John Sturges made a career out of competence porn involving groups of manly white guys rising to impossible challenges. At his best, such as The Great Escape, his work has an epic, rallying resonance. At his worst—Ice Station Zebra comes to mind—his work is plodding and sterile. Unfortunately, his obscure suspense thriller The Satan Bug (1965) is closer to the latter than the former, a dynamite set-up rendered pedestrian by its ambling pace and homogenous, interchangeable cast.
The crisis begins in the remote southern California desert, at “Station 3,” a top-secret scientific research laboratory. There, a group of somber, dedicated men work tirelessly on a highly classified biowarfare project. Its nature only becomes apparent when the unthinkable happens: an elaborate heist, resulting in the theft of several vials of deadly chemical agents. The weapons must be recovered, and fast—especially “the Satan Bug,” a self-replicating, airborne virus that, once released, could eradicate humanity in a matter of weeks. Into the fray comes rogue agent Lee Barrett (George Maharis), a capable former intelligence officer whose distaste for authority and disgust with the mutually-assured-destruction mindset of his peers has chased him from the game. Barrett is a veteran of Station 3, however, where he used to run security; plus, his unorthodox methods and iffy politics might just make him the right man to get into the head of the enemy. He sets out to do just that, leaping into action to recover the weapons and save the world.
Somewhere in The Satan Bug is a terrific sixties spy vehicle, something that looks a little like Bond but feels more urgent and—despite its hokey title—serious. At the very least, it ideas might have made for a damn good episode of Mission: Impossible. But fatally, the script utterly lacks tension, a bloated, ramshackle affair full of shaky logistics that don’t live up to the magnitude of the threat. Like other Sturges misfires, the film also relies too heavily on a sprawling roster of men—bureaucrats, G-men, heavies—who are difficult to tell apart, which makes tracking the players a tedious business. Fortunately, there are exceptions. Maharis is unconventional but fun, convincing casting as the competent, no-bullshit outsider steering the investigation, his gruff cynicism giving the film its point of view. Anne Francis brings zip to her scenes as Ann Williams, the daughter of the military bigwig (Dana Andrews) in charge of the affair; she provides welcome respite from a glut of bland testosterone. Alas, neither their heroics nor a valiant score from composer Jerry Fielding can bring enough excitement to the affair to make up for the leisurely staging and awkwardly structured twists and turns. Given the incredible stakes of the premise, a lavish budget, and Sturges’ striking eye for widescreen visuals, The Satan Bug might have amounted to something memorable. Instead, it plays like a souffle full of tasty ingredients that came out of the oven too early.