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As a child of the ’80s, my primary version of The Fly is the David Cronenberg body horror extravaganza. It’s a favorite of mine not only because of its timeless practical effects, but also because it’s one of the great tragedies of its day. So when I first visited Kurt Neumann’s version from 1958, I assumed I’d need to brace myself for a campier, creature feature sort of vibe. But I was surprised to discover a film that truly is a spiritual predecessor to its remake. Both films explore a man’s mental and physical deterioration and the tragic consequences for those around him, but Neumann takes a very different path to get there.
The broad strokes are the same: a scientist invents a teleportation machine, gets ahead of himself in the experimentation process, and accidentally merges with a fly when the unlucky insect joins him in the pod just before his inaugural teleportation. The details for Neumann’s version, however, stay closer to the 1957 George Langelaan short story on which it’s based.
Before Seth Brundle and Veronica Quaife, there was Helene and Andre Delambre (Patricia Owens and David Hedison). The film kicks off with Helene fleeing the scene where Andre’s body is found crushed by a hydraulic press. Questioned by Andre's brother, François (Vincent Price), and Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall), Helene tells Andre’s tragic tale through an extended flashback sequence.
Neumann’s approach incorporates a mystery element, with the first act playing out like a whodunit thriller. We enter the story through François and Inspector Charas’ point of view, and there’s little to go on beyond a vague confession from Helene to François (she admits she killed Andre, but won’t call it murder and refuses to admit why she did it) and a grisly crime scene with a surprising amount of blood given the era that the movie was released.
By leaving the viewer in the dark as to what’s going on, our minds are left to wander, wondering why Helene seems so calm about the fact that she just brutally murdered her husband. And in a rare instance of telling being better than showing, François marvels at the fact that the press was set to its highest setting and programmed to press the unfortunate Andre not once, but twice. That knowledge, combined with the visceral crime scene, must have left audiences’ imaginations running wild.
Even as the narrative shifts to Helene’s story and we adopt her point of view, we’re still left to wonder exactly what’s going on, particularly compared to Cronenberg’s version, which wasn’t so much trying to build suspense as it was daring the audience to watch Seth Brundle’s mental and physical decay unfold in gruesome detail. Neumann, however, looks to dangle the audience in anticipation.
First, he invests us in the characters by showing them in better days. Andre is a brilliant scientist who’s just made a breakthrough that he’s excited to share with Helene and their son, Philippe ( Charles Herbert), a kid leaning so hard into the precocious child trope that he could be auditioning for The Little Rascals. In fact, the whole scenario threatens to slip into caricature, as even classic villain Price plays François as so sincerely kind that I found it rather jarring.
But I think Neumann’s doing more than just getting us to care about these characters by introducing them in such idyllic fashion. He’s questioning blind acceptance of the scientific progress of the era by portraying the family with a level of naive optimism. Andre in particular seems to believe that his new teleportation machine will solve all the world’s problems because it will make it easier to transport goods to people who need it, as if those with all of the resources are reluctant to share them simply because of shipping costs.
There’s an element of inching up to a dangerous precipice for Andre as he haphazardly stampedes (with the best of intentions) straight into the mad scientist trope. He locks himself in his workspace for weeks at a time, and begins performing impromptu experiments that soon conflict with his own principles. A disastrous attempt to transport the family cat doesn’t end in as gruesome a fashion as Cronenberg’s inside-out ape, but it left me even more ill at ease as it’s revealed that the poor feline had been lost to the ether forever.
Of course we know what’s next: Andre attempts to teleport himself, which technically is a success if you don’t count his six-legged stowaway. Since much of this occurs through Helene’s gaze, we only see the ramifications of Andre’s plight in bits and pieces. And while there’s not as much visceral repulsion to be found in the transformation, the experience is harrowing in its own right due largely to the performances from Patricia Owens and David Hedison.
Owens plays Helene as vulnerable, but determined. She’s terrified, as she doesn’t know exactly what’s going on with Andre, but she’s doggedly trying to find a solution. When he asks her to find a mysterious fly with certain—ahem—abnormalities, his obsession becomes her obsession. She recruits both Philippe and the housemaid in hunting the insect down, becoming increasingly frayed at the edges as their attempts fail to produce results.
Hedison’s performance is particularly admirable considering he spends most of the film after his transformation draped under a blanket while communicating through a series of typed notes and coded knocks. But he makes the most out of those knocks, somehow conveying frustration, rage, and even sorrow in his body language.
This all leads to the big reveal when Helene finally sees that Andre’s head and arm have been completely replaced with that of a fly in a method that works a lot differently than Cronenberg’s approach. Where Seth’s process is slow and excruciating, Andre’s transformation was more immediate, and his revelation serves as the grand shocking release after the tension Neumann built up in the scenes leading up to it.
As it becomes clear that the transformation can’t be reversed and that Andre’s mental state is making him dangerous, we know that his fate will ultimately mirror Seth’s. But Neumann’s making a larger statement, as Andre realizes not only the danger he poses to his family, but also the danger that his technology poses to the world. Before he meets the business end of that machine press, he destroys all of his teleportation equipment, fearing what humans will do with it given his own mishaps.
In the end, I can’t think of any original/remake pairing that complement each other quite so well as Neumann’s and Cronenberg’s versions of The Fly. They’re both tragic yet compelling studies on the horror of those closest to us becoming something unrecognizable. But by leaving his focus less on the physical elements of the transformation and more on the philosophical, Neumann fills us with an existential dread that, while not as viscerally affecting as Cronenberg, sticks with us in a way that’s just as affecting.
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