Crack-Up (1946)

Crack-Up (1946) is an amnesia fraudulent artwork persecution noir with psychological elements delving into the amazing practise of narcosynthesis, and featuring some great train-bound action as a paranoid art critic played by Pat O'Brien searches frantically for his unknown tormentors.

Directed by Irving Reis, this fast moving art-crime drama also starred Claire Trevor, Herbert Marshall, Erskine Sanford and Wallace Stevens —  a strong film noir showing by any standards.

Dark and mysterious and tugging at undercurrents in the highest echelons of society, as represented by the artworld, Crack-Up has an uncanny feel, largely brought about by its quite distinctive paranoid train sequences.

Populist art critic George Steele experiences a train wreck that did not happen. So is he cracking up, or is he the victim of a plot?

Wallace Ford in Crack-Up (1946)

There is something to be said for the train as a modernising force, even though they were not exactly a new invention. But yet, the train carriage has proved one of the best setting for film noir, with the strangers placed together in an uncertain manner, the strange comings and goings, the speed and best of all here —  your mirror reflection in the window, providing an existential gloss on the whole technological shebang.

"What am I supposed to have done?" Pat O'Brien in Crack-Up (1946)

In Crack-Up (1946) technology works both for and against hero art critic George Steele (Pat O'Brien). There are interesting scenes which delve into art forgery by means of X-ray technology, although when it comes to the paranoia, the train is not his friend.

Pat O'Brien in Crack-Up (1946)

Erskine Sanford in Crack-Up (1946)

The breakneck pace of many a 1940s film noir serves to pile fantasy upon fantasy and perhaps does not allow an audience much time for reflection upon what may be going on. These dreamlike productions which formed — not so much the classic, but certainly the principle wellspring of 1940s film noir —  did rather rely on extreme coincidence and the somewhat magical properties of psychiatry to push a plot on towards a denouement.

What is great about the film noir style is its flexibility. A film like Crack-Up. Then it moves into flashback mode, within which is comedy and melodrama and more mellow type of storytelling, until reality is slipped and the fear takes over.

Crack-Up is full of beautiful moments of noir, from its stirring and pumping theme tune and squint credits, which tell you things are going to maddening and zanily wicked. Pat )'Brien is a kind of noir art critic, a tough-guy art lecturer. short and to the point, as he outrages the older generations. 

Hitler pastiche cameo in Crack-Up (1946)

One of the more surprising elements of the film is a Hitler pastiche, as a wild and screeching character in the crowd — who makes many Hitlerine arm movements including a Nazi salute as he is carried out. 

This character is a joke, a bizarre piece of priceless comedy — something of an Easter Egg of 1946-ness in what many people consider to be a rather quotidian film noir production. Also stuffed within this film noir, most curiously of all, is an art lecture which is pro-populist in its view, and anti-elitist in its take on for example, surrealism. Salvador Dali is ridiculed almost personally. 

Noir aficionados then don't always stay around to see reason or expect plots without holes, moments of disbelieving or super-coincidental happenings. Crack-Up makes up for any of this with its dark look and a shady and patterned display of light and dark from scene to scene which expresses nearby danger so much of the time.

Pat O'Brien in Crack-Up (1946)

This lighting and the various effects, plus the fact that so much of it is set at night, evokes the precise and shady world of criminal and psychological noir as George and Terry piece together the clues of this mystery. 

There are also massive and surprising blasts of light which carry dread and death, as with the exceptional flashback sequence when George, riding a window seat on a train to visit his sick mother, stares in fear at the lights of  an approaching train, which with this blinding presence brings with it a terrifying fear of death.

Film noir does tend to make comment upon art work in the general form of the portrait, usually of a woman, which features in many of the style's greatest achievements, from Laura (1944) to Scarlet Street (1945).

Claire Trevor and Pat O'Brien in Crack-Up (1946)

In the 1945 picture The Woman in the Window, a man goes from admiring a portrait in a shop window at one moment, while the actual subject appears in the reflection, it suddenly becomes a murder.

