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Shack Out on 101

Posted by martinteller on April 3, 2014

George (Keenan Wynn) runs a small seaside diner.  His two employees live on the premises.  The waitress Kotty (Terry Moore) is young and attractive, studying for the civil service exam and hoping for a better life.  The cook “Slob” (Lee Marvin) is an uncouth brute who paws at Kotty every chance he gets.  The diner has a small handful of repeat visitors.  Perch (Len Lesser) delivers the fish.  Artie (Jess Barker) and Pepe (Donald Murphy) drive a poultry truck.  Eddie (Whit Bissell) is George’s old army buddy, now a travelling salesman so traumatized by D-Day that he has a crippling phobia of violence.  And professor Sam Bastion (Frank Lovejoy) is Kotty’s beau, a nuclear physicist.  Kotty soon discovers that the diner is at the center of a plot to turn over state secrets to the Soviets… but who’s on which side?

As far as “Red Scare” propaganda films go, this one is thankfully relatively light on the patriotic speeches.  There’s a little bit of ideology tossed around at the end, but for the most part Slob (it’s no spoiler to say that he’s one of the bad guys, it’s revealed early on) just seems like an ordinary rotten apple.  The movie has a satisfying amount of lurid thrills and tense action, and some pretty sharp dialogue.  The jazzy Paul Dunlap score lends some atmosphere, and Floyd Crosby’s cinematography is surprisingly good for such a low-budget feature.  The opening scene has a great shot of Moore’s body lying on the beach in the foreground while Marvin approaches from the distance in the background, a threat looming closer and closer.  In a later scene, as Kotty puts on an act to try to wring some information out of Slob, her face is in the shadow of a colander, which creates a latticework “mask” to highlight her deception.

There’s quite a bit of humor to the script, but unfortunately it causes some odd derailments.  One unusually lengthy scene features Wynn and Marvin weightlifting and comparing body parts… a display as out of place as it is homoerotic.  At another point, Wynn and Bissell stomp around the diner in flippers and snorkels, “hunting” a giant fish on the wall with their new harpoon.  It’s so weird that you have to laugh.  These scenes are probably designed not only as comic relief, but also a chance to get to know the characters.  However, they mostly come off as filler, killing time in a movie that doesn’t have a whole lot of plot.

Still, it’s a pretty decent Cold War thriller, with one or two twists and some cheap thrills.  Among the solid cast, Marvin and Moore stand out the most.  Marvin tears into the role, bringing Slob’s creepiness to life with a mischievous sneer.  Moore is the target of a lot of misogynist crap (even from her boyfriend) but she sells Kotty as a woman who knows how to handle herself.  Everyone else is pretty good, too.  It’s not a great movie, certainly not a contender for my favorite noirs, and it’s either hamstrung or assisted by its oddball diversions depending on your point of view.  But it’s a fun way to spend 80 minutes.  Rating: Good (73)


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