Wednesday, September 11, 2013

THE FLY: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1958) Fox Home Video

Man has always been fascinated by the fantastic pursuits of science. For centuries, the mysterious prospects of what lay just beyond and a little out of our reach had taunted scholars. Only the most brilliant and educated minds seemed able to fathom the improbable. But then, at the start of the 20th century, the infinite possibilities once denied suddenly appeared to be within even the layman's comprehension. The imagination took hold, fueled by unthinkable feats of progress: transatlantic crossings by sea and air; medical breakthroughs in antibiotics that eradicated typhus and polio and were able to slow the progression of cancers and diabetes; the harnessing of electricity and the invention of such phenomena as the electric light bulb, combustible engine; telephone and other broadcast transmissions, et al. For a time it was as though man had begun to narrow the unfathomable chasm that separated the present from the future – tomorrow’s visions no longer a distant discovery for some new and as yet unrealized age but probable within a single lifetime.
This scientific enlightenment began quite unexpectedly with a promise for more heady marvels to follow. But the dream was to turn into a nightmare only a few short decades later with the splitting of the atom and nuclear bombs dropping on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; doomsday devices fettered by man’s limited understanding of their level of mass destruction. Thus science, the logical extension of man’s desire to overcome nature and catapult us into a never-ending panacea of progress suddenly became a very real threat to effectively knock the world back into the dark ages. In light of this new copious paranoia is it any wonder that mankind slowly began to turn from science fact to science fiction for the answers? The line between these two polar opposites increasingly was blurred and by the late 1950's had given rise to a spectacular proliferation (or perhaps mutation) of hybrid ‘solutions’ to the world’s woes.  Creative minds supplanted the scientific: parables about the wonders and mayhem in store if mankind unwittingly continued along its current path to annihilation.
Kurt Neumann’s The Fly (1958) plays perfectly into this latter anxiety. Based on a short story by George Langelaan first published in Playboy Magazine, The Fly is a cautionary tale of one man’s limited grasp on the precepts of molecular biology; what can and most likely will occur when our remedial understanding and driving ambitions collide to produce unexpected and decidedly very unwelcomed results. Our hero, Andre Delambre (David (Al) Hedison) is hardly the white-haired mad genius raving about the intangible fragility of life and death a la the warped frustrations of a Dr. Frankenstein and yet his ‘discovery’ is as malicious in its end result. Today, The Fly plays very much like a rather quaint mystery wrapped inside its faux scientific backdrop, the unsettling atmosphere of its dark and tempting melodrama eclipsed by the shock and revile of David Cronenberg’s grotesque 1986 remake/update. The Fly also plays into that addictive fascination for stories about shape-shifting and half-human/half animal creatures that lurk within the peripheries of our collective mindset. But Neumann’s original is more about science turning on mankind than anything else. In many ways The Fly is neither sci-fi nor a horror classic, but instead an intelligently scripted – if somewhat melodramatic – critique of our collective fear of the unknown; that strangeness within humanity’s DNA itself to be simultaneously frightened by and yet hypnotically drawn into dabbling with things we don’t know and cannot possibly understand.
Andre Delambre is a dabbler at best; a man so utterly consumed by his scientific passion to achieve the impossible that he unquestioningly pursues the art of discovery to his own tragic detriment. This martyrdom is not without risk, however. Nor is it attempted altruistically. For at the crux of The Fly is the subtle admonishment of ego itself – the lesson learned the hard way; forever to haunt and condemn the man and those closest to him. Movies like The Fly remain a cultural touchstone in the American cinema goer’s diet because they appeal to our rather warped sense of collective voyeurism; to have emotions stirred, shaken and even terrorized from the comfort and relative safety of our theater seats; fulfilling the experience of witnessing the monstrous without actually having to go through the ordeal ourselves. Scholars refer to this sensation as a necessary release of the cathartic – perhaps triggering some primal urge long dormant though never entirely laid to rest within the human psyche by our ever-evolving thirst to civilize…well…civilization.  For lack of a better explanation – fear is exciting; particularly when the variables of its incubus hit a little too close to home or, at the very least, seem within the realm of possibility with just a little bit of imagination.
And Neumann’s The Fly certainly has a lot of imagination. Despite changing times and audience tastes and the inevitable advancement of special effects, The Fly retains its darkly oppressive mood of foreboding - perhaps its’ most lasting contribution to the body of science fiction.  The best sci-fi has always approached its subject matter by taking either a seemingly harmless object or living entity commonly found among us and transforming it into a paralyzing threat. In the atomic age, insects in particular became rife for this sort of exploitation; firstly, because they are all-pervasive in our daily lives and second, because most of us tend to be more repulsed than intrigued by their basic physiology; multiple legs, translucent wings, protruding eyes, possibly dangerous venom and so on. The common house fly is a genuine nuisance. It might just as easily land on a steaming pile of dog excrement in the backyard as it would on a fresh piece of fruit or come to light on our own skin. But what happens when that fly grows to human size or, in fact, becomes a morbid human/insect hybrid born from a scientific experiment gone horribly awry?
