The Satan Bug (MGM MOD program)
Directed by John Sturges
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 anamorphic Running Time: 114 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 mono English
MSRP: $ 19.98
Release Date: January 2011
Review Date: February 7, 2011
Doomsday thrillers dealing with lethal viruses are often very compelling in their set-ups and usually a bit of a letdown in the execution. Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain had its gripping moments but also ran on too long and become tedious before arriving at its suspenseful conclusion. Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak had a terrific exposition but fumbled away its suspense in a ludicrous second half. John Sturges’ The Satan Bug likewise establishes a premise for its lethal virus which could annihilate the world early and well, but the plotting for the film’s second half relies too much on happenstance for its denouement and ultimately ends up not being the great thriller it might have been. It’s still quite effective in parts, and certainly has some surprises for the audience, but its doesn’t reach the greatness of some of Sturges’ other 1960s movies (particularly The Great Escape or The Magnificent Seven) in terms of beautifully executed thrills.
Officials are dismayed to learn that a lethal virus known as “The Satan Bug” along with another less vitriolic toxin has been stolen from Station 3, a secret governmental laboratory doing experiments in chemical warfare. Called in to track down the thieves is Lee Barrett (George Maharis), an ex-CIA operative drummed out of the agency due to insubordination, not being able to obey orders he disagrees with. Scientist in charge Dr. Gregor Hoffman (Richard Basehart) is at a loss to explain how thieves broke into the highly guarded facility, but a thorough investigation reveals there was an inside man, a mole who for some unknown reason desired the toxic liquid for his own evil purposes. With girl friend Ann Williams (Anne Francis) and her father General Williams (Dana Andrews) aiding in the investigation, Lee snuffs out the guilty parties and also discovers the identity of the mole, not before learning, however, that a beaker of lethal virus has been left somewhere in Los Angeles.
It was very clever of screenwriters James Clavell and Edward Anhalt to install a mystery element to go along with the suspense element already in play here so that we’re wondering who the mole is as well as how the protagonists are going to stop the viruses from killing us all. They get a little lazy with the solving of their puzzles, however, leaving director John Sturges to have to salvage the movie with some tense action scenes. A sequence with our hero and two other CIA agents trapped in an abandoned gas station waiting for one of the hoods to toss in a vial of the virus is wonderfully staged even if tension could have been sustained even a bit longer than it is. A climactic fight in a crowded helicopter cockpit is a trifle clumsy if still effective for its time. The film’s many surprises are nicely revealed for the most part (Anne Francis’ stumbling on the hidden case of toxic vials seemed too much a coincidence in a film crammed with them), but the movie’s pacing isn’t sluggish in the least once the main search plot gets going.
George Maharis is a believable tough operative even if the script doesn’t allow him as many heroic achievements as his resume read to us earlier in the movie might have suggested. Anne Francis is wasted in a nothing role as is Dana Andrews who mainly sits in a room and talks on a telephone for most of the film. More interesting are Richard Basehart as the scientist in charge of the facility and good thug roles for two familiar TV faces: Frank Sutton and Edward Asner. John Clarke and Hari Rhodes do solid work as police detectives, and Simon Oakland and John Larkin show up as a government official and a scientist both deeply involved in the events at Station 3.
The Panavision aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is faithfully rendered with anamorphic enhancement for widescreen televisions. (The opening credits are generously windowboxed while the remainder of the film contains a slight amount of windowboxing which won’t be noticed on televisions with even minimal overscan.) The transfer is not a new one seeming to be taken from the previous laserdisc master with lots of dirt specks, some debris, print damage, and reel change markers all in place. Sharpness is only average, and color, except in a few close-ups, is somewhat faded and wan. Despite the anamorphic encoding, there are constant aliasing artifacts and moiré patterns to distract the eye in fencing, lab tables, grillwork in cars, and the weaves of fabrics in clothes. The film has been divided into chapters every ten minutes as is typical for MOD discs.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mix is decoded by Dolby Prologic into the center channel. Though dialogue is clear enough and mixed well with the sound effects and the effective score by Jerry Goldsmith, the track contains some distortion (especially early on) and clicks and pops on occasion which can distract the attention. There is not a lot of fidelity to the mix, of course, with this track which seems typical of its era.
The film’s theatrical trailer is presented in nonanamorphic letterbox and runs for 2 ¼ minutes.
3/5 (not an average)
The Satan Bug is an above average thriller which gets less than it deserves on this MGM MOD release with very mediocre picture and sound quality that does the film no favors. It’s a disappointment.