Like a Cry Danger (1951) or a Private Hell 36 (1954), this low budget film noir flick is such a joy to watch because it wears what it is right on its sleeve, clear out in the open. What we get is an utterly absurd paranoia thriller that also happens to be a heaping plate of B-noir fun.
It’s a dirty, grimy picture about a dirty, grimy place. The cook behind the counter’s named Slob (Lee Marvin) and he has a dirty mind and disheveled look to match. He’s constantly at odds with the owner of the roadside shack (Keenan Wynn) and they make countless verbal barbs at each other time and again. You get the feeling that they relish jawing and putting the other man down.
Meanwhile, though the joint might not be one of the most frequented attractions there is some traffic from PCH and it brings in a few regular visitors.
The day-to-day “Hash Slinger” and longtime waitress Kotty (Terry Moore) is in the middle of a rapturous romance with a local professor Sam Bastion (Frank Lovejoy), and she’s beyond ecstatic to be going with someone who is a real man — intelligent and gentlemanly. Though recently he’s been especially occupied with work.
The traveling salesman Eddie (Whitt Bissell) with a nervous streak nevertheless remains a tried and true friend. He and George (Wynn) both made it through D-Day together and since then he always makes a habit of coming by the old place when he has a free moment. Kotty and the Professor take kindly to him too. He’s just that kind of amiable fellow.
Shack Out on 101 shines most obviously amid its small talk because there’s an invention to the dialogue that’s delightfully slovenly and colloquial. It’s full of the types of dialects, jabs, and put-downs that fill our everyday conversations in a way that feels thoroughly authentic and brings each character alive as they sit at the counter.
There might be two men standing in the front of the diner on a slow day lifting weights and talking about how muscles are for amateurs. Pecs are what real men call them. Then they proceed to show off and compare their physical attributes. No reservations whatsoever.
Later on, they try out the latest fashions in spearfishing attire as they dream about the mythical “Pancho” who they’ll soon spear in the tropical waters off the coast of Mexico. Little do they know how close that is to the truth. Except there’s no need to go to Mexico. The catch is right at home.
When the film actually gets preoccupied with its plotting, it starts to go cockeyed and crazy. Admittedly, fallout from the Cold War must have been on everyone’s minds because, like Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), this picture too tries to play the nuclear angle. It’s hardly effective though I suppose it needed a broader, more concrete story to add a certain amount of intrigue and this one is complete with spies and government secrets.
Still, in the end, it comes out pretty thin. What we truly relish as the audience are not the attempts at drama but the way the film manages to make its apparent lulls invariably interesting and even how it manages to have asides at all given its infinitesimal running time. Sure, it won’t win any awards and the joint is a real dive but that’s all part of its cruddy charm. For a B-picture, this cast is quite the array of talent.