Techno-thriller fans have been waiting a long time for a good disc of action ace John Sturges’ sci-fi espionage suspenser. George Maharis, Richard Basehart, Anne Francis and Dana Andrews must stop a madman who has snatched a full set of deadly bio-warfare viruses from a super-secret government lab. Each flask can wipe out an entire city, and one of them could kill every living thing on the planet.
The Satan Bug
KL Studio Classics
1965 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 114 min. / Street Date September 22, 2015 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring George Maharis, Richard Basehart, Anne Francis, Dana Andrews, John Larkin, Richard Bull, Frank Sutton, Edward Asner, Simon Oakland, John Anderson, James Hong, Hari Rhodes, Henry Beckman, Harry Lauter, Tol Avery, Russ Bender, James Doohan, Harold Gould, Carey Loftin.
Cinematography Robert Surtees
Film Editor Ferris Webster
Original Music Jerry Goldsmith
Written by Edward Anhalt, James Clavell from the novel by Ian Stuart (Alistair MacLean)
Produced and Directed by John Sturges
I would never have guessed that the top New York critics slammed John Sturges’ The Satan Bug back in 1965. At age thirteen, my best pal James Heath and I spent the matinee afternoon of our lives at a double bill shared with another colorful sci-fi thriller, Andrew Marton’s Crack in the World. Goldfinger was still in the theaters; I don’t even think I’d yet seen the reissue of the first two Bond films. My strongest exposure to the idea of ‘the end of the world’ was through a TV screening of On the Beach. It was somewhat traumatizing because it raised a lot of questions, and my parents avoided the subject as ‘something I shouldn’t be thinking about.’ I hadn’t seen Dr. Strangelove or Fail Safe either. At age ten, even the Cuban Missile Crisis was downplayed at my house, and it certainly wasn’t discussed at school. All the dramas I’d seen about high-risk, high stakes conflicts were war movies: Sink the Bismarck, that kind of thing. To us immature kids, the notion that a scientific blunder or a secret germ program could kill everybody on Earth was an excitingly unreal prospect.
Critics said that The Satan Bug was poorly paced and too talky, slams that would have been meaningless to us. The movie has secret government labs, fantastic killing viruses, and secret agents with guns battling it out in the desert. The hero is smarter than Sherlock Holmes and knows exactly what to do in all circumstances. He rides around in helicopters, and can fly one. Dreamy Anne Francis is his girlfriend. He was exactly who we wanted to grow up to be. For a school ‘occupation essay’ I went to the library and looked up the F.B.I. and the C.I.A.. Imagine my disappointment when the brochures advised applicants to go to law school. There wasn’t a word about learning to be impervious to bullets, or outsmarting wicked femmes fatale.
The Satan Bug is all about the Bug and nothing but the Bug, and thus offends critics looking for amusing characterizations or sophisticated political insights, as in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate. Yet it holds together as a quality suspense thriller. Out on the Mojave Desert (or in the Low Desert near Palm Springs) is a Biological Weapons Lab called Station 3. The head of security is found murdered, even though nobody suspicious entered or left the lab. The leading scientist in charge is missing, and the lab’s time-locked vault containing all the dangerous bio-weapons won’t open for a couple of hours. Brought into investigate is special agent Lee Barrett (George Maharis). He resigned from the lab not long before, citing ‘issues of conscience.’ Scientist Dr. Gregor Hoffman (Richard Basehart) updates the government security chiefs on what Station 3 has been doing. The lab has already isolated one deadly virus weapon called Botulinus. It spreads as it drifts on the wind, killing everybody it touches. But it is only active for eight hours; after that it becomes harmless.
What the experts don’t know is that Station three recently perfected a second bio-weapon given the prejudicial name The Satan Bug. It does the same thing, except it has no expiration factor — it’ll go on killing until it has eliminated nearly every living thing on the planet. When the vault is opened, Barrett discovers that a full case of bio-weapon flasks are missing, a number of Botulinus cultures and one of The Satan Bug. The big security boss ‘The General’ (Dana Andrews) flies in to secretly supervise, connecting with Barrett through his daughter Ann (Anne Francis). They’ve barely begun to guess who might be responsible for the murder and theft when news comes in that Key West has just been struck with a flask of Botulinus. A couple of hours later, they’re looking at 16mm aerial footage from Florida showing dozens of dead bodies. What can anybody possibly do?
In researching the commentary for The Satan Bug I found out that ace action director John Sturges took on the project almost as a contract filler, a relatively easy assignment to do while prepping for his expensive 65mm production The Hallelujah Trail. Everything On screen is professional, especially the visual aspects and the taut direction, but it doesn’t look as if Sturges paid too much attention to details. A close viewing reveals occasional gaps in logic that I certainly didn’t notice during my first two or three viewings. For 1965, The Satan Bug more than delivers sophisticated high tech thriller action. Many details are far more exacting than what was the norm for the time. The screenplay gets us highly worked up over a threat we can’t directly see, an abstraction fit for a megadeath-calculating ghoul like McNamara or Kissinger.
