Shack Out on 101 (1955) Edward Dein
I can safely say that Edward Dein’s Shack Out on 101 is the oddest film noir I’ve seen during Noirvember and maybe the oddest I’ve seen period. What else can you say about a movie that features Whit Bissell and Keenan Wynn prancing around a diner in scuba masks and flippers, Lee Marvin as a short order cook named Slob, and Wynn and Marvin having a contest to see who has the best legs.
George (Wynn, second photo above, right) runs a diner just off California’s Highway 101. He doesn’t seem to do much business, but for the most part he’s content, even though his cook Slob (Marvin, above) harasses everyone in the joint including George and George’s waitress Kotty (Terry Moore, below right). Truth be known, George and Slob are both interested in Kotty, but she’s actually dating Sam (Frank Lovejoy, below left), a nuclear physicist at a nearby lab. Kotty feels so insecure and intimidated by Sam’s intelligence that she wants to better herself by taking the civil service exam. (If that doesn’t raise your self-esteem, I don’t know what will…)
Meanwhile, George’s friend Eddie (Whit Bissell, in one of his strangest roles, in a career filled with strange roles) drops by the diner, trying to live a normal life after witnessing too much bloodshed and killing in WWII, in which he fought alongside George. Eddie is a strange character, but the diner seems to attract them. Slob is given a shipment by a weird fisherman named Perch (Len Lesser, “Uncle Leo” from Seinfeld), who may be delivering something besides fish. Two truck drivers named Pepe (Donald Murphy) and Artie (Jess Barker) enter, and we’re not sure if they’re harmless locals or up to no good. And a drunken scientist (Frank DeKova) arrives to announce that another local physicist has mysteriously disappeared.
One of these people is a spy.
Yet espionage is not the focus here. In fact, you can easily lose the whole spy storyline because of all the goofiness going on. The aforementioned scenes with Bissell and Wynn in scuba gear, the legs contest between Wynn and Marvin, the battle over a stuffed fish, and many other scenes go on longer than they would in a more conventional movie, but such scenes are a large part of the charm of Shack Out on 101. It’s not quite gonzo and it’s certainly not out-of-control… It’s just odd.
But I can’t deny liking it.
Shack Out on 101 reminds me of another odd noir I watched earlier in the year, the uniquely strange, yet oddly compelling Beat the Devil (1953) directed by John Huston. Shack seems a bit more structured plot-wise, but Beat the Devil contains (believe it or not) more whacked-out characters running around with a sense of charm that can’t be replicated. Not that Dein is trying to replicate Huston’s film; Shack’s characters have a quirky, goofiness all their own, and – let’s face it – they’re not very bright. But they do know how to show us a good time.
(Watching this movie on YouTube is just plain awful. If possible, buy or rent the Olive Films DVD or Blu-ray edition. Although it contains no extras, I’m sure the picture and audio quality is far superior to what I saw on YouTube.)
(Photos: screenshots taken from my phone)