Monday, July 11, 2016

CRACK-UP (1936)

At Fleming-Grant Airways, the new plane known as the Wild Goose is about to make its first trans-Atlantic flight, piloted by cocky Ace Martin (Brian Donlevy) and his young buddy Joe (Thomas Beck). They're present at the plane's christening ceremony along with Mr. Fleming, founder of the airplane company, Joe's girlfriend Ruth, and an eccentric fellow with a limp who is called Colonel Gimpy (Peter Lorre) and considered something of a mascot, and everyone is excited about the upcoming flight. But soon we learn of all the tensions seething under the surface: Fleming's wife is preparing to run off with Grant, the company's co-owner; Gimpy's not a harmless kook but a German baron and the head of a spy ring wanting to get their hands on plans for a new bomber plane, the DOX; the person who we think is our hero, Ace Martin, is the spy set to deliver the plans—though he is unaware of Gimpy's identity as the master spy—and he manages to trick the young and innocent Joe into helping him commit espionage.

[Spoilers follow:] This pre-WWII spy film is interesting for at least one reason—there isn't really a central heroic figure among the characters. Like other viewers have noted, I assumed that Ace Martin would be unmasked as a double agent for the U.S., but he's not. That leaves Joe as the moral center of the movie and he's a fairly minor character, corrupted by Martin but still salvageable as a man of good conscience if not a full-fledged hero. So even though Brian Donlevy is fairly charismatic as Ace, his character is not fleshed out very well and that leaves Peter Lorre—who is in fact first billed—as the star of the show. Lorre is almost always an asset to a movie and he is fun here; he does a nice job as the simple-minded Gimpy and an even better one as the cold-blooded spy. The last stretch of the film features Ace, Joe, Fleming and the Baron together in the Wild Goose, which eventually crashes in the sea during a storm, and the ending, which leaves three of the four alone in the disabled plane, is surprisingly downbeat—to its credit. Pictured left to right are Beck, Lorre, Ralph Morgan (as Fleming) and Donlevy. [DVD]

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