Book into Film – “The Satan Bug” (1965)

Not unexpectedly, director John Sturges shifted the action of the Alistair MacLean Doomsday-scenario thriller from Britain to the United States and the locale of the secret chemical facility from lush English countryside to desert and from above ground to underground. Not unusually, either, wholesale changes were made to the names of all the characters. The MacLean chief investigator was called Pierre Cavell, but Sturges altered that to Lee Barrett (George Maharis), chief scientist Dr Gregori becomes Dr Hoffman (Richard Basehart), General Cliveden turns into General Williams (Dana Andrews), his daughter Mary becomes Ann (Anne Francis). MacLean’s Cavell was far from the handsome Hollywood hero, walking with a limp and face scarred. Mary is his wife and not, as in the Sturges version, an ex-flame.

More surprisingly, Sturges inserted a 15-minute prologue. The initial scenes taking place at the research facility are pure invention on the part of screenwriters James Clavell (633 Squadron, 1964) and double Oscar-winner Edward Anhalt (Becket, 1964), although drawing on material dealt with as backstory in the original novel. In typical Alistair MacLean fashion, the novel went straight into the action with the attempt to recruit Cavell/Barrett for nefarious purposes, allowing the reader/viewer the chance to learn about his past.  

There are other considerable differences between book and film. In the first place Sturges widened out the action, so that the idea of mankind in complete peril is more obviously cinematically achieved. (In the book a small village is wiped out after a nerve gas attack with London the main objective for the Satan Bug).  In addition, the General plays a greater on-screen role and in some respects controls the manhunt.

But the narrative thrust of film and book go their separate ways. Barrett,a Korean war veteran, operates in standard espionage territory while Cavell is more of an old-fashioned detective, interviewing suspects. While Barrett, with the help of the General, closes in on the suspect responsible for the panic, Cavell had to investigate myriad possibilities before fixing on the culprit.

Perhaps the most important differences are that MacLean’s hero solves the mystery primarily through his own skill while Barrett is less self-reliant. Cavell often informs his mystified superiors that he knows exactly what is going on.  A further departure from the film is that Cavell spots the real reason for the theft of the Satan Bug, realizing it is merely a front for a bigger plot. With the author’s usual audacity this supposes that the villain’s blackmail scheme is simply a method of clearing out central London in order to carry out a series of heists on bank vaults while the city is deserted of all personnel and police.  

However, the heist to end all heists had already being adequately covered in terms of grand larceny in Goldfinger the previous year and Sturges could clearly see the cinematic benefits of an audience fearing the impact of wholesale slaughter rather than worrying whether a James Bond-type hero would survive. Sturges correctly calculated that audiences would respond more to the paranoia pervasive at the time than individual derring-do. In some respects, Sturges created a template for future bug movies that threatened to leave swathes of the population dead such as The Andromeda Strain (1971), The Cassandra Crossing (1976), Black Sunday (1977) and Outbreak (1985). Silent destruction – rather than the devastating fire rained down by invading aliens – also touched on implicit human fears of unknown powers at work and of course is now decidedly contemporary.

The screenwriters did lift complete sections from the book – the initial interrogation of Cavell/Barrett, how the dogs were silenced at the facility, the nerve gas attack on the imprisoned pursuers (in an abandoned gas station in the film, a farm in the book), and Barrett’s insistence that the bad guys take away Ann immediately prior to this attack.

But most of the Sturges film veers so far from the Alistair Maclean blueprint that it relies heavily on the invention of the screenwriters. But it would be interesting to know why they deprived Barrett – perhaps determined to establish him as a loner – of more personal ties for in the novel it is the wife who is endangered not an old girlfriend and the investigator’s best friend is among the casualties at the facility.

The book itself is highly recommended, not just tautly- but well-written. The author’s later books were often a parody of his earlier excellence but this novel, published in 1962, is one of his best and well worth a read.

Behind the Scenes – “The Satan Bug” (1965)

In 1963 John Sturges made a deal for his Kappa Productions outfit with United Artists.  The director was keenest on The Hallelujah Trail (1965) and what became Hour of the Gun (1967) but The Satan Bug was greenlit first because of the production difficulties inherent in developing westerns. To cut down on travel, Sturges decided to shoot in and around the desert area close to his home turf of Palm Springs and the Joshua Tree National Park. He called in James Clavell, responsible for the screenplay of The Great Escape (1963), and Edward Anhalt (Becket, 1964) to Americanize  and update the English-set Alistair Maclean thriller written before the Cold War escalation of the Cuban Crisis and the increasing fears of nuclear arsenals.

Hardly a director known for “message pictures” – more likely to emanate from the likes of Stanley Kramer – nonetheless he recognized the implicit threat of biological warfare for “its terror potential” and envisioned a powerful climax in the evacuation of Los Angeles. He swapped the married, lame and disfigured hero of the novel for a hip loner in the Steve McQueen mold.

Unable on a $6 million budget to afford a leading man of the McQueen calibre – a strange notion when Two for the Road’s $5 million budget included $1 million for Audrey Hepburn – he settled on rising star George Maharis (Quick Before It Melts, 1964) who had graduated from television’s Route 66 (1960-1963). “We were disappointed that we were not able to get a major star to play the leading role,” commented producer Walter Mirisch, whose company Mirisch Pictures bankrolled the picture. “The idea of using… George Maharis was suggested… John (Sturges) pressured us to cast him. I had felt the subject required a major action-adventure star. George Maharis wasn’ t that, nor did he ever become a major shooting star. ”

Richard Basehart was also plucked from television – the star of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968) – as was Frank Sutton (Donald in the film) from comedy Gomer Pyle, USMC (1964-1969). Initially cast as the general’s daughter, Joan Hackett (The Group, 1966)   – in what would have been her movie debut – was replaced by Anne Francis. In fact, Hackett worked on the movie for two weeks. “John called,” explained Mirisch,” and told me he was very dissatisfied with Joan.” Sturges had worked with her replacement Anne Francis before on Bad Day at Black Rock (1955).

Sturges biggest problem was creating imposing research facility Station 3. Sticking it underground saved a chunk of cash on the budget, since interiors were minimalist. “The set cost us nothing,” said Sturges. But to add a sense of tension, the set was lit with an ominous amber glow.

However, it proved impossible to achieve the one effect Sturges had set his heart on – the panic-crazed evacuation of Los Angeles. City officials put a block on the gridlock called for in the script. Recalled Sturges, “The sons-of-bitches wouldn’t let me stop traffic…we didn’t get the panic on the streets, the motorists trapped on the freeways…the nightmare of the evacuation.” The director was forced to resort to “glass shots” and background noise to create the sense of pandemonium, the gridlock limited to the roadblock.

Also hampering production was a sense that the director’s mind was not fully on the job. Screenwriter John Gay (The Hallelujah Trail) was often on set conferring between shots with Sturges. The laughter they enjoyed dreaming up ideas for the comedy western seemed at odds with the mood of the pandemic thriller, leaving some actors annoyed.

Commented Mirisch, “It never developed any momentum on its (U.S.) release and wasn’t successful commercially.” According to the Mirisch internal records, the picture’s negative cost (excluding marketing and advertising) was $1.78 million. It only brought in $850,000 in rentals from the U.S. release though foreign business was better, $1.75 million, but the combined total was not enough, once the promotional costs were included, to turn a profit.

SOURCES: Glenn Lovell, Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges, University of Wisconsin Press, 2008,p243-248; Walter Mirich, I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History, University of Wisconsin Press, 2008, p211-212; Mirisch Financial Records for 1965.

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.