Crack-Up (1936)

Peter Lorre and Brian Donlevy, top secret plans and espionage!

US / 71 minutes / bw / TCF Dir: Malcolm St. Clair Scr: Charles Kenyon, Sam Mintz Story: John Goodrich Cine: Barney McGill Cast: Peter Lorre, Brian Donlevy, Helen Wood, Ralph Morgan, Thomas Beck, Kay Linaker, Lester Matthews, Earle Foxe, J. Carroll Naish (i.e., J. Carrol Naish), Gloria Roy, Oscar Apfel, Paul Stanton, Howard Hickman, Robert Homans, Sam Hayes.

An odd little pre-war espionage movie whose downbeat ending and occasional callousness toward human life—plus the presence of Lorre—give it something of a noirish credential.

The Fleming–Grant aircraft factory, owned by mainspring John P. Fleming (Morgan) and his partner Sidney Grant (Matthews), has completed construction of a new plane, the Wild Goose, which has the extraordinary ability to transport a consignment of passengers across the Atlantic. (This was, you’ll remember, 1936.) Fleming plans to take it on its maiden flight from the US East Coast to Berlin, with pilot Ace Martin (Donlevy) and mechanic Joe Randall (Beck). The naming ceremony, emceed by broadcaster Sam Hayes (himself) and with Fleming’s wife, Lois (Linaker), doing the stuff with the bottle of bubbly, is attended also by a trumpet-wielding eccentric called Colonel Gimpy (Lorre), who’s been adopted as the airport mascot.

Ace (Brian Donlevy) is amused by “Colonel Gimpy” (Peter Lorre).

Everybody knows that Gimpy is just a harmless nutter, but we soon learn that everybody’s wrong. In reality he’s Baron Rudolf Maximilien Tagger, the head of a ring of spies from some nameless European country (but we can guess its identity) intent upon procuring the plans for America’s top secret bomber, the D.O.X.. In his real identity he lacks the limp that has given him his public name and, far from being harmless, quickly demonstrates his ruthlessness by shooting dead in cold blood Operative #30 (Foxe), an agent who has made the mistake of being loose-lipped about the cell’s plans during pillow talk with Miss Gomez (Roy)—a woman who he did not realize was in actuality the ultra-undercover Operative #16!

The fresh-faced young mechanic Joe Randall is at a loss as to why the great pilot Ace Martin should recently have befriended him, assisted him in getting promotion and even taken him in as a lodger. The truth is that Ace is in the pay of the dastardly Baron.

Ruth (Helen Wood) and Joe (Thomas Beck) see the sky as their future.

Ruth Franklin (Wood), Joe’s fiancée, works for Alfred Kruxton (Apfel), whose company is scheduled to build the D.O.X. The cunning scheme is that Ace will manipulate Joe into stealing the blueprints. Ace does so by pretending that really he, Ace, was the one who designed the D.O.X. but that he was cheated out of it by Kruxton. So Joe purloins the blueprints from Ruth’s office in the Kruxton plant, under the delusion that they’re merely those of a civilian propeller and he’s rectifying an old injustice.

Meanwhile the Baron is suspicious that Ace, whose motives are entirely mercenary, might be tempted to shop around:

Unidentified operative: “. . . [W]hat are you worrying about?”
Gimpy: “The possibility that others besides us may have learned of it, and make him a higher offer. Knowing his past record, he would accept it, too.”

The Baron therefore sets Operative #77 (Naish) upon the pilot with instructions to pose as an agent from the Secret Service of another foreign power and offer Ace three times the $20,000 that the Baron’s giving him for the plans. Intriguingly, we’re never quite certain if #77 is in truth the Baron’s creature or if he quite genuinely is a double agent, but it doesn’t matter. Before things can go too far, Ace comes to the conclusion that #77 is trying to stitch him up in some way, shoots the man dead and heads off to the shelter of the Wild Goose with the $20,000, planning to bilk the Baron.

Operative 77 (J. Carrol Naish) is sent to test Ace.

Fleming has brought up the timing of the transatlantic maiden flight—midnight tonight rather than in a few days’ time—and changed its specified destination from Berlin to Paris. The reason is that his wife Lois, fed up of playing second fiddle to a bunch of smelly old airplanes, has run off with his cadly partner Sidney and plans to live with her sister near the French capital until she can get a divorce. Perhaps if Fleming could follow her, reason with her . . .?

A grim-faced Fleming (Ralph Morgan) digests the content of Lois’s “Dear John” letter.

