Thursday, March 10, 2011

George Maharis and Anne Francis Search for "The Satan Bug"

With its TV-quality cast and pedestrian source novel, The Satan Bug has no right to be a diverting, lively thriller. But director John Sturges works wonders with an implausible plot about a madman who steals a deadly virus from a chemical warfare research facility.

The staging of the theft is clever, but stretches credibility: The bad guys sneak into the lab by hiding in giant supply boxes. You’d think that the guards would have noticed something odd about those oversized cartons, although the boxes are delivered late on a Friday afternoon and everyone seems a little tired. In fact, the facility's head of security (John Anderson) comments ominously: "Tired men make mistakes. God help us if a mistake is made here."

Once the Satan Bug (the scientists’ nickname for the experimental virus) disappears, a game of cat-and-mouse commences. U.S. authorities tap former security expert Lee Barrett (George Maharis) to recover the lethal vials and find out who masterminded the heist.

Geroge Maharis and Anne Francis.
Sturges keeps The Satan Bug moving at a breakneck pace, which perfectly complements the time-sensitive nature of the plot. As Barrett and his companion Ann (Anne Francis) search frantically for the stolen virus, a mysterious millionaire named Charles Reynolds Ainsley threatens to release the virus unless the U.S. government destroys its chemical warfare facilities. To demonstrate his willingness to carry through on his threat, Ainsley has his cronies release a strain of botulinus (stolen along with the Satan Bug) in Florida, killing dozens of innocent people.

While the botulinus becomes harmless after eight hours, we learn that the Satan Bug is a self-perpetuating airborne virus that will kill all life in the U.S. within a week. As for an antidote, the solemn Dr. Hoffman notes: "Nothing can stop the Satan Bug."

Frank Sutton and Ed Asner as bad guys.
It won’t take you long to hone in on the identity of the villain—but that’s part of the fun. Equally entertaining is the cast of former and future TV stars. George Maharis had bolted from his hit TV series Route 66 to take a shot at big screen stardom. It didn’t work, though, and he was back on TV four years later. The villain’s henchmen include Frank Sutton (who would play Sergeant Carter on Gomer Pyle, USMC) and Edward Asner (Lou Grant on Mary Tyler Moore). Anne Francis, whose film career was fading a bit, tried her hand at TV that same year with the short-lived, private-eye series Honey West. And best of all, one of the suspicious scientists is played by Richard Basehart, who starred in my first favorite TV show, Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

Years after I first saw The Satan Bug, I found the novel at a library book sale. Knowing that author Alistair MacLean was also responsible for Where Eagles Dare and Ice Station Zebra, I was enthused about reading The Satan Bug. To my surprise, it was exceedingly dull with thin characters and trite dialogue. The film adaptation rates as a major improvement.

The soundtrack album cover--another
great score from Jerry Goldsmith.

Still, don’t expect an a top-flight suspense film along the lines of The Andromeda Strain. Keep your expectations reasonable and you'll find that The Satan Bug is an engrossing, entertaining thriller. And if you’re familiar with the TV stars in the cast, you’re certain to relish the film’s nostalgic appeal.


  1. This IS a nostalgic trip through TVland history. I remember seeing The Satan Bug and enjoying it a lot. It's strange when the original book ends up being dull and not as well done as the movies do it. It's usually the other way around. I remember reading The Phantom of the Opera after seeing many versions of it in movies. It's really a bad book! Great concept, of course, but not well-written and pretty dull! It's amazing what the movies have done with it.

    Your review has had an unintended effect on me, Rick. Now I want to watch The Andromeda Strain, one of the greats!

  2. Rick, I'm not familiar with this film. As Becky said, it is interesting that you found the book less entertaining than the film--that doesn't happen very often. I wouldn't mind seeing Ed Asner play a bad guy. He looks pretty nefarious in the above picture.

  3. I think subpar books adapted into films happens more frequently than most people know. Audiences usually don't even know the movie's an adaptation, as it's not a selling point like with a popular novel. And so if you like a movie and only later learn that there's a source text, chances are you're not going to like it, in the same vein as a film version not measuring up to your favorite book.

    I haven't seen this film. It sounds quite good, and the TV cast is terrific! With a quick Google search, it looks like it was released on DVD just over a month ago, so maybe finding it to watch will be easy. Great write-up, Rick!

  4. Rick, my husband and I have always rather liked THE SATAN BUG. It's not as tense and gripping as THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, but there's something about it that holds my attention whenever it's on. Admittedly, it doesn't hurt that we always liked Anne Francis. :-) Also, I've read a couple of Alistair McLean books and, well, maybe I just didn't read the right ones, but I found McLean's prose rather dull; the films based on the books always came out better. You know, Alfred Hitchcock's films were often derived from so-so books; Hitchcock wanted stories that he and his screenwriters could adapt, clay-like, to suit their own purposes.

  5. This is actually one of the old 60's movies that I enjoy quite a bit. I'd always thought it was a made for television movie, but that wasn't mentioned in the article so maybe I'm wrong.

  6. Rick, count me among the fans of "The Satan Bug." I approached it without expectations and had a lot of fun seeing its TV star portfolio. George Maharis is quite good. My husband and I enjoy watching "Route 66" on DVD.

    Kim, Ed Asner plays a bad guy in at least one episode of "The Fugitive" and possibly one of the "Route 66" shows, too. He is a very dependable performer and has an effective mean guy look.

    Rick, in the scene where Anne is in the car I almost expected her to open her compact and call Sam from "Honey West." Honey was a stronger role than the one played by Anne here.

    Great profile of "The Satan Bug," Rick. And a nice nod to "The Andromeda Strain," too.

  7. Lee Barrett's character seemed like the perfect kind to launch a spin-off tv series on, and I'm surprised no producer thought of doing that in the 60s. That's interesting that the novel was not up to the excitement of the film, I've found that to be true with a number of different books.