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B List rewind

By PETER KEOUGH  |  October 31, 2008

“It’d be funny if life weren’t so sacred," André remarks to Hélène in recounting the transformation of their pet cat into a disembodied “stream of cat atoms.” Neumann’s film seems to suggest, however, that since life is no longer so sacred, such events may well be funny. The legendary scene of the man-headed fly caught in a spider’s web (a pitiless restatement of the film’s food theme) has been declared laughable by no less an authority than Vincent Price, who plays André’s brother François. The actor told an anecdote about the difficulty he and Herbert Marshall (playing a police inspector) had keeping straight faces while performing in front of the web in which André is supposedly imprisoned. At such a moment, horror and humor are indeed hard to separate, though Neumann pulls no punches in depicting the cruelty of the scene, in which the inspector comes to the aid of the terrified insect by crushing both it and its monstrous oppressor with a rock.

The Fly affirms that humanity can be corrupted, invaded, reduced, devoured, and squashed—that it can cease to exist and leave nothing behind. It may be true that, as the hero of The Incredible Shrinking Man affirms at the end of Jack Arnold’s 1957 film, “to God there is no zero,” but for The Fly there is a zero: the total obliteration denoted by “impact: zero,” the control setting of the metal press in which Hélène annihilates André (“That means level with the bed,” François marvels; “it’s never been set that way, never. Why, that would squeeze the metal to nothing”). Whereas The Incredible Shrinking Man questions but finally affirms the soul’s ability to sustain itself under the most inhospitable physical conditions, in The Fly the characters come to acknowledge that under certain circumstances a man can degenerate into “a thing” (as Hélène and the inspector both call what André has become), losing the essence of humanity. The film faces this unpleasant realization with a hysteria and a disgust that stand out all the more sharply because of the stereotyped but believable blandness of the domestic background of the crisis. With its clever balancing of tones, The Fly achieves a memorable and unrepeatable style of sick cinema.

A different version of this article originally appeared in Filmfax.

From The B List edited byDavid Sterritt andJohn Anderson.  Excerpted by arrangement with Da Capo Press (www.dacapopress.com),a member of the Perseus Books Group.  Copyright © 2008.

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