Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Satan Bug (1965)

From the late Fifties to the mid-Sixties one could say that director John Sturges was on a roll. He had directed such popular and critically well received films as Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Last Train from Gun Hill (1959), The Magnificent Seven (1960), and The Great Escape (1963). The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape in particular had fairly large, big name casts and were truly epic in scope (both films' running times were in excess of 2 hours). Mr. Sturges' 1965 film following The Great Escape would then be a change of pace for the director.

The Satan Bug was based on Alistair MacLean's 1962 novel of the same name. At a time when fears of nuclear annihilation may have been at an all time high, The Satan Bug dealt with biological warfare. It would be a topic that many films in the late 20th Century and early 21st Century would deal with, from The Crazies (1973) to Twelve Monkeys (1995), but in 1965 it was a fairly novel idea. Prior to The Satan Bug very few films dealt with bacteriological warfare, RKO's 1951movie The Whip Hand perhaps being the most significant.  The Satan Bug was also one of the many spy thrillers released in the mid-Sixties. That having been said, it was a very different sort of spy thriller from the various Bondian pastiches being released at the time. It was a much more intellectual film, with its hero Lee Barrett (played by George Maharis) preferring to use his wits rather than a gun.

Not only did The Satan Bug differ from other spy thrillers of the time, it also differed a good deal from John Sturges' best known films of the time. While The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape both had big name casts, the biggest name movie star in The Satan Bug was Dana Andrews, then past his days as a leading man. That is not to say that the rest of the cast were exactly unknowns. Both Anne Francis and Richard Basehart had appeared in a number of supporting roles in films and guest appearances in TV shows. At the time Richard Basehart was playing Admiral Nelson on the TV show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, while Anne Francis would receive her own show in the fall of 1965, Honey West. As to the film's star, George Maharis, he had played Buzz Murdock on the popular TV show Route 66. The rest of the cast of The Satan Bug was filled with actors whose faces are today recognisable to audiences, but at the time mostly played small roles in films and made guest appearances on television. Edward Asner was years away from playing Lou Grant on Mary Tyler Moore, while Frank Sutton was still in his first year as Sgt. Carter on Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.

While The Satan Bug differed form  The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape in lacking a big name cast, it differed from other spy thrillers of the era in that its emphasis is not on non-stop action. Rather than building suspense through various action scenes, instead The Satan Bug does so through the search for the weaponised  botulinus, dialogue, character interaction, and planning. Combined with its rather deliberate pace, The Satan Bug is then much more suspenseful than if it had been done in the manner of the Bondian thrillers of the day. This is not to say that The Satan Bug entirely lacks action scenes. There are a few and, as might be expected of John Sturges, they are all exciting and very well done.

That The Satan Bug lacks the big name casts of The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, one should not think that it is lacking in good performances. Richard Basehart is particularly impressive in what might be the film's most difficult role, as is Dana Andrews as General Williams. While George Maharis' Lee Barrett seems more than a little reminiscent of Buzz Murdock on Route 66, it is still a good performance as the character as written seems very similar to Buzz anyway. Perhaps my only complaint with the cast of The Satan Bug is that Anne Francis is not given very much to do. While she gives a solid performance as always, in the end it seems that her character could have been better utilised.

The Satan Bug is not a perfect film. At times its plot does seem a bit disjointed. And while I thought it fit the film perfectly, even at the time of its release there were those who complained about its very deliberate pace. And, as I said in the above paragraph, I really think that Anne Francis' character should have been given more to do. 

The Satan Bug premiered in New York City on 14 April 1965. While John Sturges' previous film, The Great Escape, had been a huge success, The Satan Bug did extremely poorly at the box office. Critics were not particularly kind  to The Satan Bug. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times complained that it "...has much the triteness and monotony of an average serial television show." The headline of Mae Tinnee's review in The Chicago Tribune summed up many critics' opinion of the film, "The Satan Bug,'All Talk, Little Action'".

Today The Magnificent Seven  and The Great Escape are regarded as classics, while The Satan Bug has largely been forgotten. This does not quite seem right to me. Despite the indifference of audiences at the time and the sometimes poor reviews from critics, The Satan Bug is a fine, well wrought thriller that is begging for rediscovery. In the future I hope that it is included among the lists of John Sturges' best films.

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