H. Bruce Humberstone, 1941
Starring: Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Carole Landis, Laird Cregar
A waitress, Vicky Lynn, is spotted by a sports promoter, Frankie Christopher, who is determined to make her a star. The vain and manipulative Vicky uses and abuses everyone around her – including Frankie, her pretty sister Jill, a gossip writer, and a former actor – as stepping stones towards fame. After a successful screen test and on the eve of departing for Hollywood, Vicky is murdered. The police first believe Frankie is guilty, but change their minds based on the evidence. A particularly driven, menacing homicide detective, Ed Cornell, is determined to prove Frankie’s guilt by whatever means necessary. Can Jill find the real murderer in time?
Director H. Bruce Humberstone (Charlie Chan at the Opera) made a few westerns and other B-movies over the years, but I Wake Up Screaming was his only noir film. It’s somewhat baffling, as he does an excellent job infusing the film with a thoroughly noir sense of style so early in the cycle. His use of thick, textured shadows, skewed camera angles, and plenty of great set pieces make it somewhat astounding that this film isn’t discussed more often alongside other early noir films like Strangeron the Third Floor (1940) and The Maltese Falcon (1941). It certainly boasts far more style than the latter.
While there are things about that film that veer from noir – such as a happy ending and elements of romantic comedy – plenty about it fits in with early noir sensibilities. One particularly clever element is the use of flashbacks. Nearly every major character has at least one flashback throughout the film that is cleverly woven into the plot, giving things a slightly non-linear feel. There is a fairly standard plot twist in regards to whodunnit, but figuring out the identity of Vicky’s murderer is less important than the investigation itself, which I think makes this more noir-like than it seems.
An undercurrent of sexual depravity is pervasive throughout the film and gives it the darker tone associated with noir. Nearly all the male characters are scoundrels, dogs, sexually obsessed stalkers, exploiters of women, and one of them is a murderer. Despite moments of comedy, most of the characters are so bleak and unappealing that it doesn’t really matter who the murderer actually is – it could plausibly be any of them.
Despite the fact that there are elements of romantic comedy with Jill and Frankie’s courtship, even this is somewhat tarnished. There is something a little sleazy about their relationship, considering that it essentially begins with the murder of Jill’s sister. Though Jill finds Frankie standing over the dead body of her sister, she bafflingly hides this detail from the police and refuses to believe that he’s guilty. Most of their early time together is spent at the police station, and their date night involves a swanky nightclub, an indoor, all-night swimming pool, and a 24-hour grindhouse theater presumably showing nudie flicks.
I have to admit that Victor Mature (Samson and Delilah, My Darling Clementine) isn’t one of my favorite actors from the period, but he handles his role in I Wake Up Screaming with finesse. For much of the film, it’s genuinely unclear whether or not he is the murderer. His imposing height and dark features are used expertly to cast doubt on him and his charm often comes across as smarmy or repulsive. Mature, Carole Landis (One Million B.C.), and Betty Grable (How to Marry a Millionaire, The Dolly Sisters) were primarily comedy and musical actors, particularly Grable. This is one of her few serious, dramatic roles. She’s somewhat upstaged by the sexier Landis, but is able to hold her own as the girl-next-door type with a small flair for the disreputable. Interestingly, Grable and Landis starred as sisters in another film that year, Moon Over Miami, and actually look similar enough. Film noir regular Elisha Cook Jr is also a welcome addition, as always, in a small, uncomfortable role.
Though there are a few good performances, everyone is upstaged by the great Laird Cregar (The Lodger), whose career was tragically cut short by his early death at age 31. Though Cregar and Mature were roughly the same height, Cregar dwarfs anyone else on screen. He bears something in common with Vincent Price – both men were tall and physically imposing, possessed a mixture of charm and menace, and had memorably silky, almost effeminate voices, and air of intelligence, education, and style. There’s a particularly terrifying scene where Frankie wakes up and finds Cregar sitting in his bedroom in the middle of the night. Truly the stuff nightmares are made of.
Based on a novel by pulp author Steve Fisher, Fisher co-wrote the script with Dwight Taylor. Though he typically wrote musicals and romantic comedies, Taylor also scripted the beloved noir film, Pickup on South Street more than a decade later. Though Fisher's novel was set in L.A., I Wake Up Screaming is a thoroughly New York film with some fantastic sets. Moving everywhere from city streets to apartment buildings, nightclubs, a YMCA swimming pool, and a 24-hour grindhouse theatre, this is an excellent look at 1940 New York. There’s a wonderful sense of style overall, which begins with a series of heavily shadowed interrogations at the police station and continue throughout the film. Keep your eyes peeled for the only appearance of Black Mask Magazine in a noir film. It is placed on a magazine/news stand during a scene where Frankie and Cornell have a confrontation involving a Tootsie Roll (yes, really). Delightfully, Cornell was allegedly named after hardboiled writer Cornell Woolrich and moments of the film do have a wonderfully pulpy feel.
Also known as Hot Spot, I Wake Up Screaming is available on DVD. Included is a commentary track from Eddie Muller, and a handful of other extras. The film comes recommended, particularly to fans of Laird Cregar and early noir films, though I should probably mention that absolutely no one wakes up screaming.