The performing prize goes out to star Richard Basehart. Dana Andrews has only to exude authority and act concerned, and Anne Francis does little more than hang around on the margins. But Basehart provides the thriller’s backbone. He stands up from a table and delivers a four-minute speech packed with more exposition than the Krell backstory in Forbidden Planet. It’s brilliant oratory, a campfire horror tale for techno-nerds. Horrible germs are loose. Were a single glass bottle to be broken, all of us would die. We don’t ask ourselves why anybody should even think of making such a — what’s the word — impractical weapon. The Satan Bug is a total wipe-out, a planetary reboot germ even closer to the concept of Pandora’s Box than the deliciously suicidal Great Whatzit of Kiss Me Deadly.
Back in the 1960s the most insightful genre criticism came from English critics, and most of them were liberals with a low opinion of America’s vision of global security. One typical U.K. review sarcastically observed that Lee Barrett’s valiant efforts once again save the day for Uncle Sam’s Evil weapons research programs. The movie is actually much less right-wing than that. Yes, pacifist organizations are slighted as unwittingly aiding unnamed ‘enemies of freedom.’ But Barrett himself is an independent thinker. He fights for the military-industrial monolith because one must oppose what he calls, “extremists of all kinds, from ban the bomb, to nuke ’em now.”
But like most genre thrillers, The Satan Bug dodges ideological questions. The enemy turns out to be not at all political in a real-world sense, but the kind of nihilistic megalomaniac one finds in comic books, or Ian Fleming’s Cold War fantasies. The villain plans to use The Satan Bug to rule the world. If he can’t do that, he’ll behave like a Nietzsche- worshipping Mabuse, and destroy everything.
Despite the fact there’s never been a crying need for new ways to destroy the world, our tax dollars keep working on the problem. My emotional response to The Satan Bug is to box the ears of anybody even remotely responsible for cooking up &%#*$ murderous germs. Another morbid digression: I call the movie’s nihilistic bad guy a comic-book villain, but in today’s world he is not at all a fantasy. Your average mass murderer / domestic terrorist these days seems to have lost all connection to human values, to the point that he feels the only way one can assert a personal identity is to commit suicide while taking out some innocent lives. “My importance is based on the number of people I can take with me to the grave.” That’s pretty much the philosophy of the villain of The Satan Bug.
The best criticism of The Satan Bug I’ve come across is that its stakes are set too high for a successful drama. Just having to deal with the Botulinus germs would be bad enough. The threat is appalling, yet limited. What if Barrett knew where The Evil Bad Guy planned to strike next? Would it be right to let him destroy one city, if allowing it to happen would ensure his capture? Generals in wartime have had to make decisions similar to that. As soon as The Satan Bug’s Evil Bad Guy takes a flask in hand and threatens to break it, the story has peaked. Nothing anybody thinks or does matters, so some of the fuss and thunder of the last few minutes of the movie come off as a little pointless. The only logical ‘place to go’ would be an un-dramatic debate — if Barrett is so smart, maybe he can talk the bad guy into adopting a humanist viewpoint. That would be a fine outcome, but it’s a terrible idea for an action suspense thriller.
This is still a very exciting movie thrill ride, circa ’65. I won’t go into the many lesser question-mark issues of logic that arise in The Satan Bug. I’m sure others will see some that I Didn’t spot. Rather than give the impression that there’s anything wrong with this exciting, suspenseful movie, let me mention some things that came to my mind while watching it last night.
Alastair MacLean used the pen name Ian Stuart because he wanted to augment his military-thriller line of books with a James Bond-like effort. MacLean seems to have done exactly what Ian Fleming did — recycle ideas and situations from slightly older movies. The Satan Bug does indeed appear to lift the basic premise and more from the little-seen germ warfare thriller Counterblast, a British film from 1948. The similarities may be coincidental, but even Ian Fleming graded such things in steps: ‘happenstance, coincidence, enemy action.’ MacLean’s book is just as original as any sci-fi, film noir or gangster movie that freely reshuffles other writers’ ideas.
The title sequence is really good, even if it does seem derived from Saul Bass. We know we’re watching an abstraction showing a man die cell by cell, accompanied by the ominous, menacing tones of Jerry Goldsmith’s music. The jagged blood vessels in the dead man’s eye become intersecting highways in the desert, a nice touch. Artistically, the movie is a high-class effort.
George Maharis may be nobody’s favorite personality, and his TV show buddy Martin Milner the nice guy, but I think Maharis makes a really good, fairly realistic spy hero. Lee Barrett is a little fast with his sharp deductions but he’s not overly vain or pompous. He’s not as sardonic and cold as Patrick O’Neal’s equally brilliant spy Charles Rone, in John Huston’s The Kremlin Letter. Barrett is not James Bond or Derek Flint, and no “Q” provides him with futuristic gadgets. He’s just a little smarter and a little faster with his fists than we are.
The movie looks great; Robert Surtees’ clean images are pleasurable in themselves. The colors and suspense lighting in the lab are superb. With its crystal clear unpolluted air, the desert is a great setting for the film’s extended road chases. Sturges may not have been totally focused on this production, but he and Surtees take good care of the visual details. We always feel we’re on the desert at a specific time of day.
