The movie opens with a woman, Helene Delambre (Patricia Owens), in a warehouse who has just crushed a man’s head in a hydraulic press. She calls her brother-in-law, Francois Delambre (Vincent Price) and tells him she’s killed her husband, Andre (David Hedrison). Francois then calls the police. Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall) thinks she must be insane. She’s obsessed with locating a certain house fly, one with a white head. Francois can’t imagine that she could do such a thing – he’s also always loved her, though he cared deeply for his brother, too. Finally, he gets her to tell him the truth, which is shown in a flashback, but is so incredible that Inspector Charas does not initially believe her. Not, he says, until they can show him the fly with the white head.
Most people coming into this film already know the plot, a scientist invents a teleportation device and when he tests himself in the device, a house fly gets mixed up in his DNA and he emerges part fly, with parts of his human self on the fly. But The Fly is framed as a mystery and I like how they build suspense, not because I am in the dark, but because the characters are in the dark. Inside the mystery framing is a flashback about Helene and Andre, their happy home, his ambition and his mistake that leads to tragedy.
The film really wants to deal with the theme of scientific hubris, the Frankenstein syndrome. A scientist is meddling with things he ought not to meddle with. Andre is all for progress and invention, but his wife is afraid at how fast things are changing. But it has occurred to me that the real problem with these kinds of scientists is not what they are trying to do. It is that they do it alone. It makes them prone to all sorts of silly errors, like putting an abnormal brain in their creation or not checking to make sure there is nothing else in the teleportation device except oneself. Really, such silly mistakes could easily be avoided by working with others.
Andre’s also unbelievably impetuous and reckless. He’s having some difficulty with his transporter, so what does he do? He tests it on the cat! I had a hard time forgiving him for that one (Griffin, in the novel The Invisible Man, also tests invisibility on the cat: the real message here seems to be that animal cruelty is always avenged with scientific catastrophe). And then Andre recklessly tests the device on himself.
The plot, to be honest, doesn’t make the most amount of sense. Why does Andre decide to destroy all his research, as if it was the research itself that was the problem? And perhaps if he’d enlisted aid outside of his wife, more could have been done and he could have been saved. And why does he retain his mind when he’s lost his head and acquired a fly head? Perhaps I’m over-analyzing this. If you can accept the basic premise of the film, it’s rather compelling.
What makes it compelling is partially the setting. It’s a normal, domestic setting for such a freak accident. The real heart of the story is actually not Andre, but his wife, Helene. We see everything in the flashback from her perspective, the horror of finding a fly head on her beloved husband. Andre keeps his fly head covered for much of the time and we only see it when she does and we come to realize as she does that the fly DNA is gradually taking over his instincts. We sense her sense of futility at the impossibility of trying to find a fly (Andre needs the fly with the white head so that he can put himself and the fly through the disintegrator-integrator device in the hope that it will unscramble their respective DNA). Imagine trying to locate one household fly, which could be anywhere. And then she freely admits to killing her husband, but then acts insane in an effort to shield her son, Phillipe (Charles Herbert), from what happened. She’d rather Phillipe have a mother who’s mad than hung.
Vincent Price has the rather unusual role of Andre’s brother. Unlike his brilliant, scientific brother, he is the boring, understanding and steady type who has always loved Helene, but is not jealous of his brother and is also a caring uncle. It’s a more understated role for him, but he’s still good. I think his mere presence serves to lend more credibility to the plot than it could otherwise have.
The role of Inspector Charas is played by Herbert Marshall, another veteran actor who I’ve always had a weak spot for. One of my favorite movies as a child was The Secret Garden with Margaret O’Brien and he played Mr. Craven. As Inspector Charas, he gives a sympathetic, but no-nonsense, performance. He is trying to handle the matter delicately – since he believes Helene to be insane – but no matter how much Francois begs him, he must issue a warrant for her arrest. I think his general no-nonsense performance also lends credibility, especially to an ending that could have been laughable farce.
Apparently, Price and Marshall did have trouble filming the final scene because they were laughing so hard, though you wouldn’t know from watching the film. I laughed when I first heard the voice, “help me!” in a squeaky tone. It is the fly, with a man’s head and arm (since Andre has the fly’s head and arm), trapped in a spider’s-web, with a spider bearing down and about to eat it. Somehow, Charas’ utter horror sells it, as he crushes both the spider and the fly with a rock. But now that he’s killed a fly with a man’s head, he feel just as morally culpable as Helene, who killed a man with a fly’s head. He and Francois instead manage to come up with a story about how Andre committed suicide and Helene is not arrested. It’s certainly a memorable ending, even if I still can’t decide whether to laugh or shudder.