Let’s be glad that the coronavirus shows no signs of developing into the kind of bio-warfare shown in John Sturges’ surprisingly-on-the-money-for-1965 tech-talk thriller. The virus shown here arrests the subject within seconds; collected in a number of glass containers, they’re the deadly Macguffin that The Satan Bug revolves around.
Alistair MacLean’s reputation as a storyteller was cemented by Ice Station Zebra; he published The Satan Bug under the name Ian Stuart to see if he could still hit big without drawing on his growing reputation. He was right; The Satan Bug film features an adaptation by a young James Clavell that carries forward many of the novel’s key points. George Maharis plays Lee Barrett, a security office brought in by the government after a deadly toxin is stolen from a desert facility. Barrett is, like many of MacLean’s heroes, a journeyman of exceptional ability, and there’s a zinger of an introduction aboard his yacht where he sniffs out a government test of his corrupt-ability. Barrett heads to the Station Three facility in Southern California, where he figures out how the theft was completed in old-school, Hercule Poirot style; the deductions seem credible and establish Barrett as a no-nonsense type. There’s a dalliance with Anne Francis, some hard talk with a general (Dana Andrews) and a patient build up to an extended chase, during which the fate of the world depends on the delivery of the glass-flasks intact.
The Satan Bug has an exciting title that doesn’t quite get visualised here; there’s no sign of giant bugs or indeed of Satan himself. There’s also no sign of the kind of teaser disasters that one expects of a disaster movie; we’re told through dialogue that hundreds have died in a preliminary skirmish in Florida, but there’s no visual information about this at all. That’s par for the course for the mid-60’s, but Sturges does manages to whip up impressive tension in a baseball stadium/helicopter action scene for the finale.
The Satan Bug is dated, for sure, but there’s also a modern film fighting to get out; Maharis does well as the proto-Bond hero, and some of the location work is ahead of its time. And what Sturges manages to convey is fear; with just a few glass flasks and a serious tone, he conjures up a grounded sci-fi drama that works well for patient viewers.