Noir City at SIFF – Crack-Up

The seedy world of crime/noir stories has often crossed paths with that of the art world. In Charles Willeford’s novel A Burnt Orange Heresy (1971), he invents a new art movement called Nihilist Surrealism, which he uses as a means of his own criticism towards the art world. In the novella Black Friday (1954), by David Goodis, the main character running from a shady past also comes from a background in art studies. And, to further add, The Woman on the Beach (1947), another film in the SIFF Noir City series, also involves an artist. Perhaps this connection has to do with art’s more sustainable credibility as popular culture at these earlier times? I’m not discrediting art today, only commenting on its place in the popular consciousness as opposed to these other times.

It is then that we come to the film Crack-Up (1946), which begins with a man, delirious, confused, and wandering about. When he comes to a museum, he scuffles with the office on guard duty, getting the best of him, and wanders in. Inside, he is subdued, only to be identified by the museum’s administration working late at night as the museum’s own curator, George Steel (played by Pat O’Brien). Steel, in a transitory state, tells of a train accident he was just in. He is taken to a hospital and later questioned by the police, who inform him there were no reported train accidents, anywhere. As Steel recalls earlier in the day, before his accident, the film flashes back along with him, revealing these events.

The flashback begins with Steel giving a lecture on the benefits of radiology as a tool to x-ray paintings and discovering whether or not they are real or a forgery. The topic is a rather controversial one, marking Steel as somewhat of a rogue concerning these matters. The interesting part of this scene comes not only from the setup of the film’s motivation, but from Steel’s commentary on art when he makes fun of surrealism, as he points to a painting made to emulate, for the sake of the film, a piece by Salvador Dali. This is great seed-planting for the trials of Steel’s character development as he himself is put into a surreal situation. Steel retraces his steps in his mind, bringing him back around to the present, where he then goes on a mystery to solve whether or not he really was on a train that crashed—and if not, why?

As the yarn of the story unravels, it is fun to watch Pat O’Brien—who is about the furthest you can get from your modern day neo-noir hero, with his older and shabbier physique—as he is on the trail of a mystery surrounding the world of art counterfeiters. Actress Terry Cordell plays Steel’s possible love interest, Claire Trevor, and does a fantastic j

ob as the sharp-witted character; until it comes time for Claire to act in order throw off a would-be pursuer, and over-acting gets introduced. The supporting actors do fine jobs in their parts, and the movie’s only scene of visual spectacle is handled deftly; a fire breaks out, consuming a room. The camera stays stationary as the flames crawl up crates towards the ceiling, and the light is captured well against the dark shadows the film accentuates.

Based on a short story by one of the darker crime writers from the early era of noir, Frederick Brown, entitled “Madman’s Holiday,” the script takes on a slightly lighter tone than how Brown writes. This is especially evident in the way the film ends, almost like a cliché from a sitcom. What’s fun about Crack-Up is its different approach to the world of noir; the story is not about a criminal, or a cop, or someone necessarily wronged and out for revenge. Instead, the essential characters, mainly Steel, are someone who’s an average person. He’s a hardworking man who stumbles into a mystery that involves his work and requires his investigation.

The movie works best when Steel is unsure of his own sanity. Was he in a train accident? His memory leaves him so certain, but as he retraces his steps, and the same light from the opposing train comes bearing down on him, not just the question of “what will happen next?”, but also, “what the hell is going on?”, is bearing down on us the audience. It’s effective, and fun, and not your typical noir film. And, in my opinion it’s well worth the price of admission to see a nice copy of it on a large screen.

Crack-Up plays at SIFF Cinema as part of its “Noir City” series on Tuesday, February 15th, 2011 at 9:00 PM. It will be the second of a double feature with The Dark Mirror (1946). Please visit for more details.


Benjamin Nason is a writer, film-maker and critic from the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his cat Lulu.

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