Crack Up (1946)

 “Surrealists will be searched for weapons at the door.”

The film noir Crack-Up begins with art expert George Steele (Pat O’Brien) breaking into an art museum. Steele slugs a policeman and damages museum property before being subdued, and he’s about to be hauled off to the slammer when museum officials intervene. When asked to explain his behaviour, Steele recounts events of the previous day. He gave a lecture focusing on art forgery at the art museum, and then, when out to dinner with society blonde bombshell Terry Cordell (Claire Trevor), Steele received a phone call that his mother was ill. Steele remembers taking the last train out of town that evening in order to visit his ailing mother. He remembers the train journey quite clearly, and the very last thing he recalls is a horrible train wreck. But according to police officials, there was no train wreck….

Crack-Up has an incredibly strong, original beginning, but after about the first third of the film, the plot meanders into murky obscurity. The setting of the art museum world is handled quite well, and the plot establishes that Steele is a rogue art expert–he believes art should be accessible to the masses–hence his amusing, lively and entertaining lectures. Unfortunately his lectures have managed to alienate the museum director Mr. Barton (Erksine Sanford) who’s been digging for an excuse to fire Steele. Barton is rather uncomfortable with the notion of Steele x-raying works of art to establish whether or not they’re forgeries, and then there’s that little matter of a missing Gainsborough….

Crack-Up directed by Irving Reis is a disappointing film–and the disappointment is accentuated by the fact the film began so strongly and had so much potential. For film noir fans, Crack-Up makes excellent use of light and shadow, and the scenes in the train are superb. After all, film noir and the eeriness of train travel make a perfect match. Unfortunately, the exact roles of several characters remain vague and they seem written into the problematic and confusing plot instead of being an integral part of it. After the film’s conclusion, I can only echo the line spoken by one of the characters: “You’ve got me all mixed up with this shell game.”


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