October 1, 2013
We associate film noir with cramped urban spaces, labyrinthine warrens of crime and vice. This slipperiest of genres, identified by French film critics years after its demise, also gained resonance by departing from the city and hitting the road. Often this takes the form of a last ditch attempt at salvation, as in the transition from city to country in On Dangerous Ground, when Robert Ryan’s cop finds humanity in the dead eyes of Ida Lupino. Olive Films recently released two curiously located 1950s noirs, the beachside diner of Shack Out on 101 (1955) and the highway heist film Plunder Road (1957). Both dispense their pleasures through their constrained locales, the first taken place almost entirely in a shabby eatery, the second inside a getaway truck. The first veers towards absurdist humor while the second is a straight-faced procedural, but both display how the noir ingredients could be combined in an endless variety of ways, and that there are always discoveries to be made in even this most picked over of genres.
Shack Out on 101 is a delirious red scare item directed and written by one Edward Dein. It was his first English language feature, having only directed the English dub tracks on a couple of Spanish movies. He started out as a screenwriter for Poverty Row outfit Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), and went on to write for RKO and Universal, his most notable credit for “additional dialogue” on Jacques Tourneur’s classic creeper The Leopard Man (1943). He hooked up with Allied Artists (formerly Monogram Pictures) for Shack, which he co-wrote with his wife Mildred. It’s a bizarre mix of Clifford Odets “realism” and hysterical McCarthy-era red-baiting, highlighted by a loose-limbed performance by a young Lee Marvin.
The movie focuses on a dingy seaside diner, owned by middle-aged manager George (Keenan Wynn), who carries a torch for his bite-sized blonde bombshell waitress Kotty (Terry Moore). She only has eyes for regular customer Sam (Frank Lovejoy), a nuclear scientist running experiments at a lab down the coast. All of them are harassed by line cook “Slob” (Marvin), a boorish pervert who just might also be a Soviet spy.
The overheated tone is established in the opening shot, in which Kotty is splayed out in her two-piece bathing suit on an abandoned beach, her body ogled by Dein’s camera with leering prurience. In the distance, a figure slowly walks forward into focus. It’s Slob, who bends down and lathers on a sloppy kiss to her revolted face. Dein and DP Floyd Crosby (High Noon) is always shoving Slob into backgrounds and skulking in corners, a creature more than a man. If he emerges into the foreground, disaster is sure to follow. The opening sequence rhymes with one of the climactic sequences, a deep focus composition in which Marvin’s head is in the far background behind the kitchen counter, while Kotty blabs her suspicions over the phone in close-up. His slow approach next to her will shift the film into a more violent phase. Marvin oozes bad intentions, his body an uncontrollable herky-jerk of flapping limbs, as if he can’t control the hurt he is about the unleash.
Set almost entirely inside the diner, it’s overtly theatrical, and early one it feels like a kitchen sink comedy about George’s unrequited love of Kotty. There are some touching moments here, including George trying to enumerate why he should feel happy to be alive. His ex-GI friend reminds him of their tour at D-Day, where he, ” still remembered how choppy the channel looked through your chest.” This greasy spoon looks like heaven in comparison. These offhand character moments clash with the broad comedy, including a pantomimed scuba diving bit, and an uproarious weightlifting scene between George and Slob before opening the joint. Comparing pecs and calves, this extended bit of delusional beefcake ends with the shirtless duo comparing legs with Kotty (she wins). By the time the conspiracy mechanics kick in it’s hard to take it seriously, and it seems Dein felt the same way, as the various subterfuges make little sense, as if he were poking a little fun at the rise of Commie-hunting.
Plunder Road aims for a complete lack of subtext, for a simplicity of procedural presentation. A group of failed professionals (a race car driver, a stunt man) rip off the U.S. Mint in a bold rain-soaked train heist. After this elaborate opener, the movie splits off into four, following each getaway car as it races for freedom to the Mexico border. There is no exposition, only action. Director Hubert Cornfield is concerned only with the mechanics of the crime, and how the roads eventually swallow all of them up. The opening credit sequence, designed by Bob Gill, consist of an extreme close-up of white road markings speeding by. The idea is that the mechanical advancements that allowed this robbery to take place will also inexorably take them all down.
In order to pull off the job they need a crane and a highly unstable explosive that they transport in a spring-loaded trailer, a nod to Wages of Fear (1953). But this technological ingenuity will also trap them on their escape routes. Everything from a police scanner to a weighing station will give them away. The film, while not well known outside of noir aficianado circles, has been studied by those interested in urban planning, as the ironic finale finds the remaining heisters stuck in snarled traffic in the newly built Harbor Freeway, which ran from Los Angeles to San Pedro and points south. Released a year and a half after the passage of the legislation which created the interstate highway system, UC Irvine Professor Edward Dimendberg found Plunder Road to be a an “allegory of that epochal event.” That is, the federal government’s creation of these interstate highways restricts personal freedom in this film, because they aid the police in oversight and collaboration in setting up roadblocks. But there is also the highway’s failure to circulate traffic as it was intended – it is one of these snarled traffic jams that ultimately trip up the bandits. An old gas station attendant reminisces to one of the robbers, before knowing who he is speaking to, about the old days when gangsters could get away with robberies like theirs, before “radio” and modern detection technologies made it impossible. Seen through this lens, as well as being a tautly produced heist film, it’s a statement on the efficacy of federal intervention, and the existential dread that intervention instills in anti-authoritarian American souls.