James Clavell’s screenplay staves off this ‘what if’ scenario for a good portion of The Fly – brilliantly relying on the time-honored precepts of a conventional thriller to maintain the suspense. We begin our story on a dark evening in Montreal – actually on the 20th Century-Fox back lot where night watchman, Gaston (Torben Meyer) makes a gruesome discovery. Someone has crushed a man’s head and arm beyond all recognition in one of the hydraulic presses. Moments before Gaston thought he saw Helen Delambre (Patricia Owens) fleeing the crime scene, a suspicion confirmed when factory owner Francois Delambre (Vincent Price) receives a tearful telephone call from Helen confessing that she has just killed his brother/her husband, Andre (Al Hedison). It’s inconceivable. Andre and Helen were happy or so it would seem, living in their upper middle-class fool’s paradise with son, Philippe (the far too pretentiously cute Charles Herbert).
Francois telephones Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall), who is presumably also an old friend, at his private club and together they arrive at the factory to inspect the badly mutilated remains. Francois tells Charas that the press is difficult to operate and that its settings have been manipulated to apply the maximum pressure twice. The pair returns to Andre’s home to question Helen. They are met by Doctor Ejoute (Eugene Borden) who informs them of Helen’s queer condition. Indeed, in questioning Helen, Charas discovers a woman most congenial and even relaxed in her demeanor – completely at peace with her confession. When Charas suggests that the act was ‘murder’ Helen corrects him, but then casually explains how she meticulously operated the difficult press to bring about Andre’s demise. During their talk Charas takes particular notice of the way Helen reacts to the sudden appearance of an errant housefly as it momentarily lands on the dust shade of a nearby lamp.
Leaving Helen in Dr. Ejoute’s care, Charas and Francois decide to explore Andre’s private laboratory for clues. They discover the place in ruins. Charas assigns a private nurse (Betty Lo Gerson) to remain vigilante over Helen while he staves off the charge of murder to get to the bottom of things. After a few days convalescence, and a minor breakdown when the fly reappears in Helen’s bedroom, Helen is attended by Francois and encouraged to telephone Charas. She is ready to tell her story. And quite a story it is too. We regress to a moment from the not so distant past when Helen and Andre were supremely happy. He dotes on her and she adored him. Andre decides to share with Helen the experiment he has been working on for quite some time. He takes her into his laboratory and shows her a plate given to them as a wedding present by Helen’s wealthy aunt – a piece of generic glaze work made in Japan. Placing the unprepossessing flatware into a glass chamber he has built, Andre proceeds to don a pair of radioactive protective goggles, teleporting the plate from its chamber to another at the other end of the room.
Helen can scarcely believe her eyes. It must be some sort of a trick. But Andre assures her she has just witnessed a scientific miracle. At first there is mutual cause for rejoicing. But when Helen discovers that the lettering on the back of the plate has been juxtaposed in the process of breaking down its molecular structure, Andre becomes despondent and even more committed to getting to the bottom of what went wrong. Helen leaves Andre to his work, more pleasantly amused than bewildered by what she has just seen. Several days later Andre attempts another teleportation, this time with a newspaper. The device seems to work perfectly; the newspaper vanishing from one chamber, reappearing in the other, fully formed and with all its words properly spelled out. Prodded by his success Andre decides to send the family’s housecat through the chamber. It will be his first living experiment. Regrettably, while the cat does disappear from its chamber it never rematerializes in the other, the echoes of its meowing heard floating through the air.
A night at the ballet and a champagne cocktail later and Andre shares his discoveries with Helen again, this time by teleporting a guinea pig from one chamber into the other without incident. Andre then confesses to Helen that he sacrificed their cat in the name of science and for a brief moment Helen is morally outraged by her husband’s rather callous approach to life. She makes him promise to never use animals in his experiments again. Andre agrees. But only a few short days later he locks himself in his laboratory, slipping cryptic typed messages under the door to Helen; about having continued to conduct his experiments and thus enduring a most terrible ‘accident’ that has left him unable to speak and disfigured.
Helen is understandably alarmed but agrees to keep her husband’s secret until he can find a cure. Andre instructs Helen by typed letters to seek out a unique fly, one with a white head that Helen immediately recognizes as the one caught by Philippe that she made him release from his jar back into the wild. For days Helen, Philippe and their housemaid, Emma (Kathleen Freeman) attempt to recapture this special fly, but to no avail. Helen reluctantly returns to Andre’s laboratory with the news, peeling back the cloak concealing him to reveal that his head, along with his left arm has been turned into the appendages of a fly. Horrified, Helen collapses. Andre types out his last request to her. Recognizing that the properties of the fly have begun to cloud his thinking - a mutation unstoppable and will surely lead to madness – Andre insists that Helen destroy him in the hydraulic press.