Even the Rear-Projection process shots of people in cars are better than average, extremely well done for 1964. For the final helicopter scene the production really goes overboard with the RP angles, all of which match nicely. BTW, I contacted old UCLA friend Larry Mirisch for the commentary. His father Walter didn’t have a lot to tell me about the film, so an interview wouldn’t have yielded much. Larry was a young boy in 1965, and all he remembers is visiting the process photography stage for the helicopter setup. I’ve witnessed some fancy front-projection but have never seen an old-fashioned RP stage of the kind that Hollywood used for over forty years. From what I’ve learned the shots are a real pain to set up, which is why most old movies use the same dull angles and framing.
In the showdown scene at the abandoned garage out on the desert, Surtees uses a thin fabric screen to cut down the background light, perhaps so a pre-dawn scene can be filmed later in the day. Something like a mosquito net is being used as a BIG neutral density filter. It’s perhaps twenty feet wide and ten feet tall. The netting causes a Moiré pattern to form in part of the frame. It’s not a video problem but something subtle in the original photography. I only noticed it on the final HD copy of The Satan Bug.
John Sturges didn’t get to film his planned mass evacuation scene, and I’m undecided as to whether one was even needed. Besides Dodger Stadium, all we see at street level of the big Los Angeles evacuation are four or five shots taken on a vacant Wilshire Blvd., down near La Brea Avenue. Whatever gas station we’re looking at, it’s long gone now. If a mass panic scene were spectacular enough, it might have provided more must-see appeal, but probably not.
The movie doesn’t function on the level of everyday reality. It’s about secret ‘guardians of freedom’ fighting battles away from the public eye, not ordinary folk wondering how they’re going to escape from Los Angeles. Launching into a mass evacuation subplot might take the focus away from Barrett and those deadly flasks, and dissipate the suspense. Of course, a modern remake of The Satan Bug would be sure to pack every scene with extraneous action and special effects distractions — besides mass panic covering Los Angeles, there’s be graphic autopsy footage and more scenes of people dying horribly from the big bad Botulinus. If people in action movies can outrun bullets and explosions, maybe they can outrun germs, too.
The 16mm B&W film from Key West is still the film’s strongest material. The staging for the aerial angles is faultless, with its news-film immediacy and found footage quality. It’s also essential to the drama: everybody in the movie warns about friggin’ disaster from the killer germs, but we see precious little of their effect. In 1965, I don’t think that images of dead bodies in the streets were yet common fare on TV newscasts or even the front pages of the top newspapers. TV barely flashed stills of those Vietnamese monks burning themselves, and the first Vietnam footage I remember where people were dying before my eyes was from the Tet Offensive in 1968. The pictures seemed to be asking, ‘who is responsible for this carnage?’ The Satan Bug gave us a hint of what the billions of dollars we spend on exotic weapons might be capable of. The aerial footage of innocent vacationers and golfers stopped dead in their tracks should remind us of the human-but-Evil Harry Lime’s prophetic question in The Third Man, looking at the tiny people from high atop a Ferris Wheel: “How many dots you could afford to spend?”
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Satan Bug looks great. About five years ago, MGM’s MOD line put out a terrible disc apparently derived from the flat transfer used for an old laserdisc from around 1996 or so. It looked awful, worse than what one could see on TCM cable. In this case Kino Lorber has made its own new transfer, and come up with a fine HD encoding. Surtees’ work looks sharp and colorful in every scene. The audio is good overall as well. The track is not in stereo, but like an expertly engineered old mono lp, in the main title sequence I get the illusion of separation. The only flaw, on my equipment at least, is a tiny bit of distortion in parts of the title theme. Goldsmith’s innovative music avoids most spy clichés to exercise the ‘strange noise’ innovations that would spring out full force in his later The Planet of the Apes score.
I recorded the commentary early in July. I couldn’t learn what artist created the matte paintings of the aerial freeways. I thought Jim Danforth but he says they aren’t his. There is precious little research material available for the movie — even Tom Weaver didn’t get much out of Anne Francis. Other participants didn’t speak of the film in a positive way either. One needs to remember that when an industry writer, producer or director looks back at a long career, the talk naturally goes to the big titles, the ones that got lots of attention or advanced careers. That doesn’t affect my opinion — when I’m entertained, I’m entertained. Much of my commentary attempts to compare and contrast The Satan Bug with other exotic doomsday fantasies about poison gas and germ warfare weapons. A lot of critical opinionizing ensues.
The Mirisch Company put plenty of effort into the film’s good trailer. I didn’t know it would be included, which is why about half the trailer’s audio is repeated in the commentary. For the record, I turned in the track only partly edited. Kino’s Bret Wood arranged the final placement of speeches, with much care.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Satan Bug
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Original trailer, plus a commentary by Glenn Erickson. That’s a flagrant conflict of interest, review-wise. I think something ought to be done about it.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 19, 2015
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson
Here’s Michael Schlesinger on the Sturges thriller: