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By PETER KEOUGH  |  October 31, 2008

Linking André’s breakthrough with television may be the most subversive of the many attacks on television in films of the 1950s. Such attacks are particularly frequent in films produced by Twentieth Century-Fox, the studio that launched CinemaScope in an attempt to compete with TV, and they culminate in Frank Tashlin’s 1957 Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, which opens with a series of parodies of commercials and features an interlude in which the color-and-Scope image briefly shrinks to a tiny black-and-white square (so TV fans will feel at home). In The Fly, also a Twentieth Century-Fox release, television is convicted by its association with André’s invention. Rather than a benevolent, transparent provider of entertainment, TV is a “disintegrator” that pulverizes, teleports, and “unscrambles” the world. Through André’s analogy, the film hints that TV is leading humanity toward a world in which humans randomly trade body parts with insects.

When Hélène gives voice to a universal fear of technology (“Everything’s going so fast, I—I’m—I’m just not ready to take it all in”), André sells her on the merits of his disintegrator/integrator by claiming that the ability to send supplies instantaneously will mean an end to famine. The idea of feeding the world excites Hélène, who appears to identify strongly with the traditionally feminine role of nurturer. The film repeatedly associates her with food, as when she brings a bowl of milk (laced with rum) and a dinner tray downstairs to her transformed husband, and when she spills sugar on a coffee table in an attempt to attract his fly counterpart. This latter detail reminds us that flies, whatever else they may mean in our lives, are creatures whose interactions with us usually come about because of their search for food. Late in the film, a dissolve from a kitchen scene to a shot of flies swarming over a garbage can expresses this connection succinctly.

One of the more grotesque aspects of André’s predicament after his transformation is his difficulty in eating, which the film dwells on twice (both times emphasizing Hélène’s appalled reaction). If Langelaan’s uncanny concept of a man becoming a fly is somehow more modern than Kafka’s metamorphosis of man into cockroach (or “monstrous vermin,” as Joachim Neugroschel translates it), it may be because the fly (specifically the fruit fly) is well known as a preferred test subject for the very modern science of genetic research. The cockroach is repulsive, but in Kafka’s story it serves as the image of what is still a human wretchedness. The fly is more apt, perhaps, than any other animal to express the inhumanity to which André is condemned by accident and technology (not by fate, which would be too human a word to describe what happens to him).

This inhumanity is the source of the half-comic, half-horrible, all-bleak power of the film. If the mutant-insect subgenre of the 1950s is a response to atomic-age fears, The Fly is a melodrama of domestic crisis in which these fears penetrate into the heart of the home in the most abrupt and catastrophic way. The deceptively neutral visual style adopted by Neumann and cinematographer Karl Struss sets up an ideal background for Hélène’s preoccupation with finding the fly that has borrowed her husband’s head, an activity that bewilders the people around her (“Flies, madame?” repeats Kathleen Freeman’s maid in stone-faced stupefaction). The sound department joins in the game with gusto: The buzzing of flies accompanies numerous shots in the film--a device introduced in the striking title sequence, in which the noise alternates with composer Paul Sawtell’s hopeful love theme. The use of CinemaScope (obligatory for a Twentieth Century-Fox production in the late 1950s), seemingly ill-suited to this story, sets up the most abstract of visual jokes, when, in a number of close-ups, a fly is the sole occupant of the vast screen.

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