Friday, May 27, 2011

FI: The Fly (1958)

The Fly
US, 1958
Directed by Kurt Neumann

(I am posting this piece two days ahead of schedule in honor of Vincent Price's centennial. Price is one of my all-time favorite classic stars, and what better way to celebrate him than by reviewing one of his more widely-known films?)

If you've never seen this version of The Fly, or if it's been a long time, you might be surprised at how patient and slow-moving the film can be. It is one of those old-fashioned sci-fi pictures, one that uses its primary creature not as a frequent device but rather in much the same way a chess master uses her/his queen: a threat, looming in the background until deployed with great force and precision.

The Fly unfolds largely through a flashback within a frame story. We open with a puzzle: scientist Andre Delambre (David Hedison) is dead, crushed by a hydraulic press. His wife Helene (Patricia Owens) readily admits to killing him, but won't tell Inspector Chabras (Herbert Marshall) why she did it. Andre's brother Francois (Vincent Price) notices Helene's obsession over a peculiar white-headed fly, and uses this to extract the full tale of Andre's experiment-gone-awry, the telling of which makes up the bulk of the film. In some ways, it's your 1950's-standard cautionary tale of playing too fast and loose with science, but the central love story and genuine goodness of the central characters, coupled with the film's complex morality, distinguishes The Fly from some of its contemporaries.

Neumann and scriptwriter James Clavell seem fully aware that screen tension is better maintained by what we don't see than by what we do. They also know that dread is more dreadful when we're emotionally invested in the characters, and in this they are aided by fine performances all around, especially from Price—who, for once, doesn't play a villain or rogue, but rather a sympathetic, sensitive fellow. The Fly also looks better than most of the other sci-fi/horror flicks of its day, thanks to Karl Struss's gorgeous, full-color Cinemascope photography. Has it dated? I'd like you to show me a movie from 1958 that hasn't. The film still works perfectly well, and remains an engrossing classic of its genre that even today's fickle audiences should be able to appreciate.

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