Sunday 14 October 2007

The Satan Bug (1965) John Sturges

John Sturges knew how to make action films, and had two recent classics under his belt by the time he made this film: The Magificent Seven in 1960 and his previous film, The Great Escape in 1963. It was based on a novel by thriller maestro Alistair Maclean, using the pseudonym of Ian Stuart it seems, even though I remember the paperback on my parents' bookshelves as being under his own name. Sturges would go on to film another Maclean novel a few years later with Ice Station Zebra. The adaptation was done by Edward Anhalt and James Clavell, who had co-written The Great Escape and of course would become famous for writing novels like Shogun.

We're in the middle of nowhere at Station 3, a chemical warfare research laboratory underneath the Californian desert, a lab where various technicians are researching things like the Satan bug of the title. This is so horrendously dangerous to human life that it could take out all of it, just from one broken flask. There are the usual massive security doors, complex alarm systems and cool lights, as well as the usual deadly chemicals, and the most dangerous of the lot gets stolen.

The man hired to track it down is Lee Barrett, a former intelligence officer from special ops, but with a growing aversion to the job and a talent for insubordination. He's a lawyer now, but he had a year behind him working at Station 3 and the powers that be need that experience and the knowledge that comes with it. He's played by George Maharis, well known at the time from the TV show Route 66, and he plays his part with such aplomb that it seems surprising that his film career floundered very quickly indeed. Maybe he's just a little too faceless a star to be a viable Hollywood leading man.

He has plenty of able backup here from people like Richard Basehart, Anne Francis and Dana Andrews, who was the president of the Screen Actors Guild at the time. Andrews was really busy on screen at this time, making no less than eight films in 1965. With his silver hair, he looks older than he did a couple of years later in the intriguing Hot Rods to Hell. He's still a powerful presence here. There's also Simon Oakland, who I'll always know best as Kolchak's boss but who I'm discovering was an inveterate scene stealer in a number of major films. He's quiet here but it's still difficult not to watch him, even when someone else is the main focus of the scene.

The plot itself is somewhat unique. There are a lot of plot holes and a lot of plot twists, but many of the plot twists cover up many of the plot holes. Every time I reacted to something that made no sense, some character or other twisted things round so that it was never a factor in the first place. The key question is that at the end of the day, how many plot holes were left? My problem is that this is a slow, talkative and intelligent film, and slow, talkative and intelligent films are not the best things to watch late at night. I finished it off in the morning but I'd need to watch afresh to know for sure. Certainly there's stupidity in the film, though at the hands of stupid people. How much is there left for supposedly intelligent people? Well, at least it had me asking questions and that's never a bad thing.

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