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On the occasion of Kurt Neumann’s 103rd birthday, we revisit this article written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website (revised with corrections, addenda, and additional links on July 29, 2017).

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 cheapie written and directed by Edward L. Bernds.

The sequel devolved onto Lippert’s outfit and—along with The Alligator People (1959), with which it was double-billed—was among their first productions after Regal was renamed Associated Producers Incorporated (API…hmmm).  Rewatching this recently, I had a micro-epiphany when I recognized the music by Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter as also having been used in The Last Man on Earth (1964), which coincidentally was one of the last API productions; sure wish I’d known that when I wrote Richard Matheson on Screen.

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 at the Delambre Frères foundry.  His intended cautionary tale has the opposite effect of increasing his nephew’s determination to follow in Dad’s footsteps, and Philippe essentially blackmails the dubious François into backing him financially by threatening to unload his half of the family business at any cost.

Bernds is a little sloppy with the details:  in the original, André’s lab (reportedly standing sets utilized in the sequel) is in his home rather than the foundry, and since Philippe soon relocates it to the family manse anyway, the change seems pointless.  Similarly, 15 years are said to have intervened, which would make the sequel set in 1973, and although Philippe is now played by the age-appropriate Brett Halsey, the only returning cast member, Price, looks about the same.  If Wikipedia is to be believed, illness prevented Marshall from reprising his role, rewritten as Charas’s colleague Inspector Beecham (John Sutton); script cuts supposedly also removed unspecified elements that had originally attracted Price to the project.

Hired as Philippe’s assistant, Dr. Alan Hinds (David Frankham, who appeared in Matheson‘s Master of the World and Tales of Terror) is revealed as fugitive killer Ronald Holmes, who plans to sell the technology using mortuary-based crony Max Berthold (big Dan Seymour, a literal heavy in several Bogart classics) as intermediary.  When Inspector Evans (Pat O’Hara), who has been trailing Holmes, catches him microfilming the plans, “Alan” bludgeons the ill-fated lawman and puts him through the machine, where Evans gets recombined with a guinea pig disintegrated earlier.

Holmes crushes the guinea pig (which has human hands), first with his shoe and then with a heavy piece of machinery; sends the rodent-clawed Evans into the river in a car trunk; and, when confronted by Philippe, repeats the process, sadistically including a fly, of which he knows his employer has a terrible dread, if not why.  This time, the story has a happier ending as the fly-headed Philippe eludes the trigger-happy police, finds his way to the mortuary, and kills both Berthold and Holmes (who wounded François while making his getaway) before being put back through the machine with the captured fly and “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.  Hal Lierley’s makeup in the sequel, which dramatically increased the size of Philippe’s fly head to gigantic proportions (and added a fly leg), was sported by a stuntman, circus giant Ed Wolff, best known to genre fans for playing the title role in The Colossus of New York (1958).

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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