Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Shack Out on 101 (Allied Artists, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the coldness of O’ Horten, we ended up with a film that if anything had just the opposite problem: the plot, situations and emotions all seemed stuck at 11 or above. It was a late-breaking entry in the brief cycle of anti-Communist films with which Hollywood tried to appease the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950’s: Shack Out on 101 (originally called Shack Up on 101 until its star, Terry Moore, objected to the sexual implications of that title), produced by Allied Artists née Monogram in 1955 on a dirt-cheap Monogram budget and taking place almost entirely in one set: a cheap diner on highway 101 (hence the title) lodged on a cliff above a beach and fortuitously located near a super-sensitive nuclear weapons laboratory.

For about the first three reels it just seems like a bad romantic melodrama in which Kotty (Terry Moore) labors at a waitress at the diner, ignores her boss George’s (Keenan Wynn) unrequited love for her, fends off the animalistic advances of cook “Slob” (no other name) — played by a thin, gangly and almost unrecognizably young Lee Marvin, whose presence is probably the only factor that has kept this film in any kind of circulation over the years; the opening scene, in which Kotty is sunbathing and “Slob” attempts to re-enact the famous Burt Lancaster-Deborah Kerr tryst on the beach from From Here to Eternity, only to have her fight him off, and he gets his revenge by ruining one of her petticoats with sand, is one of the most quirkily delightful parts of this film — and is dating Sam Bastion (Frank Lovejoy), a professor at the lab who’s coaching her on the basics of American democracy so she can take the federal civil service examination and not have to be a waitress all her life.

The film was clearly intended as Terry Moore’s attempt to coarsen her image and prove she could play a sleazy part as well as she could be the nice little girl who played “Beautiful Dreamer” in the giant ape’s paw in Mighty Joe Young. She tries her damnedest, with a push-up bra to make her look more “stacked” than she really was, breathy Monroe-esque intonations and jazz music every time she appears (the score by Paul Dunlap is one of the best parts of the movie, with solos good enough I wondered if some of L.A.’s top jazz musicians were picking up some extra income recording the music for this film), but her basic decency as a “type” still shines through. Then the real plot of this film comes to light when a mystery delivery person comes to the diner with a shipment of frozen fish (itself a surprise because before that we’ve had no intimation that they have anything other than hamburger, cherry pie and coffee on their menu) and “Slob” extracts a roll of something sinister-looking from it that turns out to be microfilm containing what looks like an important nuclear secret (the pi symbol appears on it a lot and it was probably just some joker in the Allied Artists’ prop department’s idea of what looked like a nuclear equation; “It’s actually his recipe for doughnut batter,” I joked).

Later Kotty overhears “Slob,” Professor Bastion and a third person talking about making money selling nuclear secrets to the usual unnamed foreign power, and instead of doing what any sensible person would do — namely, leaving the diner and phoning the police — she twice confronts the miscreants, first “Slob” and then the professor, directly to their faces. Later the third conspirator is killed, and at the end it turns out that the two truckdrivers who were hanging out at the diner, supposedly for food and their own chance to make unwanted passes at Kotty, are really federal agents, and Professor Bastion isn’t a traitor after all; he’s merely posing as one to worm his way into the espionage ring and find the identity of the mysterious “Mr. Gregory” who runs it from afar. In the end, the bad guys get arrested and Bastion and Kotty get together, of course.

Shack Out on 101 is the sort of bad movie that could have been good with a more thoughtful script and one that took us out of the diner more often; it was directed by Edward Dein (whom I’ve previously pointed out had almost the same name as Ed Gein, the real-life serial killer who was supposedly the model for Norman Bates in Psycho) from a script he co-wrote with his wife Mildred. It’s not a badly made movie — Floyd Crosby is the cinematographer (which means it’s considerably more atmospheric visually than the 1950’s “B” norm) and director Dein seems to have clues about how to build suspense, but the rather silly script, full of plot holes he and Mrs. Dein never bothered to fill in, defeats him and so does his cast. It’s obvious why Lee Marvin and Keenan Wynn had longer and more prestigious careers than anyone else in the cast — they’re better actors than anyone else in the cast — certainly better than the leads; Moore tries to play a bad girl but both the script and her acting keep her a good girl at heart, and Lovejoy — who’d already done the undercover bit in I Was a Communist for the FBI four years earlier — is a bland screen presence, capable for supporting roles in gangster movies but simply underqualified for a romantic lead.