*. The Fly is a simple little movie that’s all the better for not trying to be anything more. There are only a handful of characters and the plot deftly weaves together the back story (related in Hélène’s confession) with what’s going on in the present (the hunt for the fly with the white head). Each narrative, in turn, has its own climax: the revelation of André’s head in the flashback portion and the discovery of the fly in the spider’s web at the end of the frame story. Everything else is just meant to tease us and build up to these two moments, and this is done quite effectively.
*. This double structure isn’t really there in the George Langelaan story (published in Playboy, which actually was a great magazine to read back in the day). So it’s an expert bit of screenwriting by James Clavell, and his first credited work. I read a few of Clavell’s Asian novels as a boy (Shogun, Tai-Pan, Noble House, etc.) and when I saw his name come up here I remember thinking it must have been a different James Clavell. It wasn’t. The novelist was the movie writer, and a director too. To Sir, with Love is probably his best known work, but he kept busy on a wide variety of projects. Reading the highlights of his bio, the range he covered is truly impressive.
*. It’s an adaptation that improves on the original. In Langelaan’s story, for example, when André goes through the cabinets again at his wife’s urging he comes out newly remixed with bits of the cat Dandalo’s head. He still has the fly’s eyes and mouth, but he’s furry and has cat ears. I’m glad they stuck with just having a fly’s head because this sounds more silly than grotesque. The other thing they do is add the scene where they discover the fly in the spider’s web. This is just referred to in the story, as François explains to Inspector Charas that he buried the fly in a matchbox next to his brother’s corpse.
*. Also in the story Hélène commits suicide at the end. The movie went with a happier ending. It’s actually close to the formula, used so many times in the early Universal horror cycles, of a romantic triangle, with a woman attached to a man who becomes a monster and an earnest, square type waiting in the wings (I talked about this a bit in my notes on The Invisible Man, if you’re interested). I think uncle François will be stepping into more than just his brother’s shoes in the future. Although at the beginning of Return of the Fly it’s some twenty years later and they’re burying Hélène, with François only muttering in a voiceover about how he “loved [her] deeply, hopelessly.”
*. A final change from page to screen: the story is set in France, the movie in Montreal. I wonder what the thinking was there. France too Old World? Montreal exotic but closer to home? To be honest, I don’t know why they didn’t just change the names and set it in New York. As it is, the proceedings have a kind of antique feeling to them. Were we to be impressed by those neon lights in the lab, or were they just there to show off the DeLuxe color?
*. Just sticking with the subject of Montreal, one of the things David Cronenberg, who’d go on to do his own version of this material, didn’t like here was the way none of the names were French-Canadian names and the characters spoke with French not French-Canadian accents. I don’t know how he’d tell. Yes, they sound different, but none of the actors here were French or French-Canadian (though Patricia Owens was born in British Columbia), and I didn’t think they were trying to put on much of an accent anyway.
*. Pedestrian direction by Kurt Neumann (Pauline Kael called it “draggy”), whose last movie this would be (he died shortly after it was released). I don’t think a more flamboyant style would have added anything.
*. They kept the death in the industrial press, with its stroke set to zero, which must have been pretty shocking at the time. Though the way they conceal the body in various shots is pretty amusing. There’s always someone or something just in the way of our seeing the bloody pancake.
*. It’s the little things that count. We do better creature effects today, but I find the fluttering/trembling of the fly’s mouth parts or proboscis to still be disturbing, even disgusting. You don’t need gore to turn people off.
*. Here’s another little thing. Watch how, in the final scene, Hélène takes Philippe by the hand as they walk away and he has to step over one of the croquet wickets. Did they not rehearse the shot? You might not even notice it because the kid takes it totally in stride. That’s a professional.
*. The cast are good. It’s not often Vincent Price fades into the background, but he does here. David Hedison is a bore, but Patricia Owens makes everything work. Watch her as she’s at the control of the press at the end. She’s really good.
*. Of course what everyone remembers the most about this movie is the shocking finale. I still remember the first time I saw it. I had no idea what was coming and it really got under my skin. It’s one of those movie moments that, however trashy or ridiculous, are indelible.