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Crack-Up

D: Irving Reis / 93m

Cast: Pat O’Brien, Claire Trevor, Herbert Marshall, Ray Collins, Wallace Ford, Dean Harens, Damian O’Flynn, Erskine Sanford, Mary Ware

Suggested by the wonderfully titled short story, Madman’s Holiday by Fredric Brown, Crack-Up is, on face value, yet another cheap throwaway movie made by RKO in the post-war years, and of little interest to anyone who isn’t a fan of Pat O’Brien, Claire Trevor or Herbert Marshall. But look more closely and you’ll find a neat little thriller, still modest by the standards of the day, but with an approach to the material that makes it a fascinating piece to watch.

O’Brien is noted art critic and curator George Steele. When the movie begins we see him desperately trying to break into a museum late one evening. He appears drunk and he’s violent towards the policeman who tries to stop him. Once inside the museum the policeman manages to knock him unconscious. When he comes to he’s surrounded by Barton and some of the other museum trustees, as well as Terry, a visiting Englishman called Traybin (Marshall), and a police lieutenant called Cochrane (Ford). When Steele starts talking about being involved in a train crash earlier, it’s Cochrane who breaks the bad news: there hasn’t been a train crash (and his mother isn’t in the hospital). Certain there has been a crash, Steele allows himself to be pacified by one of the trustees, Dr Lowell (Collins). Lowell asks Steele if he can remember anything before the so-called crash, and though his mind is obviously disturbed, Steele recounts events from earlier in the day.

Crack-Up - scene1

He gives a lecture at the museum, and is particularly interested in debunking the idea that art and culture are the exclusive properties of the rich and prosperous. He wants to see art made more available to the general public, an idea that worries the museum’s director, Barton (Sanford). When Steele goes further, and voices his plan to allow the public to see paintings being x-rayed so as to see how some artists have painted over an existing work, Barton is incensed and tells Steele he will do his best to block the idea and ensure it never happens.

Unperturbed by Barton’s waspish attitude, Steele hooks up with an old flame, Terry Cordell (Trevor) and they go for a drink together. Steele receives a call that tells him his mother is sick in hospital. He heads straight for the train station where he boards the first available train north. But as the train approaches one of its stops, Steele sees another train that he’s convinced will crash headlong into his. The other train gets nearer and nearer, and beyond that Steele can’t remember anything else, and certainly not breaking into the museum. With Traybin intervening to stop Cochrane from arresting Steele for assaulting the policeman, and with the trustees all wanting the whole affair being kept out of the press, Steele is allowed to go home.

Crack-Up - scene2

But you can’t keep a confused art critic down and soon Steele is determined to find out what happened to him. He makes the same journey by train and learns enough to know that there’s something suspicious going on at the museum, and that it has something to do with a painting by Gainsborough that was recently lost at sea. With Terry’s aid he begins to piece together the fragments of a conspiracy that brings together the museum, a collection of old masters, and his own unwitting involvement.

There’s something undeniably charming about Crack-Up, with its murky lighting and frazzled hero, its well-oiled narrative and pleasing performances. For modern audiences it’ll prove too familiar perhaps, but if viewed with the eyes and ears of a contemporary viewer, there’s a lot that won’t seem as predictable or commonplace as it would do today. And a large part of the movie’s charm is the freshness the script – by John Paxton, Ben Bengal and Ray Spencer – brings to its central mystery: did George Steele experience a train crash, and if he didn’t, then why does he think he did? And as the story unfolds there are enough twists and turns to keep things lighhhearted and playful.

This is largely due to Irving Reis’s exemplary direction. Reis was a director who by 1946 had made a number of low budget thrillers including three featuring The Falcon. But while the projects he worked on were largely prosaic and uninspiring, Reis himself didn’t see it that way, and he worked hard to elevate the material he had to work with. This can be evidenced by the way in which Crack-Up is structured – there are breaks in the narrative where the viewer could convince him- or herself that they’ve missed something (just as Steele does) – and the way in which Steele is never able to fully convince himself that his sanity is as secure as he’d like it to be (he’s not quite the tortured hero of other film noirs, but his insecurity is a definite plus).

Crack-Up - scene3

Reis is aided by strong performances from O’Brien and Trevor, with the latter given the chance to be more than just a piece of attractive window dressing to pose beside the lead actor. While O’Brien is steadfast and determined (while remaining unsure deep down), Trevor is angry and tenacious, refusing to believe her man is of unsound mind, and willing to support him no matter what. It’s a tough, unwavering performance, and Trevor, who was always an actress capable of far more than she was usually asked to provide, here makes Terry the equal of any of the male characters, and someone who the audience can identify with and be sympathetic towards. As the urbane Traybin, Marshall plays to type and uses his sleepy-eyed features to good effect, drawling his way through the material with a casual deference that balances O’Brien’s gruffer, more aggressive portrayal.

For fans of the genre (and the era) there are cameos from the likes of Edward Gargan (an arcade cop), Eddie Parks (a drunk in the same arcade), and Gertrude Astor (a nagging wife), and there’s an above average score by Leigh Harline that includes a couple of unsettling motifs that are used during some of the more intense sequences. It all builds to a satisfactory climax, with the villain – and their accomplice – proving not quite as obvious as usual (though, again, fans of the genre may think otherwise). It all adds up to a surprisingly rewarding film noir, and a movie well worth checking out if you get the opportunity.

Rating: 7/10 – an unassuming, modest little thriller that features a robust script, adroit performances, and assured, confident direction, Crack-Up is a movie that goes some way to proving that not all post-war mysteries were derivative and/or bland; not just for fans, this is a welcome addition to the genre that doesn’t settle for being second best or tired and predictable.

NOTE: Alas, no trailer for Crack-Up is available.

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