What if I told you that I just watched a film noir that turned into a murder mystery? What if I told you that said noir starred Pat O’Brien, Claire Trevor, and Herbert Marshall? And what if I told you that this noir/murder mystery centered around the world of art and art forgery? Impossible, you say! But no! It is true! It can all be seen in CRACK-UP from 1946.
The Manhattan Museum has been closed up for the night and a policeman is going his rounds when he is confronted by a strange sight. A man, clearly delirious, has smashed a window and is now attempting to destroy a statue. The policeman confronts and struggles with the man before subduing him. Initially believing the man to be drunk the police and the museum board, led by one Dr. Lowell (Ray Collins), bring the man back to Dr. Lowell’s house to recuperate. The man is George Steele (Pat O’Brien), art expert and lecturer at the museum who has just been released from military service. Dr. Lowell deduces that George is not drunk but ill, and George furthers this idea by insisting to the police lieutenant that he has just been in a train accident. Police Lieutenant Cochrane informs George that there have been no train accidents reported and that his mother was never taken to the hospital. Dr. Lowell believes that George’s experiences in the military might be affecting his memory and so asks him to relate everything that he can remember leading up to that night in the museum. George begins his tale…
After giving a rather inflammatory lecture to a group of art lovers in the museum, George is receiving a dressing down by museum director Barton. The director feels that George’s lectures are far too explosive and is also annoyed by George’s promise to use an X-Ray machine to show his lecture goers how art forgeries are detected by using the recently exhibited Dürer’s Adoration of the Kings as an example. Irritated by his boss’ closed minded behavior George runs into his girlfriend Terry Cordell (Claire Trevor) and her new friend Traybin (Herbert Marshall). George and Terry head out for a date and drink and just as George begins to relax and enjoy himself, he receives an urgent phone call telling him that he mother has taken ill and has been taken to the hospital. George hurries off to the train station, promising to call Terry in the morning. Once there he gets his ticket and rushes to catch the train, almost running into a man half carrying another seemingly very drunk man. Onboard George settles in and stares out the window. To his horror he sees a train coming towards them, almost as if by design, and then colliding.
Back in the present day George concludes his story by saying that after the train crash he suddenly found himself back at the museum. Traybin, who has accompanied Terry to Dr. Lowell’s, excuses himself and asks Cochrane to follow him into the hall. Once there Traybin, who is an English art expert, requests that Cochrane lets George go but have him tailed. Cochrane agrees and George is released, but not before being fired by Barton. Upon returning to his apartment, George, Terry, and Traybin find that it has been ransacked. George confides to Terry that he worries that he is suffering from post-traumatic stress and she urges him to forget the events of that night. But George can’t do that and he resolves to piece together just what happened to him.
The next evening he boards the commuter train and finds that no one on board remembers seeing him. Discouraged, he gets off at a station and asks the clerk there if he saw anything strange. The clerk recalls seeing three men, two men helping one man who appeared to be very drunk, and George realizes that the third man must have been him. He hurries back to the museum to inform his friend, and museum employee, Stevenson. Stevenson has even more news as he has heard that Barton just got word that a Thomas Gainsborough recently lost at sea was in fact a fake. George realizes that there must be another forgery currently in the museum and gets Stevenson to agree to help him get into the museum vaults later that night. But when George returns to the museum to meet Stevenson he finds his friend dead and himself the prime suspect.
I bought CRACK-UP during the Black Friday sale at Warner Archive sole due to the cast and the fact that the plot started off with, “I’ve been in a train crash!” “There was no train crash!”. Very THE LADY VANISHES. I found that this was a really fun and intriguing mystery, a wholly unique take on the film noir. As I said, there were moments that reminded me of THE LADY VANISHES and other elements of Hitchcock which gave the story an interesting and imaginative flair. The story begins with George trying to figure out what happened on the train but quickly evolves into a murder mystery and caper movie. This is not to say that it disregards its noir roots, on the contrary. George is not only the everyman fighting against corruption but CRACK-UP addresses upfront the affects that post-traumatic stress had on the minds of the men suffering from it.
Pat O’Brien is quite good in this. He is usually a loud tough guy but here he is much quieter and reserved, giving hints at the wounded and injured man below. He even speaks in a softer register making George someone that you have to pay attention to. This was a completely different role than what I was used to seeing him in and I have to say that he did a really great job. He is well supported by Claire Trevor, who portrays Terry as a woman who loves her man and will do whatever he needs in order to help him. And Herbert Marshall…well, he just needs to show up doesn’t he?
CRACK-UP is a noir that is different and one that takes creative chances in its attempt to tell a story. It is not quite like any other noir I have seen but it is definitely one that I will watch again, and one that deserves more recognition and appreciation!