable to find the other half of Andre. Andre’s desperation and despair lead him to a hydraulic press, where he decides to end his life.
The ending is dark and depressing. Andre, a scientist who “went too far” paid for his obsession with technology. We see the fear of technology that the atomic age of the 50s play out in this exceptional film. The mad scientist-playing God-storyline takes from Mary Shelley and does its own thing with it.
The Fly is able to pull off more drama and mystery than most sci-fi/horror films. When we see Helene at the beginning of the film, we notice her almost obsessive focus and attention to small flies. Before and after the flashback of the fate of Andre paints the talented actress’ portrayal of Helene as a stark raving madwoman. Yet, we forget all of that with the flashback story.
Vincent Price’s portrayal of Andre’s brother is strong as well. He is desperate to believe that Helene’s fantastic story is real, even though the police detective (played by Herbert Marshall) is obviously skeptical. This film’s actors do a great job portraying a wide range of emotions, which gives depth to a genre that has been marginalized for several decades. Patricia Owens carries a lot of the weight of the film. She plays off of the obsessive character of Andre and the sympathetic character of Francois quite well.
The cinematography of the film is quite strong. Neumann creates a vision for the “mad scientist” as a three dimensional character who is not necessarily self-aggrandizing, yet very obsessive. Unlike Victor Frankenstein, I can see Andre Delambre as an approachable gentleman who has a great love for his family; yet, it is his single-minded nature that causes his undoing.
The Fly is a screen gem that reminds us that there can be a social conscience in filmmaking. It takes a marginalized genre and breathes life into it, even after fifty-three years, and shows us just what a good film can do.