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Many film fans make a special effort to see everything by their favorite stars, and in the case of my friends it's often horror stars they like to track down. It's surprising how many tiny roles somebody like Christopher Lee pops up in, from the late 1940s onward. And it can be a little depressing when the missing titles for a fave talent like Vincent Price turn out to be very minor, or disappointments. But they keep their lists up to date.
My first childhood exposure to Peter Lorre was through a bad rhyming eulogy in Famous Monsters magazine. Only slowly did I realize that his fame extended beyond Roger Corman horrors and unrewarding guest shots in things like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Then came clips on TV from "M" and as I became a teenager his many Warner pictures with Humphrey Bogart & Co. filled in his most productive period. The relevant milestones for Mr. Lorre have been Hitchcock's The Secret Agent (not on disc to my knowledge), Mad Love (which always worked for me, 100%), the 1954 James Bond TV show Casino Royale (ad-libbing his way through multiple mistakes), The Face Behind the Mask (as a highly sympathetic victim/villain), Stranger on the Third Floor and the grim postwar German movie he directed as well as starred in, Der Verlorene.
Crack-Up comes from early in Peter Lorre's American career, before he began his popular Mr. Moto series. It is likely to only be of interest for fans looking for rare, free-range Lorre. It is an odd picture, one with a strong story idea that seems to go in all the wrong directions, bringing up interesting relationships and situations and then not paying them off. Anyone trying to write a screenplay will periodically laugh out loud for the wrong reasons. But Lorre and his co-star Brian Donlevy make it worth seeking out. If this thing has been shown on TV in the last forty years, it slipped by me completely.
At a press event, the Fleming aircraft company debuts a new plane designed for Trans-Atlantic flight, the Wild Goose. Tolerated at the ceremony is 'Colonel Gimpy' (Peter Lorre) an odd little eccentric who toots a toy horn and likes to hog attention. He's considered a mascot at the field and a good luck charm. The Wild Goose will soon go on its maiden flight, piloted by the charismatic Ace Martin (Brian Donlevy) and co-piloted by young Joe Randall (Thomas Beck), with the boss John R. Fleming (Ralph Morgan) as the only passenger. But few are aware of the intrigues boiling behind the scenes. Colonel Gimpy is actually Baron Rudolph Maximillian Tagger aka The Chief, a master spy for an unspecified foreign country. The Chief commands a nest of agents and is determined to nab the secret blueprints for "DOX", a bomber plane developed by the Knuxton Company. After eliminating an untrustworthy minion, The Chief sets his Operative #77 (J. Carrol Naish) to liaise with a traitor hired to purloin the plans. Joe Randall is tricked into stealing the DOX plans for the traitor, and can do so because his fianceé Ruth Franklin (Helen Wood) works in the Knuxton offices. Fleming moves up the flight schedule because wants to get to Europe right away -- his wife (Kay Linaker) and his junior partner Sidney Grant (Lester Mathews) have run away together, to Paris. The Chief commits two more murders before sneaking aboard the unannounced flight -- which will be the perfect vehicle to spirit the DOX plans back to... his unspecified home country.
Crack-Up wasn't exactly assigned Fox's top talent, although all the technical artists are competent. We wonder if the no-show box office of Crime and Punishment and Mad Love had already spoiled Peter Lorre's bid to enter Hollywood as something better than a character actor. He has star billing here but neither the script nor the direction show him at his best. Lorre reportedly asked to play 'Colonel Gimpy' as a comedy character, but he comes off as a little more than a lame annoyance, lacking the impish, sly humor Lorre would effortlessly slip into his later character roles. He fares better as "The Chief", but the script limits the character to a predictable type, without the flamboyant details of the spy villains in his Hitchcock films. We don't even get a chance to admire The Chief's moves as a ruthless killer, for his murders and stealth mission into the top security hangar happen off-screen. Just the same, a number of moments when Lorre moves into close-up or reveals his intentions with a sly look, are very effective.
