Shack Out on 101 (1955)

Shack_Out_on_101_film_posterLike 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.

3.5/5 Stars

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

hitch-hiker_posterPart of the harrowing allure of the Hitch-Hiker is that it’s actually based on a true incident that occurred only a year before the events shown. It’s not as if someone took artistic license with some murderers and made it into a horror spectacle. Hitchcock’s Psycho especially comes to mind.

Instead, director Ida Lupino takes a much more universal approach with an opening title card suggesting that the events that follow about a man and a gun and a car could really happen to any of us. Perhaps it’s a cheap plotting device but it does throw the audience into the passenger seat quickly as they are introduced to a rash of murders and the hardened killer behind the spree Emmett Myers (William Talman) who soon has the entire mobilized police force looking for him.

The meat and potatoes of the film involve the brutal murderer taking two vacationing fishermen hostage and grinding away at them as he utilizes them to flee the authorities and bends them to his will. After all, he’s the one with the gun, and he’s proved numerous times he’s not squeamish about using it.

It also plays into the narrative’s hands that both Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy are not necessarily classically handsome. But they work as everymen. If Joel McCrea was the poor man’s Gary Cooper sometimes I think of Edmond O’Brien as the poor man’s Humphrey Bogart but that’s neither here nor there. Because in little films like this O’Brien left an indelible mark on film-noir. D.O.A. and The Bigamist are two other such examples. Lovejoy on his part is extremely understated, not even being able to quite place his face but we cannot help but admire his quiet stalwartness. O’Brien’s character seems the flightiest of the three and within their ranks, we’ve found a triangle that creates the contentious dynamic that’s the foundation of the film’s entire conflict.

A film of this length and from this era doesn’t have any right to be as intense as it is, yet the Hitch-Hiker proves to be just that. It’s chock full of not only frank depictions of wickedness but enough psychological torture to send tremors up the spines of an audience. It’s a real sweaty thriller. William Talman is absolutely diabolical in a performance that is as vindictive as any other role that comes to mind. It’s that evil.

Meanwhile, the deeply underrated cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (Out of the Past) flaunts his skills in low budget filmmaking while former husband-wife duo Collier Young and Ida Lupino team up in another surprisingly compelling project, despite its meager production values. I laugh derisively at any contemporary who might have suggested Lupino could only do so-called issue-driven “Woman’s Pictures” because The Hitch-Hiker is really all about three men where the tension mounts to great proportions. Forget any other category. This is a stone cold crime film that goes beyond a simple gimmick.

3.5/5 Stars