While casting Crack Up, the filmmakers must have made a clerical error. How else to explain Pat O'Brien playing an art critic and Herbert Marshall a cop? Still, it works because Pat O'Brien is pretty bad ass: he makes art criticism seem like a gritty profession. As usual, he drags me, kicking and screaming into liking him. Herbert Marshall is pretty urbane for a cop, but he is supposed to be an undercover agent from Scotland Yard. I guess that makes a difference.
Despite the weird casting, Irving Reis' highly competent direction ended up selling me on this film noir. Reis seamlessly strings together the various set pieces, including, my favorite sequence: O'Brien on the run from the law in a penny arcade. Deft camera movement and clever editing work together to turn a guy standing around pretending to play a video into edge-of-your-seat action.
The script is less good--at times, not even up to the level of a decently written teleplay. An overly enthusiastic writer gives Marshall a rant about how Americans don't appreciate their law enforcement, thus ruining the surprise revelation of Marshall's cop identity. At least the writers do manage to keep track of the plot twists. I like film noir best when it's not so grand at the expense of logic. If I get to the end of the movie and feel that I've learned something about the nature of good and evil but still don't know who dunnit, I get a little peevish. Yeah, I'm talking about you, Big Sleep! No, of course, I'm not saying that Crack Up is better than The Big Sleep--just that it annoyed me less.
O'Brien plays George Steele, whom we first meet in the throes of an alcoholic bender and apparent mental breakdown. In typically circuitous noir style, we soon learn that he began his evening aboard a train that crashed. The problem? The cops have no record of a train wreck. Even in 1946, they kept track of that kind of stuff. So it's not looking good for our hero's sanity. One of his museum colleagues (Claire Trevor) agrees to help him clear his name. He retraces his steps, beginning with another ride on the same train that made him loopy. So far it's a little Lady Vanishes with a some Spellbound tossed in for good measure.
I'm fine with derivative filmmaking, but in those particular Hitchcock films, it’s the romance that keeps me coming back. Here, Claire Trevor manages to play both gal Friday and mysterious dame. Her friendship with O’Brien teeters on the edge of romance and, although it's not a huge surprise when they hook up, it's satisfying. Marshall provides the third side of the triangle, but that plot element doesn't really work. He and Trevor have no chemistry, and in one scene she admits that he makes her miserable. If it weren't for Marshall’s sudden uptick in energy at the end of the movie, I would want to give him B-12 shots. Eventually, however, he solves the crime with panache and starts to seem like an actor who might be worthy of a detective series of his own.
Speaking of detective series, I let out an internal "squee" every time someone in the movie called O'Brien "Mr. Steele." I can't help but wonder if the creators of my all-time favorite TV show, Remington Steele, weren't referencing Crack Up. If you gave Pat O'Brien's wardrobe to a woman, turned the urbane undercover cop into an urbane undercover con man, kept the references to art theft and forgery, squinted and stood back twenty paces, you might have Remington Steele.
Thanks to the epic series The 100 Greatest Posters of Noir, I will never take movie advertisements at face value again. This poster is terrible. If Where Danger Lives did a 100 Worst, this might well make the list. The title is too small and the tagline is too big. The cracked font is an obvious concept carried out in a half-assed fashion, and, combined with the green, the whole thing reminds me of a turtle. Claire Trevor looks nothing like the poor woman on the poster, who appears to have a painfully broken leg. Pat O'Brien’s portrait does him no favors, either. Herbert Marshall gets third billing, but his portrait dominates the poster. Maybe the artist was a secret Herbert Marshall fan? Nah: no one with such good taste could turn out this little fiasco.
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