The flashback concludes with Inspector Charas’ extreme skepticism. He can no longer delay Helen’s arrest and informs Francois of the inevitable. While waiting for the officers to arrive, Francois and Charas discover a fly with a human head trapped in the web of an advancing spider; Andre’s tiny voice calling out, ‘help me!’  As Charas and Francois look on in horror, the spider begins to devour its prey and Charas takes a large rock from the garden to crush both insects before the digestion can begin. Realizing that Helen is telling the truth, Charas vows to have her set free and the charges dismissed. The movie concludes with Francois and Helen taking a stroll in the garden with Philippe who is oblivious to what has been going on and apparently not all that concerned over the sudden disappearance of his own father.
If you are looking too hard The Fly isn’t a terribly solid piece of movie storytelling (loopholes are everywhere) and yet it is an exemplary mood piece, and I suspect this is part – if not all – of its enduring charm. Fox has given the B-movie some A-list talent and production design by Theobold Holsopple and Lyle R. Wheeler, all of it rather sumptuously decked out in the expansive trappings of Karl Struss’s Cinemascope cinematography and color by DeLuxe. David Hedison (who began his career as Al Hedison, so accredited in The Fly) is a competent second string contract player. Hedison was, in fact, unknown when he appeared in The Fly, making the permutation from man to human/fly hybrid all the more convincing and believable.
Patricia Owens is a tepid love interest; undeniably attractive but rather like a wax mannequin in her deportment and mannerisms. The Fly genuinely excels because of Vincent Price and Herbert Marshall – both superior talents who respect the material enough to give it their all and sell it as high art in a way few actors - then or now - can. Vincent Price had once been considered a male beauty and something of a second string Lothario in a goodly number of Fox movies from the mid-1940s. Along with House of Wax (1953), The Fly marks Price’s increasing foray into the macabre – a move that would eventually lead the actor into an entirely new ‘second career’ playing gargoyles and villains in some classic Hammer horror movies from the mid-1960s onward.
Viewed today, The Fly is engrossing in ways few involved in its creation could have envisioned. It immediately spawned two sequels, the first made by Fox in 1959, the second made in Britain; a far more bizarre and yet utterly engrossing exploitation of human disfigurement - Curse of the Fly (1965). The Fly was also given renewal as a gruesome horror movie by David Cronenberg in 1986. The special effects in this latter offering effectively transformed star Jeff Goldblum into an over-sized, buzzy/fuzzy acidic-mucous-spewing vermin. But what became lost in this mutation was the sense of morality and dichotomous relationship between man, God, and, man playing at God. The original story is a cautionary parable for mankind becoming too complacent in his powers of self-destruction; in essence, wielding the hand of God but with a rather pompous and flawed authority unable to harness the awesome responsibilities or grasp at the ramifications. Cronenberg’s remake is simply a fright-fest designed to brutalize the audience with its villainy and disgust.
Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray of The Fly is not perfect and that’s a shame. Although color, contrast and sharpness advance over the previous two incarnations on DVD the image continues to suffer from undue digital manipulations, including some artificially boosted sharpening that borders on edge enhancement.  The DeLuxe palette falters periodically, with flesh looking rather pinkish and/or orange. Film grain is inconsistently rendered. At times it is quite heavy and looks almost digitized (pixels) in background information, while in close-up it vanishes altogether. There’s also the presence of dirt, scratches, water marks, tears and chips. These ought to have been cleaned up for The Fly’s hid-def debut. None of the aforementioned are overwhelming – but present nonetheless. Those watching The Fly on monitors of 65 inches or larger, and definitely in projection, will immediately take notice. Not impressed!
There’s also a rather curious anomaly I am unable to quantify.  3-strip Technicolor had long ceased to be in use by 1958 and certainly no Cinemascope production ever made by Fox utilized it. And yet the arrival of Inspector Charas and Francois to Andre’s home to interrogate Helen is marred by what appears to be a ringing red ‘halo’ effect around their white shirts. Again, this anomaly is usually ascribed to 3-strip Technicolor differential shrinkage. I am not certain what would cause a similar effect in a mono-pack vegetable dye transfer. I can only state for the record that the anomaly exists; image looking misregistered, blurry and out of focus. Nicholas Sheffo, of the Fulvue has offered some valuable insight about Cinemascope productions. Although none were shot in 3-strip Technicolor many - like The Blob - were broken down into separation masters for preservation, a process that did not end until 1974. Also, IB scope prints in 35mm were made for a select few titles, including 1953's The Robe and 1954's A Star Is Born.   

Despite the fact that The Fly Blu-ray is dual-layered I have my suspicions Fox used older digital files from their second DVD incarnation to master this Blu-ray rather than doing a completely new ‘ground up’ scan of the original and/or existing film elements. That’s a shame because what we have here is a disc that really doesn’t support the pluperfect quality hi-def is capable of at its best. For shame!
The DTS 5.1 audio is rather impressive, the sound effects as well as Paul Sawtell’s orchestral score rather bombastic and clearly delineated across all channels. Good stuff. Extras are all direct imports from Fox’s previously issued SE DVD and include a rather comprehensive audio commentary, an almost 20 minute featurette on the making of The Fly, a snippet from a Fox Movietone’s newsreel documenting the rather gaudy San Francisco premiere and a badly worn theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


1 comment:

The Geeks said...

Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
thank you :)