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Plenty of films noir made their subject the problems of veterans returned from the war fronts, dealing with domestic evil back home in the cities. While they were away saving the world, crooks of all sorts were rigging the American success machine. The honest veteran, now perhaps a private eye or insurance investigator, regularly went up against elitist criminals who lived in luxury during the war, enjoying the food and the women denied our noble soldiers. If the "Mr. Big" behind any given criminal conspiracy wasn't an overreaching criminal, chances are he'd be a rich guy in a tuxedo -- a radio performer or an advertising man, a connoisseur of the finer things in life. The association of high art with slimy noir villains made for a strange equation. An 'honest' man has no need for Ming vases, priceless antiques or classic paintings, while those that covet and appreciate them tend to be sociopathic perverts. In film noir, High art = sociopathic behavior.
Nowhere is this equation so clearly stated as it is in RKO's Crack-Up. A capable if somewhat unexciting cast takes the story through various levels of narrative confusion. Popular art lecturer George Steele (Pat O'Brien) charms museum crowds with his folksy talks, his main message being that people shouldn't feel intimidated by great art, or by the phony snobs that appreciate it only to augment their social status. The museum's directors take exception to Steele's populist attitude and consider closing off his lecture series, a decision that becomes final when Steele, apparently roaring drunk, smashes his way into the museum one night and must be restrained by the police. Steele babbles a story about being in a train wreck, but no such accident has occurred. Released by request of the museum, Steele investigates his own crazy behavior. He's not happy that his girl friend Terry Cordell (Claire Trevor) is seeing a handsome Englishman, Traybin (Herbert Marshall). Steele is convinced that his problems are related to the museum's nervousness when it comes to the subject of art forgery -- back in the Army, Steele worked for the Allies identifying famous paintings stolen by the Nazis.
Crack-Up starts with a fist smashing through a glass door, initiating a fight that results in the destruction of one of the museum's statues. There are plenty of puzzle pieces to ponder, what with Steele mentioning X-Ray technology used to authenticate famous paintings, and the nervous museum director (Erskine Sanford) constantly whining about negative publicity. His reputation ruined by his manic behavior, George Steele finds himself framed for murder and on the run. He knows that big-time art forgery is tied into the picture somewhere, as the museum also "lost" a famous painting that supposedly went down on an ocean liner a few years back. Several potential villains (at least one or two too many) are introduced, including a helpful doctor associated with the museum (Ray Collins), a detective who speaks in a monotone (Wallace Ford) and Herbert Marshall's foreigner, who seems to know too much about what's going on, right from the beginning.
Most of Crack-Up follows Steele and his faithful girl Terry as they sneak about New York after dark. It never rains but the streets are always wet. A visit to a penny arcade provides a contrast with the snooty environs of the museum. As an art critic George Steele favors the condescending "populist outreach" approach. He assures his audience that there's nothing wrong with liking what you want and rejecting what you don't like, no matter what the art community says you are "supposed" to like. Steele unveils a Dali-esque surreal painting, and smiles when the crowd laughs at it. A single (foreign, suspicious-looking) modern art lover causes a fuss, and is thrown bodily out of the gallery. Steele quips that at the next week's lecture, Surrealists will be searched for weapons! Steele may be against art as the exclusive domain of wealthy snobs, but in his search for a popular consensus, his lecture promotes know-nothing prejudice against anything that "the people" aren't already comfortable with.
That's strange, because the otherwise flatly-directed Crack-Up takes intermittent breaks for 'artsy' subjective sequences that themselves use surreal imagery. George Steele's psychic trauma of a train wreck (no spoilers here) is expressed through a montage in which the headlight of an approaching train appears to be exploding in Steele's face through his passenger train window. Director Irving Reis shows the passage of time by superimposing a clock over pounding train wheels, another somewhat surreal image.
Crack-Up mentions more than once that technology perfected during wartime is now being used for peaceful -- and criminal purposes. Steele employs a modern X-Ray machine to investigate whether or not a painting he's rescued from a fire is the original or a forgery. And the bad guys use chemical discoveries as a weapon to discredit an agent who might get too close to the truth. What we're more likely to notice is George Steele's alarming habit of recklessly slicing priceless artwork out of its frame and roughly rolling it up. How will anybody frame that masterpiece now?
(spoiler) As it turns out, the plot hinges on a mad art collector, someone so addicted to great art that he's willing to commit forgery and murder to possess it. So the crime is not about money or politics -- artistic appreciation is itself nominated as a dangerous activity. I doubt that Crack-Up was a popular title among archivists and museum curators, as it characterizes them as cowards, perverts and megalomaniacs. Talk about a film packed with strange sociological messages!
Burlesque comic turned actor Tommy Noonan appears as a candy salesman on George Steele's nightmare train ride.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Crack-Up is a good but not exciting film transfer; the elements for this RKO oldie must not have been in the best condition. It's a bit dirty and contrasty in some scenes, which is par for many noirs of this vintage.
The soundtrack will surprise some noir fans, who will recognize the main romantic theme from Out of the Past a year before that better-known picture's premiere. As it turns out, the beautiful melody is called The First Time I Saw You, was written by Nathaniel Shilkret, and was first heard in an earlier RKO film, 1937's The Toast of New York.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.