Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The (Red) Apes Have Taken Over :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Edward Dein's Shack Out on 101 (1955)

At a small ocean-side greasy-spoon located well off the beaten path, the owner, George (Wynn), barely ekes out a living. Staffed by a world-wise waitress and a cantankerous short-order cook, what few customers they do get consists of an occasional long haul trucker and the staff of a government research center that's nestled somewhere up the road a piece. But all these customers agree on two things: one, they'd all like a fling with saucy Kotty (Moore), and two, Slob's cooking is awful. But the thick-headed Slob
(Marvin) couldn't care less what they think and Kotty turns them all down. Seems she's currently attached and swapping spit with one of those research scientists, a Professor Sam Baniston (Lovejoy), who's also trying to help her ditch this dead end occupation and shepherd her into a cushier government job through the Civil Service exam.

And as we meet a few more kooky denizens of this diner, including a daffy salesmen (Bissell) and a shifty-eyed fishermen (Lesser), things seem normal enough on the surface, but underneath something far more sinister is happening once the sun goes down and the kitchen closes for the night. Seems several of those government researchers have up and disappeared, without a trace, and they were all last seen eating at this very establishment. And not only that, but there are other transactions going on at the diner. Transactions that are off the menu and take place strictly under the table. And what are these clandestine transactions all about? Secrets. Secrets bought and sold that could bring about the end of the world as we know it...

In August of 1950, after the F.B.I. ferreted out their spy ring, a Federal grand jury indicted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on 11 counts of conspiracy and espionage for allegedly passing on the secrets of the A-Bomb to the Russians. Later convicted on these charges in March of 1951, despite the couple's protests of innocence, the Rosenberg's, admitted Communists, were sentenced to death for this act of treason; a sentence that was eventually carried out in June, 1953. But that wasn't the end of it. Far from it as this notorious incident only added fuel to Senator Joe McCarthy's Stomp-A-Commie-Crusade; and Hollywood, already stinging from the whipping it took from the House Un-American Activities hearings in 1947, which resulted in the Black List, where countless artists and craftsmen suddenly became persona non grata to the studios, were eager to make nice with a series of Anti-Communist films (Big Jim McClain, I Married a Communist) and shorts (Red Nightmare, What is Communism?) to bolster the perception of Tinsel Town's unwavering patriotism to avert anymore governmental grievances.

Even second tier studios like Allied Artists got in on the act, and Shack Out on 101 (1955) is a prime example of this type of output. An Atomo-Paranoia-Sleaze-Noir, then, where the separate ingredients of Patriotism and Red Scares are clearly definable to your viewing palate as the film digests, but these morsels are essentially overwhelmed by a few more spicier ingredients thrown in with the best of intentions to make it all go down a little easier. For, not only did the married screen-writing tandem of Edward and Mildred Dein throw the kitchen sink into this seamy little potboiler (Edward also directed), but added the stove, the fridge, the cupboards, and all the above's contents into the mix as they tried to subvert this central theme under several layers of steamy romantic intrigue, oddball characters, and laugh-out-loud comedy. Strangely, each element on its own works fairly well but kinda fizzles and sours when baked together. Sticking with the culinary metaphor, then, admittedly, the end result tastes kinda funny. Not bad, mind you. Just funny -- a bit off, maybe -- with each bite either too salty or too sweet or too bland that never reaches any sort of satisfying equilibrium. (Note to self: You are are so talking out of your ass right now.) Anyways...

Yeah, the soapy melodrama just never jives properly with the cloak and dagger stuff. The comedic elements work the best, especially a few throwaway bits with Wynn and Marvin working out, and the resulting pissing contest over whose pecs and legs are in better shape (-- a contest Moore eventually has the last word on), and Wynn and Bissell (in a rare comedy relief stint) swapping tales and testing out some new fishing equipment. Frankly, the whole plot feels like a hyper-condensed season of your garden variety soap opera, where said soap latches onto to the latest headlines or hot-topic and folds it into one of its many subplots, with the viewer plopped down right into the middle of it, beginning with Marvin's initial molestation of Moore on the beach, whose tired reaction says this kinda crap happens all the time, and who only gets indignant when the grab-fanny cook spoils her latest batch of laundry.