Lorre reportedly invented the gag where he changes his expression to mimic a "Day Owl" and then a "Night Owl". It's painfully unfunny. By 1936 he had pretty much overcome any deficiency he had with the English language, but perhaps the great actor still needed strong guidance to steer his mannerisms into a pattern that would communicate to American filmgoers. With an eighteen-day shooting schedule, veteran director Malcolm St. Clair barely had time to line up the shots and get the rear-projection working right for all those flying scenes. 1
Second-billed Brian Donlevy looks extremely young and fit. He was just getting interesting parts in bigger pictures and I'll guess that his popularity really only took off three years later with his impressive villains in Union Pacific and Beau Geste. Donlevy's Ace Martin is an ambiguous hero, as he seems to be functioning as a double agent for the first two or three reels of this picture. He's idolized by his co-pilot Joe, a functional simpleton who commits a major theft as a personal favor. The female contingent of the movie is fairly disposable. Ace has no romantic connection, leaving young Joe's fianceé Helen Wood with a couple of scenes to worry about her boyfriend when the Government agents tell her he's a thief of defense secrets. Big Boss Fielding's wife Kay Linaker and her adulterous lover Lester Mathews are on screen for at most twenty-five seconds. The only other female of note is a walk-on by The Chief's Operative #16 (Gloria Roy). Her secret identity is as a Cuban sexpot known as Miss Gomez. But all we literally see her do is walk on and off and deliver two sentences of dialogue. A lot of this film's characters just burn up screen time. They aren't even properly used as red herrings for the film's central mystery.
Rising above the fray as usual is J. Carrol Naish, whose double-dealing spy game is the best thing in the picture. He dares to cheat the fearsome, Mabuse-like Chief, and thus exhibits more nerve than anybody we see. Is Naish a great actor, or is his character the only one with a clear objective? I'd say Yes to both statements.
The big flight ends up as a one-way trip into the drink, complete with some rather odd philosophizing that tries to find a common bond between a nefarious spy, a greedy traitor and a distraught millionaire. The final chuckle comes when The Chief expresses a strange fondness for Ace. Both are wounded and in a bad way, and when Lorre puts his head on Donlevy's chest it's all too easy to read the scene wrong. The New York-to-Berlin airplane the Wild Goose turns out to be a generic two-engine Lockheed Electra, as seen in State of the Union and 1941. It had a range of fewer than 900 miles. The Chief stows away and pretends to be Colonel Gimpy -- so he can seize the DOX plans en route.
Several moments are unintentionally hilarious Bad Screenwriting ideas that nobody thought to veto. During a struggle a gauge on the instrument panel fills with gasoline or hot oil -- does that even make sense? A high-pressure blast squirts into an unprotected face, effectively blinding one of the men. At one point the story requires that Joe, Mr. Fleming and Gimpy hear a radio transmission without Ace hearing it. But they're in the confines of a small airplane. The solution of screenwriter (Sam Mintz) is to have Ace climb out onto the left wing to replace a gas cap that's come loose. Those darn filling station attendants, what will they do next? The important radio message indeed comes through when Ace is 'out of the room', so to speak. It's silly beyond words. Yes, a wing-walker in a bi-plane doing 65 mph can climb out of the cockpit above a county fair and come out okay, if she isn't Susan Sarandon. This aluminum monoplane cruises at over 200 mph, and a violent storm is raging. With a tiny Brian Donlevy doll hanging on to the little airplane miniature for dear life, we get a scene perfectly suited for The Three Stooges.
Are you a big Peter Lorre fan? You'll enjoy Crack-Up.
The 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives DVD-R of Crack-Up appears to be a fairly recent transfer. The source element has partially replaced the Fox logo with an NTA card but otherwise the show looks to be in good shape, with scattered fine scratches and dirt flecks. The decent quality betrays the use of fairly good models in all the flying scenes. The audio track is clear and strong. As rarities go, this is a quality release.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Something I've never seen before happens in Crack-Up: the process projection of clouds behind pilot Brian Donlevy keeps changing direction! In some shots the plane goes forward, and in others it seems to be flying backward.
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T'was Ever Thus.