Friday, 9 May 2014

The Satan Bug (1965)

The Satan Bug is a 1965 thriller based on an Alistair MacLean novel. MacLean is listed in the credits as Ian Stuart - in order to prove a point, that his books were good enough to be bestsellers even without the selling point of his name on the cover, he had published the novel under this pseudonym. While the many film adaptations of his novels vary somewhat in quality this one works very well.

There is a break-in at Station 3, a top-secret US government chemical and bacteriological warfare laboratory. That would be bad news at any time but it’s particularly bad at this particular time since one of the scientists there has just perfected a new virus. It’s been dubbed the Satan Bug, for good reasons. It appears to be completely unstoppable. One flask of the virus could in theory wipe out all life on Earth. No-one really knows what would actually happen; the virus is still untested. The virus is potentially so dangerous that the scientists at Station 3 were seriously considering destroying it, considering it to be too lethal to be of any practical use. There is only one flask of the Satan Bug in existence, and it’s missing, along with half a dozen flasks of another virus that is almost as deadly.

Even though Station 3 has its own security personnel the decision is made that for such an urgent case a very special type of agent is needed. They need Lee Barrett (George Maharis). Barrett is a maverick who’s been fired from every job he’s ever had as a trouble-maker and all-round headache but he’s the best man for the job.

In overall charge of the operation to retrieve the Satan Bug is General Williams (Dana Andrews). Barrett tells the general that the theft was most likely the work of a fanatical lunatic and his suspicion is soon confirmed when a message arrives threatening the destruction of the world if Station 3 is not closed down. To convince the authorities of the seriousness of the threat one of the stolen flasks is used to wipe out the entire population of a small chunk of Florida.

Now it’s a race against time, with a 24-hour deadline.

Director John Sturges specialised in these sorts of action thrillers and he clearly knows what he is doing. He didn’t have a big budget to work with but he keeps the action moving at a break-neck pace and he knows how to maintain the tension. Considering the small budget he pulls off some fairly impressive action set-pieces.

The cast is comprised almost entirely of actors best known for television work, or (in the case of Dana Andrews) actors whose careers were on the downslide. The performances are generally quite competent. George Maharis is a little on the dull side but Andrews is solid and Richard Basehart is particularly good. Anne Francis (of Forbidden Planet fame) adds some glamour as Barrett’s girlfriend who also happens to be General Williams’ daughter.

The top-secret desert research facility with its elaborate security invites comparisons with The Andromeda Strain and in fact Robert Wise’s much better-known 1971 sci-fi thriller seems to have borrowed quite a few ideas from The Satan Bug.

The biggest plus is that we don’t get any tedious speechifying by the insane villain trying to justify his actions. Despite the subject matter this movie has no political axe to grind. It is an action thriller, pure and simple, for which we can be thankful.

The movie also doesn’t waste time on elaborate pseudoscientific explanations. All we need to know is that the villain has a super weapon and he must be stopped. We’re given just enough technobabble to make the threat terrifying.

Dispensing with speech-making and unnecessary scientific stuff helps to keep things moving along.

MGM have released this movie in their Limited Edition made-on-demand series. The transfer is anamorphic and is of acceptable quality although it’s clearly an unrestored print. There are no extras.

The Satan Bug can’t match the big-budget spectacular action of other Alistair MacLean adaptations (or of The Andromeda Strain) but judged as the modestly budgeted affair that it is it delivers plenty of excitement. Highly recommended. 

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