No surprise that this one would appeal to me: Noir ambience? Check. Art and art forgery plot? Check. Mind manipulation? Check! Yeah, art and a sort of Hannibal connection, well – I’m sold. Never mind that Crack-Up stars Pat O’Brien, an unlikely everyman as its hero. It’s got Claire Trevor though, with a wild swathe of outfits, and it has the ever-urbane Herbert Marshall for kicks. And Wallace Ford who adds value to any picture he’s in.
It starts in media res like so many noir films, with a befuddled O’Brien breaking into the Manhattan Museum, punching a cop and breaking a statue. The museum director calms things down because they don’t want bad publicity though art critic George Steele (O’Brien) will lose his job because they think he’s drunk and raving.
Flashback time, of course. We go back to Steele lecturing in the museum. He’s a born feather ruffler, though, poking fun at rich people and at bad art. ‘If knowing what you like is a good enough way to pick out a wife, or a house, or a pair of shoes, what’s wrong with applying the same rule to painting?’ He tells the appreciative audience that the only folks he feels sorry for are the people ‘who know everything about art, but don’t know what they like.’ Cue snappy dressed guy shuffling his feet uncomfortably at the back with Claire Trevor next to him in a hat like a neck pillow.
‘The only way they can tell a good painting from a bad one? The price tag!’ Cue abashed laughter. Steele is reassuring to the audience that mostly seems to be people a little uncertain about art. He uncovers Millais’ The Angelus to general oohs of pleasure and he commends them on being part of a long history of folks who’ve enjoyed the painting. Steele mentions trying to get Dürer’s Adoration of the Magi (or as he calls it ‘Adoration of the King’) back for his next lecture. The museum director frowns at this and then audibly gasps when Steele talks about showing them the painting under x-ray.
Uh oh! We know where this is going.
For Steele, it’s just a chance to show that even masterpieces have false starts and revisions. Though he mentions it’s a way to catch forgeries, too. Camera cuts to Marshall lurking in the back looking mysterious. ‘A good technician with nothing to say is a very dangerous man’ — like say, Van Meegeren? – ‘whether he forges masters or paints nonsense.’ This means it’s time to make fun of ‘modern’ art. Cue audience member asking just how far away from modern art you’re supposed to stand. Quite closely, Steele jokes, then start backing up until you run into someone interesting and go for a walk with them.
Obviously this section is my favourite.
Then of course a fellow with an accent – clearly some kind of dangerous foreigner! we’re meant to think – cries that, ‘Pioneers have always been ridiculed!’ An affable Steele tells him that he’s not condemning modernism, he just doesn’t happen to like the painting and it’s fine if others do. The foreign art lover accuses him of lacking perception and sensitivity. As he goes on, passionately derisive of Steele’s failings, the crowd turns against him, hissing and booing. He’s dragged out by security to applause. All-American war veteran Steele makes a joke of it, saying he’ll go into modernism more deeply next week, but ‘Surrealists will be checked for weapons at the door.’ It’s a have-it-both-ways Americanism: look how tolerant I am of the foreign guy who was dragged out of the room but not by me! And my gentle genial jokes at his expense. No big deal!
Not the point of the film, but I love this scene: it’s so off-handedly rich.
Of course there’s a forgery business to be uncovered having to do with the Dürer, fugitive fleeing, a fire on a ship, and more. But the powers that be decide to head off nosy, x-ray wielding, controversy-building Steele with a clever ruse:
making him thing he’s been in a train accident. Ray Collins plays the doctor working for the museum to hide its shady dealings. He almost chuckles revealing the very useful trick he learned during the war as he explains it the captive Trevor. ‘It’s called narco-synthesis, Miss Cordell.’ I assume that’s why Bryan Fuller called Mason Verger’s gruesome major domo Cordell. And the plan is surprisingly similar to techniques in Hannibal, though they’re of course even more sophisticated. The mind is a fungible thing.
‘All inhibitions go; the subconscious mind takes over.’ And the subconscious is easy to manipulate with the right stimuli. Like a train that passes really close to the doctor’s house. Is there no one who can stop this nefarious plan? In between some chit chat with the decidedly upwardly mobile Cordell, who wants to ditch ol’ Steele for someone swankier but clearly is happiest with him. There’s a great scene in an arcade when they’re trying to hide in the crowd. It’s a worthwhile film.
It’s available as a Warner Archive disk, though you can find an online version that’s pretty murky. Jacqueline T. Lynch’s blog does a good job of breaking down the narrative points and providing some great screen caps.