“Whatever you two guys can get, they don’t let out at night.”
The Shack on 101 may very well be one of the strangest entries in the film noir Atomic Noir/Red-Scare sub-genre, and while it’s certainly more than a little odd, it’s also lots of fun and really entertaining. You know this film is going to be different in its opening scene of a bikini-clad girl stretched out on the beach while the waves wash over her feet and legs. Is she asleep? Sunbathing or dead? Then we see a male figure in the distance. He spots the girl and dashes towards her….
The man is Slob (Lee Marvin), the short order chef at the local greasy spoon–the shack in the title, and the girl is Kotty (Terry Moore) the shack’s live-in waitress. We get just a brief glimpse of the shack in the distance. It’s perched on a cliff facing the ocean and is accessible by stairs, and it is quite literally a shack–it looks like a condemned trailer, but it’s the pride and joy of its owner, war veteran, George played with delightful gusto by Keenan Wynn
Most of the film’s action takes place inside the crappy shack, and the film’s interior scenes look like exactly what they are–a stage set with seaside decor. This translates to seashells and a huge marlin perched on the wall. The stage set masquerading as the inside of a hillside diner is most evident when one of the characters, Professor Bastion, opens a door and then goes down the stairs to the diner’s main room. Here the long-angled shots show the width of the stage set, and we could be watching a play. It all looks very cheaply done and yet somehow this film works.
The film’s drama centres on the shack and the relationships between its inhabitants and its customers. The shack’s owner, lonely bachelor George is in love with Kotty, but she only has eyes for customer Professor Sam Bastion (Frank Lovejoy). Bastion, who works at the nearby nuclear facility, professes an interest in collecting shells which he buys from Slob. Bastion’s relationship with Slob leads him to meet, date, and fall in love with Kotty. Kotty, while she admires and brags about Bastion’s intelligence and education, nurses an inferiority complex. So she’s boning up to take the civil service exam and along the way she hopes to impress the prof. One night, after a hot and heavy session on the beach, Kotty peevishly expresses the fact that Bastion spends more time with Slob than with her, and she concludes that the Prof is ashamed to be seen out in public with her.
Back at the shack, Slob, who refers to Kotty as “The Tomato,” makes constant passes at Kotty with George continually leaping to her defence. The film establishes a claustrophobic atmosphere between its characters–there’s George in love with Kotty who’s in love with the Professor who buys shells off of Slob. Slob manages to sound like a complaining wife when he whines to George about “the tomato” with a what-does-she-have-that-I-don’t argument. Kotty who is after all picking up a paycheck every week, never seems to lift a finger. So there’s Slob in the kitchen ruining the food as a act of revenge against customers he dislikes, Kotty too busy running after the Professor to actually do the job she’s paid for, and George too lovelorn to ask his only waitress to work.
Meanwhile there are a handful of locals who drop in occasionally and bitch about the food. The plot thickens quickly. Why are nuclear scientists disappearing? Why is the Professor obsessed with clam shells, and why does Kotty hang out her underwear on the line for the world to see?
This highly entertaining film has some gaping holes in its plot, but that simply doesn’t matter. Instead just sit back and enjoy some terrific dialogue combined with some of the most bizarre scenes of male bonding ever seen on the big screen. In one scene Slob (a man with an “8-cylinder body and a 2-cylinder mind“) and George lift weights together while pondering over the women who’ll be impressed by their muscles. Then they hold a sexy legs contest. Then there’s a very peculiar scuba scene that takes place inside the shack. In another scene Kotty and the Professor play a sexy politics question-and-answer game and as they cover the various branches of government, she gushingly confesses “I wish there were more branches.”
Since this is an Atomic Noir/Red Scare film, there have to be good guys and bad guys and all the stereotypes that go along with these categories. But Shack Out on 101 is definite cult material loaded with snappy dialogue to complement the bizarre behaviour of most of its characters. The film is directed by Edward Dein and co-written with his wife Mildred. It’s easy to imagine these two sitting down and dreaming up the scenes and then connecting them together with the plot outline. Of course, I have no idea that this is how it happened, but the scenes are so intense and rich, the sense I get is that the scenes dominate over the film as a whole.
Anyway, this really is a great little film.
“At one time, I was so skinny, I was embarrassed to undress in front of myself.”
“That’s what I like about free enterprise. I’ve got the enterprise and everybody’s free to give me the business.”
“It’s a good thing I ain’t wired. You’d be shoving me around like a vacuum cleaner.”
“I’m not Mr America, but my mother loves me.”
“I’m not one of those dopes who buys his wife a mink coat and sits and waits for her to warm up.”
“Since when was you so choosy, I’m a man, ain’t I?”
“I was so ashamed, I shut the door and got sick.”
“Well if you dance with the gods, they lead you to paradise.”
“Last night, I added a new word to my vocabulary…TRAITOR.”
“We’re helping the enemy.”
“Too bad I wasn’t born a tomato.”