The down-and-dirty, black-and-white 1955 B-movie Shack Out On 101 makes a virtue of economy. It’s an exercise in extreme minimalism centered on a single grubby but evocative setting: a seaside greasy spoon that becomes an unlikely hub of international espionage and intrigue. That’s due to a sinister, furtive figure—colloquially known as “Slob” (the great Lee Marvin)—who has a lot more on his mind than flipping burgers. The cast is similarly stripped down to its core. There are no extras or bit parts, and the characters who figure prominently are better developed and more complicated than the genre requires. Even more impressively, the film makes its way through an awful lot of narrative business, including a love triangle that threatens to turn into a quadrangle, a hunt for a mysterious sea creature, and nuclear intrigue—all in 80 minutes, without breaking a sweat or feeling too rushed. The film even manages to find time for an extended shirtless weightlifting competition between Slob and his boss George (Keenan Wynn), notable for both its homoeroticism and its left-field randomness. For such a short movie packed with so much incident, Shack Out On 101 devotes an awful lot of its time to folks simply hanging out and shooting the shit, and it’s richer for it.
Marvin, only a couple of years past his breakthrough role in The Wild One, stars as “Slob,” a cook at a diner in the middle of nowhere. He has the build of an agitated Neanderthal, and the sexual politics and sensitivity to match. Slob is memorably introduced attempting to make out with waitress Kotty (Terry Moore, an Oscar-nominated actress perhaps better known for being one of Howard Hughes’ final Hollywood romances) against her will, and he never stops being a sexual threat, as well as a threat to national security.
Even in his quieter, more respectful moments, Slob radiates sexual menace. He’s all sneering attitude and brute physicality, an explosive force too intense and rage-choked to be contained by his rinky-dink surroundings. But behind Slob’s boorish facade lies the scheming, calculating intellect of a mastermind, and Marvin excels as both a blunt instrument and a conniver playing a big, tricky double game while maintaining the illusion of being a lunkheaded galoot. Though ostensibly just a cook with an oft-stated propensity for chasing “tomatoes,” Slob is quietly procuring nuclear secrets from Professor Sam Bastion (Frank Lovejoy), a world-famous scientific expert who happens to be dating Kotty, to the frustration of George, who’s silently pining for her.
Director Edward Dein, who co-wrote the screenplay with Mildred Dein, films the action almost like a stage play, with minimal camera movements and long takes that highlight uniformly fine performances, a surprisingly snappy script, and the lived-in chemistry of a group of characters who feel like they’ve been working together, happily and unhappily, for many years, with all the sentimental attachments and resentments that engenders.
In the wrong hands, Shack Out On 101 easily could have devolved into camp. The film is, after all, a thriller about international intrigue that takes place almost entirely at a shabby diner. But it establishes a solid footing in the mundane reality of day-to-day life before veering into its more lurid, exotic subject matter, thanks in large part to the performances of the cast, particularly Marvin and Wynn. Though it’s no overlooked masterpiece, Shack Out On 101 does exactly what an overachieving B-movie should do. It tells a tight, lurid, and compelling story briskly and confidently, and gets out in time to make room for a second feature.