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The Fly

The Fly(1958)

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Celebrated at this late date for a roster of science fiction classics that includes the franchise favorites Planet of the Apes (1968), Star Wars (1977), Alien (1979), Predator (1987), and X-Men (2000), as well as such one-off crowd-pleasers as Independence Day (1996) and Avatar (2009), 20th Century Fox was slow to embrace the genre. One of Hollywood's Big Five studios, Fox prided itself during its first half century in business on spectacle, opulence, and sophistication. No slouch in the atmosphere department, the studio nonetheless left fear-mongering to RKO Radio Pictures and the lower tiered Universal and Columbia; even when Fox did condescend to tell a spooky story, the results were studied and classy, as The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945) will attest. Though Fox helped kick-start the Fifties science fiction boom with The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), nearly a full decade would pass before the front office gave the green light to further weird stories and amazing tales; even then, it was through a subsidiary, Regal Films, that Fox made Kronos (1957) and She Devil (1957), both tales of good science gone bad, both directed by Kurt Neumann. Fox had similar plans for The Fly (1958), which became one of the capstones of the Fifties sci-fi craze but which had been slated originally as mere drive-in fodder, until the decision was made from on high to go big.

The Fly was adapted from a short story by Paris-born British writer George Langelaan. As an intelligence agent during World War II, Langelaan had agreed to undergo extensive plastic surgery that would render him unrecognizable even to his fellow countrymen and he channeled the motif of transformation into his 1957 short story, the tale of a French scientist experimenting with matter disintegration and reintegration who winds up atomically fused with a common house fly - with tragic results for man and insect. The tale came to the attention of executives at 20th Century Fox when it was published in Playboy magazine in June 1957. (Hitting the newsstands in 1953, Playboy was the brainchild of Hugh Hefner, who proved himself to be as much of a sci-fi geek as a hedonist when he published the forward-looking works of genre titans Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Frederik Pohl, and J. G. Ballard, among others, within the pages of his skin mag.) Fox executive Buddy Adler entrusted production of The Fly to Robert Lippert, head of Regal Films, whom studio head Daryl F. Zanuck had brought on board to help save the ailing studio from bankruptcy. With direction entrusted to the reliable Kurt Neumann, The Fly went forward with a budget of $325,000 (about twice the price tag on Kronos), to be shot in Cinemascope and Technicolor.

To handle the adaptation of The Fly, Lippert hired writer James Clavell, a British expatriate and WWII veteran who had come to Hollywood in 1953 with the expectation of becoming a screenwriter. Clavell had turned his wartime experience into a spec screenplay, Far Alert, which had sold but was never produced; The Fly would be his first Hollywood credit. Clavell would go on to write a novel, King Rat, published in 1962 and again drawing upon his experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war; the book was adapted for the big screen in 1965. Clavell also received credit as a cowriter on The Great Escape (1963) and The Satan Bug (1965) before breaking out on his own as the writer-director of To Sir, with Love (1967), starring Sidney Poitier. Clavell's 1975 novel Shogun, set in feudal Japan in the 17th Century, became an international bestseller that was adapted as a nine-hour NBC TV miniseries in 1980; the success of Shogun led to a theatrical adaptation of the writer's 1966 novel, Tai-Pei, in 1986. Working on The Fly, Clavell stayed largely faithful to the George Langelaan story (apart from shifting the action from France to Canada) and received only one request for a do-over from the front office: to lessen the impact of the tale's downbeat ending by eliminating the suicide of one major character.

To play Andre Delambre, the unlucky scientist whose overreaching turns him into The Fly, Lippert had wanted to cast Michael Rennie, who had starred as the Christ-like extraterrestrial Klaatu in Fox's The Day the Earth Stood Still several years earlier. When Rennie demurred over the reality that his face would be covered through much of the film, the role was offered to Rick Jason, who had just inked a Fox contract and enjoyed prominent roles in The Lieutenant Wore Skirts (1956) and The Wayward Bus (1957). When Jason proved similarly out of reach, Lippert gave the part to a good-looking young actor named Al Hedison. With a name change in later years to David Hedison, the Providence, Rhode Island-born actor would distinguish himself on the small screen, as the star of Irwin Allen-produced Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968), and in features as CIA agent Felix Leiter in two James Bond movies made 26 years apart: Live and Let Die (1973), opposite Roger Moore as 007, and Licence to Kill (1989), with Timothy Dalton as Bond. The supporting cast of The Fly was rounded out with actress Patricia Owens (fresh from playing Marlon Brando's fiance in Sayonara, 1957) as Andre's horrified wife, Herbert Marshall as the cop on the case, and Vincent Price, relegated to the somewhat decorous part of Andre's brother Francois.

The Fly was one of Fox's biggest hits at the time of its theatrical release in August 1958, earning $3,000,000 in domestic receipts. The film is now regarded as director Kurt Neumann's best, though sadly he did not live to enjoy the acclaim, succumbing as he did to a (no doubt work-induced) heart attack only a few weeks after the film's July 1958 premiere. Fox ordered up two sequels, Return of the Fly (1959), in which Andre Delambre's now-adult son (Brett Halsey) repeats his late father's experiment with similar results (the atomic gum-up due this time to industrial espionage), and Curse of the Fly (1965), which featured various other Delambres (among them, Brian Donlevy) dealing with the dark side of scientific ambition - both of these shot in black and white. David Cronenberg rebooted the logline of The Fly in 1986, making the hideous evolution of its hero scientist (Jeff Goldblum) gradual rather than sudden (a plot point suggested during production of the original film by star Al/David Hedison); another estimable hit and another modern sci-fi milestone, Cronenberg's The Fly spawned its own quickie sequel, The Fly II (1989). An opera based on Cronenberg's remake and written by frequent collaborator Howard Shore (with a libretto by David Henry Hwang, whose 1988 Broadway play M. Butterfly Cronenberg adapted as a film in 1993) opened in Paris and Los Angeles in 2008.

The essential worth of The Fly has long been a bone of contention within the horror/science fiction community, with the room dividing on the question of its dodgy science and the quality of Kurt Neumann's direction. Critic Ivan Butler derided the production as "the most ludicrous, and certainly one of the most revolting science-horror films ever perpetrated" while colleague Carlos Clarens concluded that it "collapses under the weight of many... questions" but praised the shock reveal in which Helene Delambre sees her fly-headed husband for the first time via a multi-image fly's eye view - an effect cooked up by cinematographer Karl Struss. (Patricia Owens' full-bore scream might be considered a linchpin between Phyllis Kirk's vocal response to an un-masked Vincent Price in House of Wax [1953] and Janet Leigh's primal reaction to the sight of "Mother" in Psycho [1960].) Michael J. Weldon, writing in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, expressed his admiration for The Fly in warts-and-all fashion by declaring it "brilliant, sick, absurd... Unforgettable" but it is genre aficionado Bill Warren who comes closest to localizing the film's strange appeal in its "macabre poignancy." The success of The Fly also had the effect of transforming Vincent Price, whose resume to that point included only scattershot genre assignments, into a full-time fearmaker through his many collaborations with William Castle (House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, both 1959) and Roger Corman (House of Usher [1960], The Tomb of Ligeia [1964]).

By Richard Harland Smith

Sources:

Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Films of the Fifties by Bill Warren (McFarland & Company, Publishers, 2010)
James Clavell: A Critical Companion by Gina Macdonald (Greenwood Publishing Troup, 1996)
Adaptations - From Short Story to Big Screen: 35 Great Stories That Have Inspired Great Films by Stephanie Harrison (Crown Publishing Group, 2011)

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