On the occasion of Kurt Neumann’s 103rd birthday, we revisit this article written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.
Originally published in the June 1957 issue of Playboy (then an outlet for outstanding short fiction by the likes of Charles Beaumont, Ray Bradbury, and Richard Matheson), George Langelaan’s “The Fly” won the magazine’s Best Fiction Award, and the rights were immediately acquired by Twentieth Century-Fox. The story was faithfully adapted by first-time screenwriter James Clavell, later the author of the bestsellers Shogun and Tai-Pan.
Producer-director Neumann (1908-1958) had considerable experience in Hollywood, but very little in the SF genre, although he is notorious for his low-budget quickie Rocketship X-M (1950), which he also wrote. Rushed into production to cash in on the publicity surrounding Destination Moon (1950), it beat producer George Pal’s more serious film into theaters by several months.
Fox financed and released the low-budget output from Robert L. Lippert’s Regal Films, including Neumann’s previous black-and-white genre efforts, She Devil and Kronos (both 1957). But The Fly was given the full studio treatment, with lush color cinematography by Karl Struss, who shared an Oscar for Sunrise (1927) and was nominated for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931).
Leading man Al Hedison would soon be better known as David Hedison, under which name he starred for several seasons opposite Richard Basehart on Irwin Allen‘s evergreen 1960s SF series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Hedison also has the distinction of being the first actor to play James Bond’s CIA pal, Felix Leiter, twice, in Live and Let Die (1973) and License to Kill (1989).
Third-billed Vincent Price already had one classic horror role under his belt, in House of Wax (1953), and soon came to dominate the genre for decades to come, most notably in a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations in the ‘60s. (Blessed with a self-deprecating sense of humor, he liked to relate the story of an overeager fan who mistook him for the title character in The Fly.)
The film starts as Helene Delambre (lovely Patricia Owens) summons her brother-in-law, François (Price), and admits to crushing her husband André (Hedison) in a hydraulic press—not once, but twice—yet won’t say why. After finding André’s lab wrecked, and hearing their son Philippe (Charles Herbert) refer to a “special” fly, François returns to Helene to elicit the truth.
André had rashly used himself as a guinea pig to test his experimental matter transmitter, unaware that a fly accompanied him into the disintegrator. When he emerged in the reintegrator, he had the head and arm of an oversized fly, and vice-versa, although Neumann wisely maintains the suspense by keeping André’s altered appearance beneath a black hood for much of the film.
Passing notes from his locked lab to Helene, André explains that he has had an accident, and seeks a fly with a white head, not knowing that Philippe had already caught such a fly and been unwittingly made to release it by Helene. André tells her that his will is deteriorating in favor of the fly’s animal nature and, fearing for her safety, threatens to do away with himself.
Although her efforts to recapture the fly have failed, Helene persuades André to try going through the transmitter once more without it, and when he emerges, she optimistically yanks the hood from his head. Only then is the work of Fox’s makeup artist, Ben Nye, revealed in all its glory, while in an equally memorable shot, Helene is shown from the fly’s multiple perspective.
Wrecking his lab and burning his notes, André orders Helene to kill the fly, if found, and to obliterate the evidence of his transformation in the press; his arm falls out on the first attempt, so poor Helene must repeat the process. Not surprisingly, Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall) thinks she is insane, and arrests her…until Philippe summons Charas and François to the garden.
There, they find the fly trapped in a spider web, and Charas mercifully crushes it with a rock as the arachnid advances on its prey, which pitifully screams, “Help me!” This scene still provides a jolt in many a viewer, although Price and Marshall literally had to act it out back to back, as they found themselves completely unable to deliver their dialogue with straight faces.
Sadly, Neumann died in between the premiere and the general release of The Fly, which became one of Fox’s biggest hits for that year, and earned a Hugo nomination for Best Dramatic Presentation. Its success demanded an immediate sequel, although Return of the Fly (1959) was downgraded to a black-and-white Regal Films effort, written and directed by Edward L. Bernds.
In light of his decades-long association with the Three Stooges, Bernds may seem an odd choice to helm a sequel to The Fly. But his lengthy filmography does include the occasional, if undistinguished, SF film, such as World Without End (1956), Space Master X-7, the cult classic Queen of Outer Space (both 1958), and the Jules Verne adaptation Valley of the Dragons (1961).
After a reporter accosts Philippe at Helene’s funeral, this unearthing of family skeletons forces François to reveal the truth and show him André’s lab, which his nephew is determined to put back into use. Strangely enough, while Philippe is now an adult, played by Brett Halsey, the only returning cast member, Price, looks no older than the intervening year offscreen made him!
Hired as Philippe’s assistant, Dr. Alan Hinds (David Frankham) is revealed as a criminal, who plans to sell the secret of the transmitter to Max Berthold (Dan Seymour). When Detective Evans (Pat O’Hara) catches him microfilming the plans, Hinds knocks the ill-fated lawman out and puts him through the machine, where Evans gets recombined with a rat disintegrated earlier.
Hinds crushes the rat (which has human hands) with his shoe, sends the rat-clawed Evans over a cliff in a car trunk and, when confronted by his employer, repeats the process with a fly. This time, the story has a happier ending as the fly-headed Philippe manages to kill Hinds, who wounded François while making his getaway, and Berthold before “getting his head together.”
Unlike Hedison, who actually acted under the heavy makeup—little wonder that Michael Rennie, the distinguished star of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), declined the role—Halsey was relieved of that burden. A stuntman, circus giant Ed Wolff, sported Hal Lierley’s makeup in the sequel, which dramatically increased the size of Philippe’s fly head to gigantic proportions.
Although their relationship to André et al. is unclear, the matter-transmitting Delambres made one final appearance in Curse of the Fly (1965), directed in England by Don Sharp, whose work for Hammer Films included Kiss of the Vampire (1963). Here, the family is represented by Henri (Brian Donlevy) and his two sons, Martin (George Baker) and Albert (Michael Graham).
Harry Spalding’s complex script finds Martin, whose periodic bouts of aging are caused by inherited fly genes and controlled with a serum, marrying an escaped mental patient, Patricia Stanley (Carole Gray). But, like Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, he secretly has a wife already: the deformed Judith (Mary Manson), who is locked up with two other failed Delambre experiments.
With the interest of the police piqued by the passport problems inherent in transporting between England and Canada, Martin and Henri send those other “mistakes” through together, forcing Albert to dispose of the resulting blob. As the law closes in, Martin disintegrates Henri, not knowing that the disillusioned Albert has now smashed the reintegrator, and ages to death.
Langelaan’s idea was well served in a remake, The Fly (1986), with Jeff Goldblum as the ill-fated genius, Seth Brundle. Director David Cronenberg and co-writer Charles Edward Pogue offer a more plausible scenario, with the transmitter splicing Seth’s genes to those of the fly, and mine the inherent tragedy as his lover, Ronnie Quaife (Geena Davis, who utters the immortal line, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”), witnesses his degeneration.
Chris Walas, who created and designed Cronenberg’s Fly, directed a superfluous sequel (sans Cronenberg, Goldblum, or Davis), predictably titled The Fly II (1989). Ronnie dies giving birth to Seth’s son, and the mutated Martin (Eric Stoltz) is raised by an evil industrialist, but this second-generation fly also escapes his father’s fate in a happy ending, eventually curing himself.
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