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Every patron of George's beachside diner on California's Interstate 101 has a crush on the shapely & vivacious waitress Kotty (Terry Moore). But she only has eyes for Professor Sam Bastion (Frank Lovejoy), a nuclear physicist from a top-secret lab at the nearby University. Kotty's most ardent admirers are the balding owner George (Keenan Wynn), who keeps his dreams to himself, and the short order cook "Slob" (Lee Marvin), who paws at Kotty every chance he gets. Sam can't talk shop because he's part of a team working on an atom project for the U.S. government. But it also appears that Sam is conspiring with Slob and a fisherman named Perch (Len Lesser) to sneak secrets out of his nuclear lab. Also frequenting the café is Eddie (Whit Bissell), a neurotic terrified by violence of any kind. Eddie and George were buddies at the D-Day landings, an experience that frayed his nerves. Things become serious when Kotty partly witnesses the killing of one of Sam's fellow physicists, Dillon (Frank DeKova). From that point forward Kotty doesn't know whom to trust. Two poultry deliverymen eat at the diner a lot, and ask a lot of questions. Kotty notices that their hands are unusually soft, for truck drivers. Sam keeps asking Slob to introduce him to his communist spy connection, a mysterious mastermind named Mister Gregory. On a stormy night, the shack on Highway 101 becomes a battleground in the struggle to protect America against evil Enemies of Freedom.
Author Barry Gifford called Shack Out on 101 "a semi-trashy Cold War version of The Petrified Forest", and "a minimalist portrait of America at its most paranoid." Aided by an enthusiastic cast, the rather rigid script is brought to life in a way that seems unusually sleazy for the Eisenhower years. Described as having "an eight-cylinder body and a two-cylinder mind," Slob is the most entertainingly inconsistent traitor on film, and his behavior seems counterproductive to the stealth needed to smuggle atom secrets. Suffering from acute sexual inferiority, Slob molests Terry Moore's Kotty at every opportunity - on the beach, in the kitchen. At one point he laughingly threatens to put "something gross" in Eddie's hamburger.
The movie's tone veers between a paranoid civics lesson and the looseness of a Beat play. The acting, especially between Lee Marvin and Keenan Wynn, often feels like improv. A critic from the Pacific Film Archive asked, "Did anyone write their parts or direct them? Or did they just run amok?" The script includes two scenes that simply give Wynn and Marvin an opportunity to be silly. In a comic weightlifting break, the proceedings pick up an odd gay vibe when Slob and George compare body development. They rush to dress when Kotty re-enters the diner -- they don't want to be seen with their shirts off.
Lee Marvin fans will also be amused when Sam Bastion slaps, punches and intimidates the "weakling" Slob. A heavily decorated Marine, Marvin would later be known as one of the most credibly tough of tough-guy actors.
Shack Out on 101 retains its sense of absurdity even as it resolves as a wave-the-flag melodrama. Frank Lovejoy had made a couple of socially-conscious liberal films (Home of the Brave; Try and Get Me!) but the image that stuck was as J. Edgar Hoover's double agent in I Was a Communist for the FBI. Lovejoy's Sam Bastion also seems to be wound a little too tightly. After a day engineering weapons of mass destruction he relaxes by sorting out little seashells he keeps in a shoebox.
The fight for Freedom naturally involves a measure of violence, including a stabbing and a shooting. The milquetoast Eddie recovers his killer instinct long enough to share in the general mayhem. Slob gets rough with Kotty when he suspects that she knows what's going on. With no boiling coffee handy, as Marvin suffered in The Big Heat, Kotty makes do with a hot fabric iron. And no Cold War thriller would be complete without a lecture about American complacency in the face of the communist threat: "The apes have taken over. While we were busy watching television and filling our freezers they've come out of the jungle and moved in. And what's worse is they've begun to dress like us and think like us."
The actors appear to be having a fine time in Shack, and succeed in making the proceedings lively and entertaining. Even Terry Moore comes off well; her Kotty seems genuinely hurt to discover that her boyfriend is a traitor, even if she must first look up the word in the dictionary. With its Mad magazine-like weirdness, Shack comes rather late in the game for an anti-Commie epic. By 1955 patriotic Cold War messages could be found in every kind of genre thriller, but pictures dedicated solely to the activities of Red spy rings were on the wane.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Shack Out on 101 is a nearly spotless HD encoding of a thriller that waited until the 1980s to become a genuine cult item. Most fans first saw it on cable television. The widescreen framing improves the viewing experience over un-matted flat TV prints with acres of empty space above and below the actors. Floyd Crosby's lighting is fairly unremarkable for the earlier reels but becomes more expressive for the nighttime confrontations at the show's finish. The sharp HD image allows one to see the goose bumps on Terry Moore's arms when she's lying on the beach.
The film has a pleasingly jazzy soundtrack, highlighted by the well-known tune A Sunday Kind of Love written in part by (Barbara) Belle and Louis Prima. Original poster art stressed the sex angle, with no fewer than four images of Terry Moore kissing and embracing the various denizens of George's seaside diner.
By Glenn Erickson