by Robert Weston
A film noir about an art critic who blacks out and must reconstruct the missing hours in order to prove an art forgery conspiracy. A taut thriller that’s become a minor classic of suspense.
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“Odd, isn’t it, that truth should be a byproduct of war? Only in the recent war did we perfect a direct method of communication with a man’s true self. It’s called ‘narcosynthesis’…One small injection of this and the brain is illuminated with accuracy…the subconscious mind takes over.”
Crack-Up was shot between December 1945 and February 1946; just half a year after the Allies dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So it’s no surprise that the film is so closely tied to—and clearly inspired by—World War II. Sure, the vast majority of all film noir released in the classic cycle between 1941 and 1958 was in some way related to WWII, but Crack-Up has a special resonance with those ominous times. The entire narrative presents an argument that the American urban elite share disturbing similarities with Nazi Germany.
The hero of Crack-Up is George Steele (Pat O’Brien) and like most film noir ‘heroes,’ he has few heroic qualities. George is a middle-aged art historian who believes art is meant for all people to enjoy, not only a wealthy minority who can afford to buy it or an academic minority who possess some imaginary power to appreciate it. However, George’s ideas are not welcome at the Metropolitan Museum, and he becomes the target of an elaborate smear campaign. In the process, George begins to suspect that someone at the museum is substituting forgeries for the classical masterworks. As he tries to uncover the culprits, playing at amateur art detective, George carries the convoluted mystery along to its solution.
In the opening sequence, George is frantically breaking into the museum. When the night guard catches him, George collapses. He awakes on a couch in the plush museum office, surrounded by his colleagues. He asks if there were any other survivors of the train wreck. Huh? -There hasn’t been a train wreck in months, a policeman informs him.
George tries to retrace his steps. He recounts his day leading up to the ‘wreck,’ beginning with a lecture in which he argued for greater accessibility to fine art. Later, while on a date with his girlfriend (Claire Trevor), he receives a call from the hospital. His mother is sick, he must take a train to visit her. Aboard the train, George watches another train approach, traveling in the opposite direction. He becomes mesmerized in the approaching headlight. The oncoming train draws closer and closer until…WHAM! That’s all he remembers. He certainly can’t remember trying to break into the museum…or why.
George soon figures someone is trying to discredit him, perhaps because they object to his egalitarian ideas about art. He suspects the culprit is someone inside the privileged upper echelons of the New York art world. Even worse: George begins to suspect an elaborate conspiracy to hoard classic masterworks of art and replace them with forgeries…perhaps that was why he was breaking into the museum—for proof!
Things are made all the more disquieting when George realizes there are troubling similarities between this New York forgery scheme and identical crimes committed by the Nazis. We learn that during the war, the Allied forces employed George’s skills to identify similar forgeries (there is documented evidence that when German forces captured European cities and seized artistic booty, copies are made so as to hoard the originals for private display or black market sale. There is even speculation that some of the forgeries were so convincing, they still hang on museum walls today). So the War may have ended, but it appears Nazi hoarding had taken a trip across the Atlantic and landed in the hearts of America’s urbane elite.
In the character of George Steele, Crack-Up combines noir ideas of urban alienation, ineffectual post-war masculinity, and psychoanalysis gone terribly wrong. Despite being surrounded by colleagues, police officers and honest confederates, it’s clear that George acts alone. After all, nobody—not even his fiancée—believes his story. There really was no train wreck, so why would a sane man fabricate such a disaster? To top things off, George is hardly a competent amateur detective. He spends most of film mystified by the few clues he can gather, dazed with partial amnesia or simply knocked unconscious. Even the international police force on the forgers’ trail leaves George in the dark. It’s as if is own brain doesn’t belong to him—as indeed it doesn’t. The villains easily manipulate his mind and his body is made a puppet for the authorities. This lack of self-consciousness comes to a head when the evil psychiatrist Dr. Lowell (noticeably similar to Dr. Soberin in Kiss Me Deadly) uses a truth serum called ‘narcosynthesis’ to surgically extract truth and fiction from George’s mind.
Crack-Up is a hearty example of the genre because it contains so many of the genre’s recurring motifs—too many perhaps, which makes the story a little difficult to follow. But isn’t that the central idea behind all film noir? A spiraling urban jungle; the blurred lined between legitimate life and the criminal underworld, each sliced up by the doubled-edged nausea of post-war hangover and post-war economic boom; all pulped together to keep us off balance, apprehensive and estranged from others. If so, then Crack-Up is a great way to inject that old-fashioned film noir malaise directly into the mind of the viewer…Sort of like a cinematic ‘narcosynthesis.’
Robert Weston is a freelance writer living in Toronto.
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