Thursday, June 11, 2020

The Satan Bug

A great cast of character actors and a crackerjack premise for suspense are the highlights of THE SATAN BUG, which is based on Alistair MacLean’s excellent 1962 novel. Transplanting the action from rural England to Los Angeles, screenwriters James Clavell (KING RAT) and Edward Anhalt (THE BOSTON STRANGLER) otherwise stick pretty closely to the book as far as the plot goes. However, the telling of the tale leaves a bit to be desired. Though beautifully photographed by three-time Oscar winner Robert Surtees (BEN-HUR), THE SATAN BUG is dramatically inert with more middle-aged white guys in conservative suits standing around than a GOP convention.

Former government agent Lee Barrett (ROUTE 66 star George Maharis) is recruited by his ex-boss Cavanaugh (Richard Bull) and General Williams (Dana Andrews) to investigate the murder of a scientist and the disappearance of another at top-secret Station Three, where deadly biological agents are developed. Barrett learns the Satan Bug — a virus that could destroy all life on Earth in a couple of months — is missing, probably taken by a madman who will threaten the world with it.

Frank Sutton (GOMER PYLE, USMC) and Edward Asner (LOU GRANT) are heavies working for the villain. Richard Basehart (VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA), Simon Oakland (PSYCHO), John Anderson (5 CARD STUD), Henry Beckman (HERE COME THE BRIDES), Harold Gould (RHODA), and James Hong (CHINATOWN) work at Station Three. Anne Francis (FORBIDDEN PLANET) has little to do, but serves the film as its only female and the only character wearing color.

The talky script fails to generate much excitement, as do the drab Maharis and director John Sturges, otherwise a master director of thrillers (BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, THE GREAT ESCAPE). A sequence with Maharis and two government men (one played by STAR TREK’s James Doohan) trapped in an abandoned shack with a fatal virus packs the movie’s biggest thrill. The climax is a dud, though it offers some gorgeous views of the relatively new Dodger Stadium.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Firepower (1979)

FIREPOWER is a deliriously silly international thriller with an affecting cast of middle-aged movie stars and one of the most absurdly convoluted storylines I’ve ever attempted to decode. At one point, when director Michael Winner (DEATH WISH) and screenwriter Gerald Wilson (THE STONE KILLER) get trapped in a corner, they reach into their rear ends and pull out an exact double of James Coburn’s character, who is never seen or heard from again.

If nothing else, Winner knows how to grab an audience’s interest. Before the main titles have started to unspool, Winner kills off a chemist, the husband of Sophia Loren’s Adele Tasca, in an explosion and then guns down the chemist’s brother and a bunch of hoods at the funeral parlor. It’s an effective formula that works for Winner. When the plot starts to get confusing, blow up something or kill a bunch of guys to wake everybody up.

Adele believes the man responsible for her husband’s murder is the mysterious Karl Stegner, a wealthy recluse in Antigua who’s wanted by American authorities, but can’t be extradited, and nobody knows what the hell he looks like anyway. The Feds, with FBI agent Frank Hull (Vincent Gardenia) in charge, want flower-loving merc Jerry Fanon (Coburn) to go get Stegner, so they bribe retired mobster Sal Hyman (Eli Wallach) to convince Fanon to do the job. See what I mean about convoluted? Why couldn’t Hull just ask Fanon directly? Probably because Sir Lew Grade at ITC wanted to squeeze another star, Wallach, into the production somewhere.

Fanon takes along heist man Catlett (O.J. Simpson) as backup. Neither seems to be the brains of the outfit, as their plan involves setting Stegner’s house on fire and then running inside the abandoned blaze to find clues. The piling on of twists over doublecrosses grows silly after awhile, but FIREPOWER is always watchable for its star power and its harrowing stunt sequences involving airplanes, helicopters, automobiles, boats, bulldozers, whatever it takes. Trying to follow the plot is more effort than it’s worth.