It is a curiosity but a telling one, that in the 19th Century and early film, statues often came to life, an indication of how the new medium of film was going to animate art, with a magical and fantastical touch. This seemed to come true in film noir, where static portraits comment on how film is a different art form. As these are always portraits of women, these paintings also represent an infamous male gaze, a sign of a coming downfall. 

Crack-Up (1946) does squeeze in some art criticism along with a subtext about PTSD and World War 2, in the form of the everyman character of George Steele. This is around the common effort inspired by the war and and everyman spirit. The villains are outspoken elitists, not unlike the way that the recently defeated Nazis were portrayed at the time, and the critical lecture from Pat O'Brien's character on the idea that good art is representational and traditional, and fundamentally "what I like" are intended to appeal, and place the villains in that elitist context.

Trains / Fear / Tension / Nightmares / Noir in Crack-Up (1946)

Then the title Crack-Up, which is suggestive in a rather colloquial or callous manner of madness, or the fear of madness, which is a large part of the paranoia which everyman art critic George Steele fights against. 

Crack-Up offers an interesting glimpse into life back in 1946 with a scene filmed at an arcade being entirely era-oriented, and far more interesting than it would have been had it been shot in a restaurant or other venue. The night dock scene was also interesting and though filmed at the studio, did look real.

The PTSD in film noir which Pat O' Brien's character carries is treated as the fantastical and dangerous commodity that it was, almost the essence of film noir in itself, being a deep-seated and misunderstood malady of the mind, that was in danger of spilling out and contaminating society.

Pat O'Brien therefore moves around the city with a foggy head, his thoughts still partly processing his service in World War 2, but like any good noir hero, this is often dealt with by sarcastic quips:

I'm outta my head. I drive around in cars picking up psychopathic killers.

About as smart as cutting my throat to get some fresh air! 
Trains and film noir with Pat O'Brien in Crack-Up (1946)

What is clear is that he can trust nobody, very much a theme of noir and a consequence of PTSD. The noir city and the PTSD sufferer are very much one in the same in terms of landscapes, real and mental.

The smoky steam train with its dimly lighted station, as well as the cargo ship of many murky corners, the harbour and the penny arcade and the damp streets at night are ripe for a transformation into mental elements in a world that has been confused by calamity.  

George Steele, the art critic with the film noir hardboiled hero-style name, gives art lectures which are problematic too, insofar as he demystifies art for the masses, who hoot derisively at Dali. He is a kind of Trumpian populist in his arguments about art, and his attitude certainly does annoy the older world representatives of normalcy.

Streets of film noir in Crack-Up (1946)

The murky museum corridors and shady dirty dealings match each other perfectly, and there is a confused joy to Crack-Up (1946) It has to be the only film noir in which the hero sleeps through the finale with Pat O'Brien as George Steele unconscious because of the truth serum.

The finest minds of 1946 are cited as evidence for PTSD in film noir which appears to be being tackled for the first time ever, and with fascination this mental chaos does exist amid a variety of styles — there is conspiracy which Pat O'Brien's hardboiled art critic interprets as psychopathic madness. "Of course I was frightened by a train when I was six years old so lock me up!"

The conspiracy takes place in musical silence, unlike the amnesia and the melodrama, both of which have their entirely different musical styles. 

In the final moments Inspector Traybin come to Steele's and Terry's rescue with Steele waking up when all the fighting and shooting is over, and then wildly throwing punches at the people who saved his life, Inspector Traybin and police Capt. Cochran, (played by Wallace Ford) included.

Nagasaki gets a namecheck too, in a kind of oath against the police, some of which art critic Steele says should be dropped on the city. "Would have accomplished the same thing just much cheaper!" 

What is most essentially noirish about all of this is that art critic hero Steele has been through World War II and its trials, only to find himself the victim of a conspiracy at home, as if America never in fact recovered from the absence of its men, as if nothing and nobody can be trusted, mad, confused, frightened. 

What they essentially want is for life to be like it used to be, before everything, certainly before the Bomb, but they know it never will be.

