Great film noir and a suspenseful mystery. Who would think that an art gallery would make a good noir setting? But it’s a labyrinthine maze of shadow in Crack-Up. George (Pat O’Brien) is the quintessential noir hero–an unsuspecting victim of a criminal plot. The story traces his quest to ‘square’ himself. With rapid intensity, the plot adds dream-like sequences to highlight George’s psychological terror and palpable fears.
The art forgery scheme that George discovers is only verified near the end, leaving his various antagonists plenty of room to entrap him, and leaving the viewer wondering if George knows what he’s about. The repetitive horror of the train wreck imagery consumes George like a drug; he can barely function. Like someone who’s seen a ghost, no one believes him. Diabolically, the doctor (Ray Collins) who should help him with the nightmares, is actually causing them. And Mary (Mary Ware), an apparently innocent helper, also betrays him. Ironically, it’s the untrustworthy Claire Trevor (as Terry) that he has to rely on.
Retrieving the painting from the ship’s hold lands George in the ultimate noir trap: locked in a burning compartment. Escaping all that, he has to escape again, and only finally escapes thanks to the police. Before that deliverance, however, he’s drugged yet again, the ‘L’ train conveniently stirring up his nightmare…at gun point as well. After the denouement, it’s satisfying to have the humorous final scene. He’s right, everyone else is nuts. He’s been the victim of all the mayhem. With the noir hero’s combination of risk and cunning he’s survived, and won back his self-respect, as well as his place in society.
Everything works here. The performances are even and convincing. No time is wasted. The most harmless of settings–the penny-arcade–quickly becomes a claustrophobic, menacing trap. Life in Crack-Up is inherently off-key, discordant, and the hero is on his own, desperately trying to make sense out of it all.
The best aspect is the interplay between the psychological and the physical; the nightmare that seems real, and the reality that seems nightmarish. We’re not told what we should see with intrusive narration; this noir vision is painted for us to experience. In an early scene, George’s casual dismissal of the surreal painting (and the appreciative cackling of the audience) comes back to haunt him, as he’s about to experience more reality than he ever wanted or expected. 10/10.