A Short-Order Cook, a Tomato and a Shack

CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”

“Shack Out on 101”–the very title has a delightfully pulpy feel to it, like “The Wicked Go to Hell” or “Kiss the Blood Off My Hands”–how could it not be a cult favorite? But this is one tricky little B-movie, designed to throw you off balance even as it entertains.

Superficially it’s a tale of Cold War espionage with enemy agents spying on top-secret research being conducted at a university just up the road from the titular shack–actually a roadside café. But the real meat of the film lies in its characters, all of whom possess a certain whacky charm. There’s “The Tomato” (aka: Kotty), the cafe’s one and only waitress who, as another critic of the film has pointed out, seems to work the shortest shifts ever seen in the fast-food industry. She’s studying in her spare time for the Civil Service Exam because she wants to work in a big, beautiful government building. Her employer is George, the lovelorn proprietor of the shack. There’s also a cook–lazy, lecherous, given to dropping his wristwatch in the onion soup. He’s a cross between the film’s menace–mauling Kotty every chance he gets when George’s back is turned–and the film’s comic-relief. His name is Leo, but he’s universally known as “Slob.” Oh yeah, he’s also the secrets-stealing enemy agent. When he’s not lounging around the kitchen, Slob is buying secrets from one of the cafe’s clientele, The Professor (because he is one). The Professor is also carrying on a hot affair with Kotty on the side, and he’s working with a pair of government agents masquerading as delivery truck drivers in the belief that underling Slob will eventually lead them to the big boss, the unseen Mr. Gregory. Last but not least there’s Eddie, a traveling salesman and George’s old Army Buddy. Eddie is the only guy in the place not panting after Kotty–which is probably why she likes him.

Those are the characters, now for the cast. Kotty was played by Terry Moore as a feisty fireball. George was played by Keenan Wynn as a slightly dense but likeable mug. The revelation of the cast was Lee Marvin who makes Slob a constantly likeable no-goodnik–until he isn’t. The reliably wooden Frank Lovejoy played The Professor as a pressed-from-pure-cardboard 1950s movie-hero while the wonderful Whit Bissell rounded out the principal cast as the skittish Eddie, who gives Kotty steep discounts on his line of jewelry and gets free psychological-counseling from Lovejoy’s Professor.

Mildred and Edward Dein wrote the script which Edward directed, and they keep throwing curves that should wreck the fun, but don’t. For instance, in most films of this type, Slob would be portrayed as a bozo until we get the big reveal that he’s a spy, then everything changes. But here, even after we discover that Lovejoy is feeding Marvin (presumably false) information that Marvin reviews behind the locked door of his bedroom, the script allows Marvin to continue acting the likeable goof-off. In one scene he and Wynn are working out with weights and discussing the pros-and-cons of the Muscle Beach professionals and Marvin solemnly declares that he doesn’t care about “pecs,” what he really wants is “a big thick neck.” Similarly, Lovejoy-as-traitor and Lovejoy-as-undercover-agent are essentially the same character. Only the amount of angst suffered by Moore when she believes her dreamboat to be treasonous serves to highlight The Professor’s duplicitous nature.

What I enjoyed so much about the film is that it’s 1950s espionage yarn that no one but Lovejoy seems to be taking very seriously. Not until the final ten minutes or so of the film does Marvin go into his standard 1950s “tough hombre” act when Slob finally owns up to himself being “Mr. Gregory” and is fittingly killed off by the “cowardly” Eddie, but not before Marvin cools things down a bit with his inimitable chilling malice. If Otto Preminger gave us the definitive film noir counter-loungers in “Fallen Angel,” Mildred and Eddie Dein gave us the Eisenhower-Era edition in “Shack Out on 101.”

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