Summer is almost over (well, in most of the country; here in California it’s just getting started), but there’s one more seasonal treat in store before the leaves start turning vaguely less green: Pacific Film Archive’s annual free outdoor screening in the BAM/PFA Sculpture Garden. Unreeling at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 27, this year’s feature is a ripe slice of ‘50s paranoia with Red Scare overtones and a terrific performance from Lee Marvin.
Directed in 1955 by Edward Dein (Curse of the Undead, The Leech Woman), the independently produced Shack Out on 101 is a zippy 80-minute programmer starring Marvin as Slob, short order cook at a seedy California burger bar owned and operated by gruff World War II vet George (Keenan Wynn). George doesn’t like Slob, but he’s the only cook he could find to work at his dive, located in a remote, nameless coastal section of Southern California.
George also employs sexy waitress Connie (Mighty Joe Young’s Terry Moore), whose surprising relationship with nuclear scientist Sam (a miscast Frank Lovejoy) drives the film’s goofy narrative. Sam, however, isn’t the only one with eyes for Connie, who — in the film’s very first scene, featuring an Ozu-like tatami shot by cinematographer Floyd Crosby – is almost raped by the leering, animalistic Slob.
Sam and Slob, however, have a special relationship that goes beyond pitching woo to the same woman. When not forcing himself on dames, Slob collects seashells — a hobby he apparently shares with Sam, who loves to inspect the cook’s latest finds every time he drops by for a burger.
There is, of course, an ulterior motive: while carefully evaluating Slob’s latest beachside findings, Sam is slipping the chef slides of mathematical equations relating to his top-secret nuclear work at the local university. Yes, Slob is actually a spy (for whom we aren’t told, though of course we can guess) and Sam, it seems, is a traitor to his country. Despite their surface differences (Sam accuses Slob of having “an 8-cylinder body and a 2-cylinder mind”), they’re actually on the same side, plotting against America with the assistance of a local fisherman and a mysterious and unseen controller, Mr. Gregory.
Dein was never much of a filmmaker (he spent most of his career in television), but makes the most of things thanks to some snappy dialogue (penned by the director in collaboration with his wife Mildred), better than average cinematography, and stellar cast (including Whit Bissell and Frank DeKova). Bissell, always a pleasure to watch, here plays George’s skittish, shell-shocked D-Day buddy Eddie, while DeKova is Sam’s glowering university colleague Dillon, an engineer who comes to an unfortunate and sticky end at the hands of the conspirators.
If you ask yourself why a major research university is located in the middle of nowhere, or how a restaurant can survive on the business of a couple of academics and the poultry deliverymen who drop by each day for coffee and pie, you’ll quickly be forced the acknowledge the complete absurdity of Shack Out on 101‘s plot. Suspend your brain for 80 minutes, however, and revel beneath the stars in an extremely entertaining slice of Cold War hokum.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.
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