"I've seen a lot of good guys crack-up during the War. Cool composed cookies one day then the next snap like a tight violin string."

"Would you mind moving to another seat?" Magic and suspense in Crack-Up (1946)

The acronym PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), came into use in the 1970s in large part due to the diagnoses of U.S. military veterans of the Vietnam War. It was officially recognised by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980, and so it may be slightly anachronistic to use the term in relation to film noir.

However, the PTSD of the 1940s was real, even if it was not understood in the way it has been since, and film noir was very much a part of its expression. 

Hollywood's creations during World War II were often fair and flag-waving stories or propaganda. The films usually showed men and women fighting in the war as brave and such like, and espionage and similar films were also popular during the actual conflict showing things in a creatively heroic and fearless fashion. nothing could stop them. 

There were films that specifically dealt with PTSD before it had a name, and in a more clinical manner than film noir. Gregory Peck starred in two of those films: Twelve O'Clock High (1949) and Captain Newman, M.D. (1963). Peck plays a sufferer in one and a psychiatrist in the other.

There's a connection between World War II veterans and film noir, the genre of genres and style of all styles that brought so many new ideas, flavours and above all themes to the films of the 1940s, and that included the personal, the psychiatric and the social, often in a cynical and tough kinda way, including some stuff more largely absent from the screen since the studios adopted the Production Code in 1934. 

What is brilliant about film noir is that the soldiers who were in these noir films were all portrayed back in the States and on Civvy Street, and never in their previous theatres of war. These movies depict these soldiers as saps, as heels, as heroes, as smart guys, as losers, as tough guys, as moral champions and as killers, all at loose in American society

In The Chase (1946) Robert Cummings plays a homeless veteran messed-up amnesiac drifter who gets a job as a mobster's chauffeur when he returns a gangster's lost wallet. He falls in love with the boss' wife, and doomful fate and violence and much fantastic disaffected criminal living follows.

It was in art and of course in the art of the cinema that the true psychic cost of the war was exposed and explored — nowhere more pointedly than in film noir.  The sort of trauma that engenders PTSD is identifiable by several characteristics — a sense of being out of control and confused, a sense of terror, a sense of being outside the normal realm of human.

PTSD on a broad cultural and social level is what best explains the phenomenon of film noir in itself, a dark and creative force for beauty and exploration of what lies beneath the mysterious surface of among other things, victory.

Why should a triumphant nation, after a great collective victory in a good war, have been so plagued with such bad dreams as film noir does represent. Crack-Up (1946) is one such film which plasters some answers within its weirdly woven dream like story. 

and Claire Trevor in Crack-Up (1946)

How could the most spectacular triumph of American arms and manpower have led to a crisis of manhood, a sense of impotence, and a fear of powerful women made real in the morbid fantasy of the femme fatale?

Film noir was a dream landscape where the buried costs of WWII could be laid out even in disguise.  Film noir, far more than the WWII combat film, was one of the few stylistic and magical areas of American life where the harmful and strange legacies of war, along with its afterlife of moral and psychological confusions and disturbances could be played out, laid out and explored without apology or shame — in fact with a positively and often fun sense of journey and fantasy.

In the immediate post-World War II years the technique of narcosynthesis was developed by psychiatrists as a means of treating patients who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Narcosynthesis — also called sodium amytal interview, amobarbital interview, or amytal interview — uses a technique of free association as well as dream and transference material during the session as a basis for uncovering relevant topics for later therapeutic discussion. 

As far as film noir was concerned, the process was perfect as a plot device combing PTSD and psychiatry to in theory access the hidden secrets of the mind. As such it could be used as a vague mechanism, as here, to uncover truth or even better — implant memories or wipe memories from the mind of a subject. 

Claire Trevor in Crack-Up (1946)

Release Date:6 September 1946

Production Date: mid Dec 1945--late Feb 1946

Claimant Date and Copyright Number: RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.19 June 1946 LP434

Sound: RCA Sound System

Duration(in mins): 93

Country: United States

Crack-Up (1946) at Wikipedia


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