Off takes the Wild Goose with Ace at the controls, Joe as co-pilot and Fleming as passenger. They’re puzzled as to why the plane’s tail should drag and why the radio’s tubes should have mysteriously burned out. That’s when the Baron, in his “Gimpy” persona, emerges from the rear of the plane as a stowaway, and confesses to just about everything, including most recently his murder of the airport’s nightwatchman. Of course, the other three don’t believe him, just assume that bonkers ol’ Gimpy is talking nonsense as usual; Joe, listening, doesn’t even break chomp as he guzzles his lunchtime sandwich.

They’ll discover that they’re wrong, but by then it’ll be too late.

The early tracts of the movie are a tad slow-moving, as the components of the setup are all carefully put in place, but, once it gets into its stride, things very soon start ticking along. As the four men have adventures and alarums in the air, Ruth is being picked up by Military Intelligence (whose detective work seems quite supernatural, and goes unexpounded) and interrogated by their Daniel D. Harrington (Stanton); luckily for her, her boss Kruxton stands by her, and the spooks are soon persuaded that Joe and she are innocent of any intended crime. That said, it remains to be seen if they can get the priceless blueprints back.

Harrington (Paul Stanton), the face of the military.

Ruth (Helen Wood) under interrogation.

Kruxton (Oscar Apfel) believes in Ruth’s integrity.

The most exciting sequence of Crack-Up comes after the men spot that the gas cap of one of the plane’s engines has vibrated loose. With near-insane courage (who said “near”?), Ace climbs out onto the wing to fix it amid a rainstorm. Inside the craft the others learn of Ace’s perfidy, and Joe’s response is to try to shake him loose from the slippery wing. Somehow Ace survives and, once he’s back inside, a fight breaks out so that the plane goes out of control. Into the drink it goes (the crack-up of the title). Will help arrive before the Wild Goose sinks below the waves?

Ace (Brian Donlevy) climbs out on the wing.

Lorre is obviously the big draw here. While I could have done with a bit less of his “Gimpy” persona—he was far too good an actor to be clowning like this, all rolly-eyed and look-amn’t-I-nutty—he’s splendid as the remorseless Baron, a man who’s not entirely bad, who is in fact in some respects quite admirable, but who simply, in pursuing his priorities, ignores humane dictates.

It’s also very interesting to see Donlevy at this relatively early stage in his career. Although he’d made quite a few movies before, it was only in 1935 that his career really kick-started. In the following year, 1936, he made no fewer than seven movies, of which Crack-Up was one. Ahead lay the first two Quatermass movies, the Dangerous Assignment (1952) TV series, and of course a scad of noir and noirish offerings, notably including The GLASS KEY (1942), HANGMEN ALSO DIE! (1943), IMPACT (1949), HOODLUM EMPIRE (1952), The BIG COMBO (1955) and A CRY IN THE NIGHT (1956).

Making a very brief (and uncredited) appearance as a steamship captain is the venerable character actor Robert Homans—you’ll recognize the face immediately—who has already appeared on this site a number of times:

This entertaining little slice of (arguable) protonoir is unrelated to the noir movie CRACK-UP (1946), based on Fredric Brown’s short story “Madman’s Holiday” (1943) and dir Irving Reis, with Pat O’Brien, Claire Trevor, Herbert Marshall, Wallace Ford, Dean Harens and Ray Collins.


13 thoughts on “Crack-Up (1936)

  1. Brian Donlevy and Peter Lorre? This I’ve got to see.

    I was really intrigued by the story, and you really set up the plane crashing into the “drink”. I was hoping you’d offer a spoiler, to let us know how it ends, but it just means I’ll track it down and find out for myself.

    • Even though the movie’s a bit obscure, it’s not that hard to find — I think I came across it on YouTube. (A while has passed since I watched the movie and wrote these notes — hence the uncertainty.) If you have difficulty, gimme a yell and I’ll see if I can help.

      Yep, Lorre. I wonder if even the cinematographer realized how potentially iconic that shot of him right at the top might be?

  2. Well, John, you have unearthed yet another that has slipped off the radar of many fans, even those I see who are are partial to this genre. Yes as others have noted enthusiastically, that is a iconic due heading up the cast, and in just about every circumstance are reason enough to explore. As always your presentation here is first-rate!

    • And yet it’s funny how at the time Lorre was treated most often as merely a support actor. I’ve just quickly whipped through The Book and confirmed my suspicion that it was indeed quite rare for him to be among the top billing — especially if you leave aside the Greenstreet pairings. Yet today, as is evident here, often people regard his presence as the main reason to watch a movie.

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