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Monday 30 March 2009

Shack Out on 101 (1955)

Director: Edward Dein
Stars: Terry Moore, Frank Lovejoy, Lee Marvin and Keenan Wynn

Shack Out on 101 (originally Shack Up on 101) is a film written and directed by Edward Dein and starring Terry Moore and Frank Lovejoy. I'm watching for the supporting cast though: Lee Marvin and Keenan Wynn and they're wonderful to watch from moment one, bouncing off each other joyously with insults done exactly as they should have been done. The shack is a greasy spoon on the California coast where most of the characters work: Wynn is the owner, a man named George; Moore is Kotty, the waitress that everyone lusts after; and Marvin is Leo, the cook and cleaner, who everyone calls Slob. Lovejoy is the other key character, Prof Sam Bastion, Kotty's boyfriend who works at some sort of top secret nuclear laboratory nearby.

And here's where the real story kicks in. This is 1955 and all the unspoken words have to do with cold war, nuclear secrets and Russian spies. Life in this greasy spoon appears on the surface to be the standard sort of thing: beyond everyone lusting after Kotty, they talk about what they did in the war, argue about their muscles and try on scuba diving gear for a trip to Acapulco. Yet there's something sinister going on underneath the surface and there's a lot of people involved. It doesn't take long for us to discover that Slob and Sam and others are tied up together in some mysterious subterfuge and there's an even more mysterious man called Mr Gregory behind it all.

The film isn't as coherent as it could be, but it's made with passion and drive and it's hard to ignore it. The cast are excellent, especially Marvin and Wynn, who may well have improvised some of their scenes together. I may be wrong but get the impression that they knew each very well and knew precisely how to generate sparks off each other. Frank Lovejoy knew the territory well having played the lead a few years earlier in I Was a Communist for the FBI, but Terry Moore outshines him without too much trouble. While she can't compete with Marvin and Wynn in the acting stakes, she's a fine and capable lead and she's really the point of the film.

Kotty isn't perfect but she's a good girl who believes in her country and does nothing but try to live her own life, but she finds herself in the middle of something big that she doesn't understand. She serves very well as Everyman, whoever the female version of Joe Q Public is, and if a mere greasy spoon waitress can unwittingly be right at the heart of a attempt to bring down the nation, then so can you and me and any other one of us. Such was the paranoia spun in the fifties, and this is a great example of how it was propagated.

Some of it is done well, some not so well, some wonderfully. In its way it's the same sort of out of control mess as the situation that Kotty finds herself in: it's fun to watch but it would suck to be in. Writing in 2009 from the perspective of a whole new world, it's easy to see but hard to feel the fear, uncertainty and doubt bleeding out of the screen that a real Kotty would have felt back then in the Cold War. I wonder how close it hit in the paranoid cold war world of 1955. It would seem to have hit pretty close.

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