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“Lee Marvin IS Slob” August 24, 2007

Posted by jackal in : Films , trackback

… thus opens Leonard Maltin’s review of Shack Out on 101, and it’s a concise summation of the main reason to watch. Shack is one of a kind: a trashy, tongue-in-cheek thriller, utterly loopy, incredibly fun, and as clear an example of ‘cult classic’ as you’ll ever find.

Whit Bissell, Lee Marvin and Keenan Wynn

Born out of the McCarthy era, Shack sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from a po-faced “Red Scare” movie like Big Jim McLain. Instead, Shack takes the premise of a Commie spy ring and immerses it in a movie so knowingly daft and filled with the absurd that the overall effect is … unique.

The setting is a shabby, run-down greasy spoon on coastal highway 101. The owner, Keenan Wynn, has got it bad for his waitress Kotty (Terry Moore), but she only has eyes for for a research professor (Frank Lovejoy) who is one of the shack’s few regular patrons. Harbouring more carnal desires for “the tomato”, as he refers to Kotty, is the resident cook, ”Slob”. He’s a lazy bum, alternately violent and charming, described as ”an 8 cylinder body and a 2 cylinder mind” and Lee Marvin is magnetic in the role. In the film’s opening moments he ogles the sunbathing Terry Moore before pouncing on her like a lecherous panther; this is no good guy, and yet Marvin brings so much humour to the role, with a twinkle in his eye, that he steals every scene.

Marvin gets fresh with Moore

As Columbo would say, though, there’s just one more thing: underneath the bed in his grubby room, Slob keeps a padlocked chest containing US nuclear secrets; for when he’s not busy frying burgers, Slob is a Communist master spy, running a network of agents with an iron fist under the noses of those around him.

Kotty and Slob in a rare friendly moment

That’s the movie in a nutshell: the dangerous, hush-hush dealings of Slob, trading in national secrets hidden inside a box of seashells, contrasted with the supremely silly day-to-day happenings at the diner: Keenan Wynn and buddy Whit Bissell preparing for their snorkelling vacation by hunting the plastic shark hanging on the wall, or Wynn and Marvin spending their free time engaged in a hilarious weight lifting session.

Slob pumping iron

It’s the careful balance between the absurd and the deadly serious that makes the film so inoffensive and enjoyable. There’s powerful business depicted herein: Communist infiltration, treachery, cold-blooded murder, but the tone of near-parody for the lighter scenes pulls the film back from ever taking itself particularly seriously. It’s also worth noting that - as with another similarly themed film from 1955, A Bullet for Joey - the word “Communist” isn’t uttered once, although the implication is obvious.

snorkelling above water

Technically Shack is no great shakes: evidently low-budget, and filmed almost entirely on the large, shabbily dressed diner set, it has something of a “TV play” atmosphere about it; the lighting and setups are largely routine, and only in a couple of scenes do the visuals impress: once in a tense confrontation between Lovejoy and Marvin, their faces lit only by a swinging ceiling lamp, and a tense moment late in the film when Kotty, left alone with Slob, creeps through the pitch black diner to the payphone to call for help.

He's behind you ...

With the exception of Marvin, the performances are fairly unremarkable. Faced with pretty superficial characterizations, the cast do an OK job, and the lovely Terry Moore is very easy on the eyes, but everybody pales next to Marv. Still in the anonymous henchman stage of his career, this was the same year he impressed in Bad Day at Black Rock and Violent Saturday, but neither comes close to the sheer glee visible here. Given a good-sized, meaty role, Marvin tears the movie apart and re-stitches it around himself; whether he’s merely lurking in the background of a dialogue scene, or throwing Terry Moore around like a rag doll (I bet she still has the bruises), Marvin commands your attention. Without him, we’d have a fairly flat, half-hearted thriller; he elevates it to trash classic.

Despite the all-too obvious flaws, this is one film I know I’ll be revisiting again and again in future. A DVD release, you ask? Well, we can dream …

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