Tuesday, August 08, 2006

"Crack Up" (1946) Needs Doctoring

Art is no substitute for murder. Crack-Up (1946) tries to be the exception that proves the rule, fails, and only proves to be an exceptionally dull movie.

Pat O’Brien stars as George Steele, an art lecturer at a Manhattan museum who is convinced that he was in a train wreck. The police, however, report that no trains have crashed in months. Undeterred, Steele is convinced that someone has covered up the train wreck in attempt to make him seem crazy. His investigation, aided by Terry Cordell (film noir queen Claire Trevor), uncovers an international art forgery scheme, and it looks to him like his museum is the one behind it. As Steele gets closer to solving the mystery, the police close in on him (convinced that he is crazy), as do the forgers, who will do anything to protect their secret and their secret cache of rare paintings.

The script, written by John Paxton, Ben Bengal and Ray Spencer and based on Fredric Brown’s story “Madman’s Holiday,” is incorrigibly convoluted, poorly plotted, and rife with situations beyond human interest. Compared to other hardboilers from the same time, it lacks the wit of The Big Sleep (1946), the intelligence of Laura (1944), and the intrigue of This Gun For Hire (1942). Other than a plot driven by improbability and coincidence, Crack-Up offers little for us to go on.

Character motivations lack all likelihood. The forgers’ impetus for targeting Steele is that he asked that the museum buy an x-ray machine so that he can see beneath the surface of paintings and uncover previous works that had been painted over. Now, the man behind the forgeries happens to be one of the higher-ups at the museum—one who could easily veto Steele’s request, or fire him for his uncouth, anti-modernist lectures (that are already unpopular with the board of directors). By setting up Steele to make him seem insane, they are only pointing fingers in their own direction.

More importantly, there is nothing compelling about the characters to keep our interest. The villains lack any sinister facets, other than the basest element of committing a crime. Likewise, our hero Steele’s only motivation seems to be proving that he is not insane—even a hackneyed love interest would spruce up this picture. As for Claire Trevor and the rest of the near-anonymous cast, their roles are so vague that they spark only the most peripheral of interest. Likewise, director Irving Reis has only the slightest presence in the movie—the direction is functional, but Reis seems to take little interest in what is happening in front of the camera.

The most interesting moment in the film—a sign of the times, no less—occurs during one of Steele’s lectures. After ostentatiously dismissing modernist art, a German-accented patron with a small, square moustache under his nose—ala Hitler, if wasn’t obvious enough—creates a stir, dismissing Steele as behind the times and old-fashioned, before being carried off by museum security. World War II had been over one year when Crack-Up was made, but anti-German sentiment still resounds quite clearly in this scene. The coupling of Nazism and modern art is fascinating, if slightly disconcerting and off-putting. Considering that the notorious Armory Show in New York occurred in 1913—an exhibition of impressionist and cubist paintings that spurred President Theodore Roosevelt to comment, “That’s not art!”—and that Salvador Dali, the painter obviously referenced by the faux-surrealist painting in the film, was working with Hitchcock in Hollywood on Spellbound in 1945, Crack-Up can only be considered conservative in its views on modern art. Retrogressive and conventional might be more apt—so much so that they perfectly describe Crack-Up as a whole.

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