Saturday, January 25, 2014

Shack Out on 101 (1955)

Hollywood made its share of odd movies in the 1950s but few are as odd as Allied Artists’ 1955 release Shack Out on 101. Is it a spy thriller? A film noir? Or a jazz and drug-fueled piece of Beat Generation pretentious nonsense? Is it intended as a spoof? I’ve just watched the movie and I can’t answer any of those questions. All I can say is that in its own weird way it’s rather entertaining.

George (Keenan Wynn) runs a beach-side diner. He employs a cook who is known simply as Slob (Lee Marvin) and an attractive blonde waitress named Kotty (Terry Moore). George is in love with Kotty. Kotty is in love with nuclear physicist Professor Sam Bastion (Frank Lovejoy). George’s diner just happens to be a short distance away from a university involved in top-secret nuclear research.

Slob seems to be one of life’s failures, destined to spend his life as a cook in dumps like George’s diner. But Slob has aspirations. He plans to be somebody. And how is he going to achieve this? Simple. Slob is actually a Soviet spy. George’s beach-front diner is the hub of a network of Soviet spies.

In fact George’s shack is the focus of a great deal of espionage and counter-espionage activity. It seems like at least half the people who patronise the diner are spies or counter-spies. Kotty is the one caught in the middle. She doesn’t yet realise what is going on, or who is involved, and if she finds out she may be in a good deal of danger.

The plot seems straightforward enough. The weirdness comes in the execution. There are moments of the kind of suspense you expect in a spy thriller but they’re mixed with moments of slapstick and other moments of what could be either avant-garde absurdist artiness or high camp comedy.

The acting is generally very good but the acting styles are all over the place. It’s as if different cast members were under very different impressions as to the type of movie they were making. Frank Lovejoy and Terry Moore plays things fairly straight while Keenan Wynn and Lee Marvin seem to be making it up as they go along and playing things mostly for comedy.

Edward and Mildred Dien wrote the screenplay. A few years later they would collaborate on a vampire B-western. After seeing Shack Out on 101 I’m not the least bit surprised that the same writing team would make a vampire western. Throwing in all sorts of wildly inconsistent elements appears to be their usual approach to screenwriting. Edward Dien directed Shack Out on 101 so one assumes that he really did intend his screenplay to be treated in such a bizarre manner.

Despite all the oddness there is still a spy thriller plot in there somewhere, and it’s entertaining enough in a trashy B-movie way.

Lovejoy and Moore get top billing but while they’re both solid enough they are completely overshadowed by the bravura performances of Marvin and Wynn. One of the movie’s more amusing features is that Marvin, the toughest of Hollywood tough-guy actors, plays Slob as a mixture of wimp and hug, of villain and buffoon. Or perhaps that’s not so surprising; Marvin was always a delightfully unpredictable actor.

The Olive Films DVD is barebones but the anamorphic transfer is excellent.

Shack Out on 101 ends up being immensely enjoyable. It has plenty of energy and anyone with a taste for high camp could not fail to be pleased by this one. It’s a movie that is not quite like any other movie I’ve ever seen but it’s fun. Highly recommended.

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