It tells a story of a scientist who mutates into a grotesque human fly after a fly accidentally flew into his transportation machine, resulting in their their atoms being mixed. It was followed by two sequels, Return of the Fly (1959) and Curse of the Fly (1965). It was remade in 1986 as a film of the same name by director David Cronenberg.
In Montreal, Canada, scientist André Delambre (David Hedison) is found dead with his head and arm crushed in a hydraulic press. Although his wife Hélène (Patricia Owens) confesses to the crime, she refuses to provide a motive, and begins acting strangely. In particular, she is obsessed with flies, including a supposedly white-headed fly. André's brother, François (Vincent Price), lies and says he caught the white-headed fly; and, thinking he knows the truth, Hélène explains the circumstances surrounding André's death.
In flashback, André, Hélène, and their son Philippe (Charles Herbert) are a happy family. André has been working on a matter transporter device called the disintegrator-integrator. He initially tests it only on small inanimate objects, but he eventually proceeds to living creatures, including the family's pet cat (which fails to reintegrate, but can be heard meowing somewhere), a guinea pig, and a newspaper. After he is satisfied that these tests are succeeding, he builds a man-sized pair of chambers. One day, Hélène, worried because André has not come up from the basement lab for a couple of days, goes down to find André with a black cloth over his head and a strange deformity on his left hand. Communicating with typed notes only, André tells Hélène that he tried to transport himself but that a fly was caught in the chamber with him, which resulted in the mixing of their atoms. Now, he has the head and left arm of a fly; and the fly has his miniature head and left arm, though he keeps his mind.
André needs Hélène to capture the fly so he can reverse the process. Although she expends great effort in her search, she cannot find it and André's will begins to fade as the fly's instincts take over his brain. Time is running out, and while André can still think like a human, he smashes the equipment, burns his notes, and leads Hélène to the factory. When they arrive, he sets the hydraulic press and motions for Hélène to push the button. She activates the press twice - once to crush his head and once to crush his left arm.
Upon hearing this confession, the chief detective on the case, Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall), deems Hélène insane and guilty of murder. As they are about to haul her away, Philippe tells François he's seen the fly trapped in a web in the back garden. François convinces the inspector to come and see for himself. The two men see the fly, trapped in the web, with both André's head and arm. It screams "Help me! Help me!" as a large brown spider advances on it. Just as the spider is about to devour the creature, Charas crushes them both with a rock. Knowing that nobody would believe the truth, he and François decide to declare André's death a suicide so that Hélène is not convicted of murder. In the end, Hélène, François and Philippe resume their daily lives, Sometime later, Philippe and Hélène are playing croquet in the yard. François arrives to take his nephew to the zoo. In reply to his nephew's query about his father's death, François tells Philippe, "He was searching for the truth. But for one instant, he was careless. The search for the truth is the most important work in the whole world and the most dangerous." The film closes with Hélène escorting her son and François out of the yard.David Hedison (credited as Al Hedison) as André Delambre
Patricia Owens as Hélène Delambre
Vincent Price as François Delambre
Herbert Marshall as Inspector Charas
Kathleen Freeman as Emma
Betty Lou Gerson as Nurse Anderson
Charles Herbert as Philippe Delambre
Eugene Borden as Dr. Éjoute
Torben Meyer as Gaston
Though uncredited on-screen, the film was produced by Robert L. Lippert, head of Fox's subsidiary B-movie studio Regal Pictures, which produced the film and was originally slated to distribute it before Fox decided to release it under the more prestigious "20th Century Fox" label.. Lippert hired James Clavell to adapt George Langelaan's short story on the strength of a previous sci-fi spec script which the studio had bought but never produced. It would become Clavell's first filmed screenplay. The adaptation remained largely faithful to Langelaan's story, apart from moving its setting from France to Canada, and crafting a happier ending by eliminating Hélène's suicide.
Lippert tried to cast Michael Rennie and Rick Jason in the role of André Delambre, before settling on then mostly-unknown David Hedison (billed as "Al Hedison" on-screen.) Hedison's "Fly" costume featured a twenty-pound fly's head, about which he said: "Trying to act in it was like trying to play the piano with boxing gloves on." Hedison was never happy with the makeup, but Makeup Director Ben Nye Sr. remained very positive about his work, writing years later that despite doing many subsequent sci-fi films, "I never did anything as sophisticated or original as The Fly."
Years later, Vincent Price recalled the cast finding some levity during the filming: "We were playing this kind of philosophical scene, and every time that little voice [of the fly] would say ‘Help me! Help me!’ we would just scream with laughter. It was terrible. It took us about 20 takes to finally get it."
Sources vary as to the budget, with one source giving it as $350,000, another as $325,000 and others as high as $495,000. The shoot lasted 18 days in total. It was photographed in 20th Century Fox's trademarked CinemaScope and Color by Deluxe. A $28,000 laboratory set was constructed from army surplus equipment.
It was released in 1958 on a double bill with Space Master X-7. Director Kurt Neumann died only a few weeks after its July 1958 premier, never realizing he had made the biggest hit of his career.
The Fly received mixed-to-positive reviews upon its initial release, with critic Ivan Butler calling it "the most ludicrous, and certainly one of the most revolting science-horror films ever perpetrated," and Carlos Clarens offering some praise for the effects but concluding that the film "collapses under the weight of many... questions". New York Times critic Howard Thompson was more positive, writing "It does indeed contain, briefly, two of the most sickening sights one casual swatter-wielder ever beheld on the screen... Otherwise, believe it or not, "The Fly" happens to be one of the better, more restrained entries of the "shock" school...Even with the laboratory absurdities, it holds an interesting philosophy about man's tampering with the unknown."
Modern criticism has been more uniformly positive. Cinefantastique's Steve Biodrowski declared, "the film, though hardly a masterpiece, stands in many ways above the level of B-movie science fiction common in the 1950s." Critic Steven H. Scheuer praised it as a "superior science-fiction thriller with a literate script for a change, plus good production effects and capable performances." Culture Mag writer Christopher Stewardson gave the film 3.5/5. It holds a 95% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and has been nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. The film has also received four out of five stars on Allmovie.
The film was a commercial success, grossing $3 million at the domestic box office against a budget of less than $500,000, and becoming one of the biggest hits of the year for Fox studios. It earned $1.7 million in theatrical rentals.
The film's financial success had the side-effect of boosting co-star Vincent Price (whose previous filmography featured only scattered forays into genre film) into a major horror star. Price himself was positive about the film, saying, decades later, "I thought THE FLY was a wonderful film – entertaining and great fun."
American Film Institute ListsAFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills - Nominated
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
"Help me! Help me!" - Nominated
The film spawned two sequels, Return of the Fly in 1959 and Curse of the Fly in 1965. There was also a remake of the same name in 1986 directed by David Cronenberg, which itself had a sequel, 1989's The Fly II.