Every few years or so the National Society of Film Critics, which includes in its roster the Boston Phoenix critics Chris Fujiwara, Gerald Peary and Peter Keough, publishes a collection of its members’ writings on a particular theme. The latest, edited by David Sterritt and John Anderson, is titled The BList: The National Society of Film Critics on the Low-Budget Beauties, Genre-Bending Mavericks, and Cult Classics We Love (film critics are not noted for their brevity) and more or less focuses on that underappreciated and under-budgeted genre of films referred to as B movies. Coinciding with the book’s release, the Brattle Theatre has put together a five day series that starts with a panel discussion on November 5 and includes screenings of some of the films, such as The Fly (1958), Son of Kong (1933) and Pick-up on SouthStreet (1953), under consideration. To give you a head start on the topic here are some of the essays contributed by the above-mentioned Phoenix writers.
Kurt Neumann, 1958
by Chris Fujiwara
Kurt Neumann’s The Fly succeeds by playing off the respectable against the outrageous, introducing the grotesque and the absurd within a carefully defined context of the familiar. Unlike David Cronenberg in his 1986 remake, Neumann steers The Fly away from tragedy and toward black comedy (which seems to have been what George Langelaan, the author of the short story on which the film is based, had in mind).
It’s appropriate that the film should feel distant and somewhat cold; that so many scenes should take place in sumptuous or banal domestic settings under bright and even lighting; that most of the compositions should be medium shots (their impersonality accentuated by Neumann’s rather doctrinaire use of CinemaScope). Everything in the film seems designed to convince us that its hero and heroine, scientist André Delambre (Al Hedison) and his devoted wife Hélène (Patricia Owens), are unremarkable and uninteresting, and that the world they live in is normal and boring. As a result, what happens to them seems all the more outrageous, unwarranted, and absurd--an assault on the values they stand for. André invents an apparatus that disintegrates objects, moves their atoms through space, and reintegrates them. Unfortunately, when he transports himself through the device, his atoms get mixed with those of a fly, with the result that he comes out with the fly’s head and one of its forelegs, while the fly gets his head and one of his arms. André destroys his machine, burns his notes, and persuades the horrified Hélène to crush his body in a hydraulic press.
To put over the outrageous central premise (and the dubiousness of the science used to justify it), Neumann and screenwriter James Clavell link André’s miracle to ordinary objects and themes. In the early scene in which he demonstrates his invention to his wife by disintegrating an ashtray, André explains the theory of matter transmission with an analogy. “Now take television. What happens? A stream of electrons, sound and picture impulses, are transmitted through wires or the air. The TV camera is the disintegrator. Your set unscrambles or integrates the electrons back into pictures and sound....This is the same principle, exactly.” Though Hélène instinctively realizes that matter transmission is different (“because it's impossible”), she finally accepts André’s explanation.
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.