Now, with a soap, you would have months and months to work this storyline -- hell, in some cases, years; here, we barely have an hour as a frustrated Moore moves from man to man, looking and longing for love or some kind of stability, eventually sniffing out the nefarious truth behind Lovejoy and Marvin's secret sea-shell swapping sessions but doesn't quite grasp the stakes until it is far too late. For, unlike the Rosenbergs, here, not only are those Commie bastards stealing classified information from the research center through several stooges, they're actually kidnapping scientists and engineers and smuggling them out of the country through Mexico, destination Moscow, to unlock more Atomic secrets for Uncle Nikita.

Discovering her beau (and ticket out of this shack) is one of these stoolies, in perhaps not the wisest of moves, knowing they've killed several people already, Moore's self-righteous snit-fueled tirade nearly gets everyone else killed as the mysterious Mr. Gregory, the man behind this nest of vipers, finally reveals himself, who decides it's time to cut bait on this operation and leave all the witnesses at the bottom of the Pacific. And since everything that brought us to this point, and the climax itself, to the pat happy ending, is all carried out six and half miles over-over the top an argument could be made that Shack Out on 101 should be considered a farce, which kinda makes sense, making it a nice subversive foil for this particular genre that was already fizzling out.

Okay, despite all these complaints and snarky observations, I'm happy to report the cast overachieves and makes all of these disjointed plot elements work. As the Tomato, whom everyone wants to *ahem* sample, Moore is a million miles away from her big screen break as the young ingénue in Mighty Joe Young. She brings a solid been there, done that weariness to Kotty, who once more sees a way out of this funk only to have the door seemingly slammed in her face. The constantly blustering Wynn is great, too, as always, and plays well off the bumbling Bissell. But Marvin steals the movie as the slovenly Slob, who, perhaps, isn't as slovenly and thick-headed as he lets on. It also helps that the film itself looks fantastic. Credit to cinematographer Floyd Crosby, who used the limited sets brilliantly, keeping things nice and dingy and sleazy, and used the cramped and limited space in the diner to his advantage by having the camera ridiculously close to the action at all times, resulting in a seedy documentary type feel that's about [--this--] close to crossing the threshold of cinéma vérité. Seriously. You can almost smell some Pine Sol wafting from the toilets and hear the grease popping on the griddle. This would be one of Crosby's last stops before he hooked up with Roger Corman and the boys from American International, and whose skills are kinda underappreciated in the success of both. One also cannot discount the efforts of editor George White, who also stitched together the similar docu-noir, The Phenix City Story, and The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Clock, and the music of Paul Dunlop, whose horn-heavy spazz-jazz riffs only amp up the proceedings even more.

So, basically, despite its haphazard structure and kitchen-sink narrative, Shack Out 101 will surprise you when it's over and done. It shouldn't work, but it does. Sure it tastes funny, but you're still full and (hopefully) satisfied. Apparently, the film's original title was Shack Up on 101 but some muckety-muck at the studio didn't like the euphemistic connation of "shack up" (-- some sources claim the objection came from Moore), and so producer Mort Millman made the change. After finishing up here, the Deins latched onto the wrong bandwagon with Calypso Joe (-- people don't remember but calypso hit big the same time rock-n-roll did, and most predicted calypso would have more staying power while the other fad faded away), but then the couple went to work for Universal and scripted the strangest, but surprisingly effective entry in that studio's resurgent monster movie movement with Curse of the Undead, which throws a vampire into a western, making him an indestructible hired gun for a dubious land baron. You wouldn't think that would work either, but, believe me, it does. It should be noted that Shack Out on 101 is apparently only available to buy through Amazon's streaming services, which I did, and the un-restored print they issued is actually pretty good and well worth the price. Still, both Curse of the Undead and Shack Out on 101 definitely need and deserve a wider audience than that. A problem a legitimate DVD release for both could solve.

Shack Out on 101 (1955) Allied Artists / EP: William F. Broidy / P Mort Millman / D: Edward Dein / W: Edward Dein, Mildred Dein / C: Floyd Crosby / E: George White / M: Paul Dunlap / S: Terry Moore, Frank Lovejoy, Keenan Wynn, Lee Marvin, Whit Bissell, Len Lesser, Frank De Kova


Stacia said...

Nice write-up! I liked the film up until it became impossible to ignore the Commie plot; it reminded me of a seedy B-movie version of a 1933 or '34 gritty Warner Bros. pre-code. Eventually it got too silly for me, even for a possible farce.

Have a great vacation!

W.B. Kelso said...

It is silly, bordering on moronic, but the cast keeps it afloat for me. Thinking on it, it is a distinct possibility that the script existed as a straight up seedy romance story that was co-opted with the Stomp-A-Commie elements shoe-horned to cash in. The world may never know.

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