The Satan Bug (1965)

With all the recent talk of nuclear destruction, it's easy to forget the many ways we can destroy the human race without the benefit of someone pushing a big red button.  In fact, the fact that it is humans with families manning those buttons that have many times saved us from accidental destruction.

But what if a determined maniac (or group of maniacs) got their hands on something much more subtle than a nuclear weapon?  Truth is, there are a lot of diseases that we pat ourselves on the back for eradicating sitting on ice in various places around the world and it is the height of naivety to believe it hasn't crossed someone's mind on how to turn it into a weapon.

And what if someone with the resources to do so got their hands on that weapon?  That is the scenario we are confronted with in The Satan Bug.

At a remote California research facility called Station Three, Dr. Baxter (Henry Beckman) has created a new weaponized strain they nickname the Satan Bug.  An airborne virus, it is theorized that it can wipe out all life on earth within a period of a few months.  Lee Barrett (George Maharis), the former head of security at Station Three, is called in to investigate when Agent Reagan (John Anderson), the current head of security, is found dead and Baxter has gone missing.

Fearing the worst, Barrett begins working with Agent Eric Cavanaugh (Richard Bull) to figure out what has happened, concerned that someone from the inside at least assisted in the break-in.  When the time locks on the lab are released, Barrett enters and find Baxter dead and the flasks containing the disease, along with several containing botulinum, are missing.  General Williams (Dana Andrews) and his daughter Anne (Anne Francis) arrive incognito, but soon realize that their cover is blown when they receive a telegram informing them that if Station Three is not shut down that the toxins will be released and, in order to make their point, a demonstration will be made.

The demonstration is made in the Florida keys, with one of the botulinum flasks being released and hundreds killed.  Soon investigation leads to a likely suspect, a reclusive millionaire named Charles Ainsley, who says Los Angeles will be next if his demands are not met.  With evidence showing it was two men who broke in, Barrett deduces that they were to meet a third.  Suspicion falls upon Baxter's colleague Gregor Hoffman (Richard Basehart), who had a flat near a popular fishing spot that same night.  Barrett and Anne investigate and find that the flasks had been left in the river.  Unfortunately, they arrive at the same time as Ainsley's henchmen Donald (Frank Sutton) and Veretti (Edward Asner).

Barrett and Anne are captured and driven to a remote abandoned gas station, while pursued discreetly by the General's agents, but not before transferring one of the flasks to Hoffman.  The agents arrive at the gas station, but are forced to disarm under threat of one of the flasks being destroyed. Lee convinces the henchmen to take Anne with them, but he and the agents are locked in the station.  Barrett is able to neutralize the botulinum that is tossed in with them, but not before the other agents are infected.

After escaping, Barrett happens to see Hoffman's vehicle approaching, and throws a chunk of concrete at his window to force him to stop.  He again winds up being Hoffman's prisoner, as he has kept one of the flasks for himself, planning to keep it on hand to do what he wishes in the future.

The general sets up a fake accident and is able to eliminate Donald and Veretti, retrieving the flasks in their possession, and also manage to find an important clue to where the one in Los Angeles is hidden - Dodger Stadium.  The General and Lee find themselves in a race against time to both stop Ainsley's plans for good and save the citizens of Los Angeles from breathing poisonous air - well, at least more than usual.

Based on a novel by Alistair MacLean (written under the pseudonym Ian Stuart), this is a clever what-if scenario.  The movie may be over 50 years old, but the subject is still relevant, especially since Barrett makes the observation that no security is 100 percent.

George Maharis plays the square-jawed loose-cannon character as expected, and Richard Basehart plays the villain low-key.  He's still not developed much and his motives are cloudy, but at least he is believable as someone who would be able to pull something off, as he manages normally to stay under everyone's radar.  In a nice turn, although there are still enough stereotypical '60s moments involving her, Anne Francis is given more to do than just be baggage that has to be saved.  She's an agent on par with Barrett, able to at least attempt to fight her way out of situations (he's really no better at it himself).  Where most movies of this type would have just tossed her in for a love interest prize for the hero, here she is a long-time colleague on equal footing.

The other characters, however, are quite bland.  The henchmen are predictable evil-doers, the General is the pillar of authority, the scientists are absent-minded dabblers.  Combine that with some slow pacing at the start, and there is a reason this doesn't pop up as much when discussing similar thrillers from the time.  The pace does pick up after Barrett and Anne are captured, but a good third of the movie is guys talking in conference rooms.

John Sturges does a good job, especially with the rural desert locations, but this is the type of movie that someone like Alfred Hitchcock could have made much better.  It is decent as it is, but doesn't rise much beyond that.

The Satan Bug (1965)
Time: 114 minutes
Starring: George Maharis, Anne Francis, Richard Basehart, Dana Andrews
Director: John Sturges


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