#TBT Classic Movie: The Fly – the original one!

Is it science fiction? Is it horror? We’ve got a monster, we’ve got Vincent Price, both of which suggest the latter. I’m writing this on a sci-fi blog though, so obviously I’m comfortable calling The Fly sci-fi, but with a horror angle. Kinda like Frankenstein, with it’s questions of the relationship between science and what it means to be human, and whether there are things that we are best off leaving unexamined.

I vaguely remember the Jeff Goldblum remake from the 1980’s, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen the original film. The movie starts as a murder mystery – a woman, Helene, calls her brother-in-law, Francois, to report that she has murdered her husband, Andre. Francois (Vincent Price) and the police inspector meet at the family’s factory, where they find a body, with the head and arm crushed in a machine press. The wife’s story is flimsy, but she basically knows how the death happened. In examining the factory, the police inspector finds evidence of experimentation, and asks Francois if Andre did any experimentation with animals or . . . insects. Naturally, Francois replies that Andre wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Helene, bedridden for her nervous condition, breaks down when the nurse swats a fly in the bedroom; when his nephew asks over dinner about the lifespan of flies, and mentions the fly his mother was looking for, Francios decides to investigate on his own. With only a little pressure, and assurance that Francois has the fly, Helene goes into flashback.

Andre was working on a matter transference machine; he works out the glitches with inanimate objects, but manages to lose the family cat in the ether when he spontaneously decides to experiment (this film was probably not PETA-approved). Andre shows Helene a working experiment with a guinea pig, and admits to losing the cat; she makes him promise not to experiment further on animals (Helene may be PETA-approved). Andre is excited about the prospects of progress, while Helene takes a more cautious view; still they decide it is time to show Francois the invention. Andre fails to appear; coincidentally, their son has caught the most interesting fly he ever caught, with a white head and a funny leg.

The thing about classics is their themes quickly become clichés, and we all know how this one turned out: Andre tried to transport himself, and a fly was in the machine with him, leaving Andre with a bug head and arm, and the fly with a white head and funny leg. Andre shows an impressive acting range using one knock for “yes,” and two knocks for “no”; Helene’s interactions with him are heart-wrenching. I’ve never thought much about how hard it must be to catch one particular fly, especially alive, but the film is a showcase of the family’s struggle. Unfortunately, Andre is falling into despair and madness, and is determined to end it all – with Helene’s help.

Still, at Helene’s insistence, Andre attempts going through the machine again, to see if his “atoms” will get sorted out – and when he emerges, Helene removes his hood . . . to find that he is still the horrifying fly. Helene screams and faints, Andre smashes all of the equipment, eliminating any chance he would have to reverse the process even if the fly was found. There is nothing to do but end Andre’s miserable existence.

Of course, the inspector does not believe the story, and is going to have Helene arrested – until he and Francois find the fly about to be eaten by a spider, now evolved with a human head and arm. The inspector kills the fly and spider, and Francois reasons that it is as much murder to kill a fly with a human head as it is to kill a human with a fly head. The two quickly develop a likely story of Andre’s suicide, and two minutes later, everyone lives happily ever after. Yep, it really is wrapped up that quickly and neatly.

Like I said, classics often end up becoming cliché, and that’s a sign of respect. The special effects, the human/fly combos, definitely reflect the state of the art of the late 1950’s – which is to say, they look pretty funny. But while my summary makes it sound like a B-movie cheese-fest, The Fly actually features some pretty compelling storytelling and plot development (for a story about a guy who accidentally combines his atoms with those of a fly). For most scenes, Andre wears a hood after his unfortunate accident, leaving the audience to imagine what’s underneath – and making the revelation all the more shocking, even if it is expected.

This was the first time I’ve seen any of The Fly movies in its entirety – I haven’t seen any of the sequels or remakes, other than a few minutes here and there flipping through channels. This doesn’t make me want to watch any of them – the remakes appear more focused on updating the special effects, and the original movie doesn’t leave an opening for a sequel. But as a self-contained story, The Fly is a classic well worth your time.

I’m planning to be on the road for the next week, so no promise of updates until after Labor Day – but I may try to check in if I come across anything interesting.  Stay safe until next time, my friends.

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