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.