Fear and suspicion of new technology is, for the most part, a healthy, natural response to a changing world. The amount of suspicion generated in response to a scientific or technological breakthrough though is often wholly independent from how dangerous the breakthrough is. This is why, in my lifetime, there have been about as large a panic about video games as there was about warplanes in my great grandfather’s. Popular history has a tendency to remember the sensible fears, while forgetting the ones that turn out to be ridiculous. Case in point with today’s movie, everyone in the Western world knows that the start of the Cold War was riddled with fears of atomic annihilation, but who thinks about the hand wringing over new forms of rapid transportation?
In the 1950s two great revolutions transformed how Americans travel: Affordable air travel and the interstate High Way system. The first was a product of the last war, in the process of building hundreds of thousands of war-planes, the Americans had gotten rather efficient at the process. The second was a product of the next, coming war. Eisenhower originally approved the national High Way system in part for its ability to rapidly deploy troops in the event of an invasion. Make no mistake: Though these innovations are now regarded as annoying but considerably better than the alternative, they inspired a certain terror in the stodgier conservatives of the mid-50s. Case in point, our film today. The Fly takes these fears and dials them up past any reasonably point. Careless use of ever accelerating modes of transportation in the film turns human beings into sub-human abominations.
We begin with what is perhaps the most gruesome scene in all of fifties horror: a night watchman at an industrial plant discovers a body crushed beyond all recognition in a pneumatic press. Blood is splattered across the press, leaping out at the viewer’s eye in Technicolor. The remnants of the man are heaped alongside the machine in a broken, bloody pile. On the whole there will be very little violence in the Fly, making this scene all the more striking and horrible. As soon as the watchman arrives he sees a woman flee from the scene, who he recognizes as Helene Delambre, the sister-in-law of the plant’s owner, Francois Delambre, and the wife of his brother Andre Delambre, its chief scientist. The watchman phones Francois at once, who calls a police inspector he’s acquainted with to ensure that his sister-in-law gets the best treatment his social standing can provide. Inspector Charas quickly identify the victim as Andre.
The crime is a baffling one. The pneumatic press is a painfully slow contraption, giving any potential victim ample time to slip away. So, there’s no way that this could be a simple homicide. However, the stroke count on the machine is set to two, and the watchman testifies to hearing the press come down twice. There’s no way it could be suicide, because there is no way that the victim could have activated the machine a second time. Even supposing that the count was off, suicide still seems unlikely: If Andre wanted to kill himself why did he use such a clumsy method, and why did he involve his wife in the affair? Helene’s confession to the murder of her husband doesn’t clear anything up because she refuses to give any motive for the crime. The police place Helene under a sort of psychiatric house arrest, sending a nurse/gaoler to watch over her until their investigation is complete. The odd part is that Helene seems sane enough aside from the inexplicable murder of her husband, at least until her nurse tries to swat an ordinary housefly in her presence and triggers a major freak-out.
Francois isn’t anymore satisfied with Helene’s story than the police are. Since he’s looking after Helene and Andre’s son, Filipe, for the duration, he has access to information the police don’t. Filipe mentions that his mother was trying desperately to find a fly for a few days before Andre’s death. Not just any fly mind you, a peculiar looking one with a white head a single white leg. Figuring that this mysterious fly is somehow tied up in all the strange goings on, Francois lies to Helene and tells her that he’s found it and is keeping it locked up in his desk drawer. Helene pleads with him to destroy the bug immediately, but Francois refuses to do anything until Helene has explained to him what is going on. Reluctantly Helene agrees, and the film washes out in what has to be the goofiest flashback blur I’ve seen outside a cartoon.
For weeks before his murder/suicide/whatever the hell it was the happened, Andre was toiling away in his basement laboratory on his latest invention: a teleporter. The machine works like a TV transmitter, breaking down a subject in one teleporter pod and reassembling them exactly, atom by atom, in the other. The development process was not without its road bumps; chief among them was the loss of the family cat after Andre made the ill-considered decision to use it as a guinea pig. Andre was obsessed with his work to a degree that bordered on unhealthy; he spent days on end alone in the lab often taking his meals down there. He seldom slept, and he found himself thinking about his work around the clock. In one memorable scene the audience sees him scribbling calculations on a playbill while he and Helene are attending the ballet. All the same, his family life seems healthy enough. Francois reports to inspector Charas that Helene and Andre were very happy, and nothing in the flashback indicates any marital problems. It seems like Andre is inclined to work frantically on a project for a few weeks at a time and then return to lounging about in aristocratic leisure.
Everything is going well, until one night after being alone in the lab for a longer than usual period he summons Helene with a typed note slipped under the laboratory door. The note asks that Helene, and only Helene not Emma their housekeeper, bring him a bowl of milk laced with rum. Helene accommodates the bizarre request. She finds Andre in the basement, wearing a sheet over his head and with one arm constantly tucked into the pocket of his trench coat. Andre explains through a typed message that he has lost the ability to speak, and orders her to find and capture a peculiar fly with a white head and arm as soon as she is able to. You see, Andre had been using himself as the first human test subject for the teleporter (seemingly all cinematic mad scientists are endowed with courage that borders on suicidal). Unfortunately he didn’t check the pod carefully, and a fly got in there with him. The teleporter wasn’t sure how to reassemble the two creatures so it spliced them together. Now Andre is sporting the army and head of the fly, while the fly is buzzing about with Andre’s head and arm. The way Andre sees it, his only chance is to go through the teleporter again with the spliced fly and hope that their genes are untangled.
