The Satan Bug (1965) ***

Director John Sturges blows apart all the conventions of the genre and boy does he enjoy playing with the audience in this Alistair Maclean pandemic thriller. Hero Barrett (George Maharis) takes fifteen minutes to arrive and the second main character General Williamson (Dana Andrews) another thirty minutes. We shift from docu-drama to pure detection to a manhunt that is way ahead of its time. General Williamson marshals an air-sea-land operation that pulls a dragnet so tight it seems the villains cannot escape – but that is just another device to throw the audience off track.

Most spy/thrillers take place in glorious color or in noir night, but here we are either in broad desert daylight, with vistas so wide and dirty brown nothing can escape the camera, or in murky twilight where anyone could get away, so that when we reach Los Angeles civilization is like a lush new world.  In the arid desert water is like an oasis of blue.

Barrett is a pretty good investigator so it’s quite wordy in places but discovery drives forward the narrative. By now quite a lot of the bad guys in this kind of thriller (e.g. James Bond) were narcissists, delighted to step into the spotlight and take on the good guys, but once again Sturges lets us nibble on this juicy bone before yanking it away.  The bad guy may be well known but has left no trace on the public records of the day.

There are a few standout scenes: Barrett entering the bug vault in full Hazchem outfit with every squeak of his accompanying hamster setting the viewer on edge; newsreel footage of roads littered with corpses; a roadblock played for laughs. And some neat twists – a phone ringing inside a locked house is easily answered because everyone also has a phone beside the pool, and in the noir tradition ex-flame Ann turns up too often for coincidence. That kind of playing on expectation goes, too, for Ed Asner (The Venetian Affair, 1966) who tones down his usual belligerence to a whispers.

Barrett is always behind the eight ball, never getting the drop on the opposition, and unlike James Bond, who always makes time for a dalliance of two, he’s a more down-to-earth hero and you can see why Sturges steered clear of the more obvious likes of Steve McQueen who would have demanded more action scenes to preserve his screen persona.

There’s a bit overmuch exposition at the start and especially once the picture picks up pace but that said the tension remains taut.

Maharis is excellent as the smart detective but former Hollywood superstar Dana Andrews (Laura, 1944) steals the show as the tight-lipped general. Anne Francis (Girl of the Night, 1960) proves a spunky girlfriend while Richard Basehart (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea series, 1964-1968) has a plum as the chief scientist.

James Clavell (The Great Escape, 1963) and Edward Anhalt (Becket, 1964) devised the screenplay from the Alistair Maclean thriller – written under his pseudonym Ian Stuart.