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September 17, 2015

The Satan Bug

satan bug french poster.jpg

John Sturges -1965
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Made in between the more expensive and elaborate The Great Escape and The Hallelujah Trail, is this more modest produced thriller. Based on a novel written by Alistair MacLean under the pseudonym of Ian Stuart, the action was moved from Great Britain to the U.S., mostly within driving distance of Los Angeles. Reportedly, Preston Sturges was distracted while making The Satan Bug as he was preparing The Hallelujah Trail at the same time. In retrospect, The Hallelujah Trail either should not have been made or had been directed by someone more adept at comedy. The source book as I recall was pretty good, though the set looks absolutely nothing like Denver of 1867. I suspect that as a reliable moneymaker for the Mirisch Company and United Artists, Sturges may have been encouraged to provide something for the studio pipeline.

The more literal minded will be disappointed to know that there is no Satan, and there are no bugs. The title comes from the naming of a chemical designed for biological warfare that theoretically is capable of killing all forms of life. The security at Station Three might have been state of the art for 1965, but it's not enough to stop someone from stealing a bunch of glass flasks, with the threat of releasing enough toxin to kill everyone in metro Los Angeles. It's a premise that could happen, especially with enough accidents that occur by people who are entrusted with hazardous material. Being 1965 though, most of the heroes are serious white guys in suits and fedoras.

The film is visually of interest in the first half hour or so. The titles, by DePatie-Freleng of Pink Panther fame, attempt to mimic the abstract symbolism of the animated titled by Saul Bass. The best part is when the close-up of the veins of a cartoon eye dissolve into an overhead shot of the forks of a desert road, with a lone truck cruising towards its destination. The secret lab is a collection of glass rooms, with the design enabling the viewer to see action in two different spaces simultaneously. There is also visual beauty in a crane shot with the wide screen filled with the pattern of the security fences outside the lab. An early scene with a hard working scientist is lit from below, giving the actor Henry Beckman the look of a character in a horror movie. A scene involving a shootout between the bad guys and the feds is unsurprisingly reminiscent of the several westerns by Sturges.

Glenn Erickson of DVD Savant provided a commentary track that mostly discusses The Satan Bug in relation to some similar films. What might, for some some, provide a reason to see The Satan Bug is the news that Pauline Kael claimed this was the worse film ever made. This isn't even the worse John Sturges movie ever made - that would be the overlong and unfunny The Hallelujah Trail. In retrospect, the cast is made of top billed actors whose glory days were in the past, and a few supporting actors who were on their way to big things on the small screen. Former television star George Maharis never achieved big screen success like Sturges alumni Steve McQueen. Anne Francis, who stepped in when Joan Hackett dropped out, plays the former girlfriend of Maharis. Unlike her pivotal role in Sturges' Bad Day in Black Rock, there's not much to her role here. Dana Andrews was reduced to supporting roles, while Richard Basehart became a character actor in too many films that wasted his talent. Ed Asner is here, with a head full of hair, as one of the bad guys, while James Doohan, his distinctive Scottish accent not heard, has a dialogue free role as a federal agent.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 17, 2015 07:19 AM