Unfortunately the fly escaped and is roaming about somewhere in the gardens. Over the next couple of days, Helene, having conscripted Filipe and Emma as her assistants, discovers just how difficult it is to catch one particular fly in the middle of summer. She’s willing to keep looking as long as it takes, but Andre has other opinions on the matter. You see, gradually Andre the man is losing control to fly parts that have been spliced into his body. Already he can barely control the fly arm, which spasms and jerks uncontrollably in a fashion that closely resembled the compulsive NAZI salutes of Dr. Strangelove. Andre’s loss of control is not at all humorous however. He fears that once the fly takes control over him he will become a danger to his wife, son, and any other person unlucky enough to be near him. It’s this, more than anything else that motivates Andre to destroy the prototypes of his teleporter and burn all his research notes, before he asks his wife to assist in his suicide. After the accident he has concluded, rashly but not unreasonably, that the machine is too dangerous to let loose on mankind. In order to hide his secret he has to kill himself in such a fashion that nobody what had become of him after the accident, which means crushing the fly head and arm in the pneumatic press. Helene isn’t crazy about the plan but she agrees after a momentary lapse of control causes the fly to attack her.
Naturally, neither Francois nor Inspector Charas believes a word of Helene’s story. It’s too fanciful, and all the corroborating evidence, save for the white-headed fly, has been destroyed. Both men agree that Helene is crazy, but while Francois is content to leave her in protective custody, Charas is obligated by his profession to charge her with murder and have her committed to a mental asylum. Francois pleads with him, asking if there isn’t some way that he can prove his sister-in-law’s innocent? Charas explains that only the fly with Andre’s arm and head would suffice. Fortunately for Helene and Francois, Filipe has found that exact fly, trapped in a spider’s web in the garden. Francois rushes out there with the inspector, who comes along grudgingly mostly to humor Francois, who despite his present embarrassment is still one of the richest men in the province. Charas is shocked to discover the semi-human monster trapped in the web, pleading in a haunting, high-pitched voice for someone to ‘Help me! Help me!’ The scene is so disgusting that Charas’ response to it, picking up the nearest rock and crushing the spider and fly beyond all recognition, is a wholly understandable one. Convinced that nobody will believe either their or Helene’s story, Charas and Francois concoct a cover story where Andre killed himself alone and Francois simply forgot to reset the stroke count on the pneumatic press.
The Fly serves as a great illustration of the era’s ambiguous feelings about scientific progress. On one hand, the movie wastes no time in extolling the possibilities of the new technology. The teleporter could make waste and famine things of the past, it could make mass transportation across worlds economically feasible. Helene, who is initially frightened by the device, is soothed by the reminder that all new technologies were scary when they were first invented. Before his accident Andre is depicted as an eccentric, but hardly a dangerous one. He is prone to overwork and obsession but never to a point which endangers his safety or his relationship with his family. All the same, Andre’s punishment for recklessly pursuing a line of scientific discovery is as great as anything imposed on the mad scientists of the 30s and 40s. The movie does not even render a judgment on whether Andre made the right decision to destroy his research and equipment after deciding to kill himself. The promise of the technology has not diminished, and even if no living beings could be safely sent through the teleporter the device still has the ability to save millions of lives a year and make Francois billions in revenue.
Even at the end Andre is not denounced, Francois describes him as an explorer in a dangerous country, whose intentions were pure but died because he made a single mistake. This ambiguous treatment of the mad scientist is illustrative of the West’s changing feelings about scientists and scientific progress. On one hand, scientists were held up as paragons of rationality, whose insights would steer us through the dark ages of nationalism. You can see examples of these heroic scientists scatter throughout the decade’s sci-fi films. On the other hand, the rapid change of society brought about by individually harmless technologies (TVs, interstate highways, affordable air travel to name a few) was alarming for many people. Worse still, mixed in with the harmless conveniences were a few technologies that threatened far more than established routines (The hydrogen bomb and the ICBM chief among them). The average person in the 50s was unwilling to denounce all the conveniences that technology had wrought, but nor were they willing to accept these gifts uncritically.
As a horror film The Fly packs more punch than you would expect from any movie made in 1958 and produced by a major studio. In my review so far I have mentioned two scenes in particular, the image of Andre’s crushed body at the beginning of the film and the fly trapped in the spider’s web at the end. However, there are a few other images that stick-out in my recollection. When Andre, still wearing the sheet over his head, bends down over the bowl of milk his wife has brought him and begins to noisily drink. The sickening sounds give the viewer a chance to imagine all sorts of grotesque images, which even this film would be unable to show. When Andre’s mutated Fly-face is revealed it’s something of a let down. The rubber mask is certainly not the worst (or even close to the worst) I have ever seen, but it lacks a the level of grotesqueness needed to put it on par with the film’s most striking images and scenes. All the same The Fly is an excellent showcase of the best parts of 1950s horror, both on the intellectual level and the visceral one. I would say it’s a shame that such a lovely movie has been so completely overshadowed by it’s remake; though in this case it can hardly be regretted as David Cronenberg’s The Fly is one of the all-time greatest horror/sci-fi movies.