I Wake Up Screaming (1941) H. Bruce Humberstone
20th Century Fox
Fox DVD (library)
I’m not sure you’ll hear any screaming whatsoever in I Wake Up Screaming, but I am sure that if you’re a fan of film noir, you won’t want to pass this one up. As far as dates go, this is an early film noir, but actually functions more as a mystery with several noir elements, which I’ll address later.
The film opens with Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature, above right) being grilled by the police for a murder he swears he didn’t commit. In the first of several flashbacks, we learn that Christopher, a young talent promoter, discovered a local waitress named Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) and groomed her, only to watch her take off suddenly for Hollywood. Only she didn’t live long enough to get there…
Vicky’s sister Jill (Betty Grable, above left, usually known for musicals and lighter films, here in a rare dramatic role) wants to help clear Christopher’s name and find the real killer, but police officer Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) hounds Christopher day and night, obsessing over how he can nail Christopher for the murder.
I Wake Up Screaming (originally titled Hot Spot) is mostly a mystery with elements of suspense and romance, but contains elements of noir so strong they can’t be ignored or dismissed as accidental. The first such element is the police interrogation of Christopher in a room filled with darkness, surrounded by policemen, trying to escape the blistering white-hot single lamp. The scene has a slight German expressionistic feel, dark-edged and bleak, still a somewhat disquieting opening for a 1941 American film.
Once the flashbacks begin, the tone of the film changes dramatically. Christopher and one his pals visit a diner where he meets Vicky for the first time, clearly stricken with her. Before she gives them the check, Vicky asks, “Is that all?” One of the men says, “No, but the rest of it isn’t on the menu.” Vicky comes back with “You couldn’t afford it if it was.” It’s a fairly light establishing scene, but it does two things: first, showing us what Vicky is made of (which further attracts Christopher to her), and second, acknowledging that even this early in the noir canon, script writers are pushing the limits of the code a bit.
Still, little else in this scene – and many others like it – seems to proclaim that we’re watching a film noir, which actually works to the film’s advantage, contrasting the “normal” world with the noir world. We know we’re fully into the deep end of the noir pool, however, anytime Laird Cregar (below right) appears onscreen as Cornell.
We suspect something is up with Cornell and there is. He’s a strange character, using strange expressions, especially for a policeman. He frequently hounds Christopher, even to the point of appearing in his bedroom while Christopher is asleep. At one point he tells Christopher, “I’ll follow you into your grave. I’ll write my name on your tombstone.” Later Cornell asks his superior officer, “Have you ever read The Sex Life of a Butterfly?” which stuns us as much as the officer. These scenes – especially the nighttime scenes – are given a wonderful shadow-filled atmosphere by cinematographer Edward Cronjager.
As the film progresses, the flashbacks pile up and things begin to get convoluted, but not necessarily in a bad way. This is, after all, film noir, and you expect those elements to be present. The film does, however, have some weaknesses, one of which is the believability of Vicky being discovered so quickly from behind a hash counter at a diner. The score by veteran composer Cyril J. Mockridge is generally good, but the overuse of “Over the Rainbow” becomes tedious, so much so that you might start screaming.
The performances are all good (including a nice role for the always interesting Elisha Cook, Jr.), but it’s Laird Cregar you’re likely to remember as the creepy cop. You can’t take your eyes off him. This is the only time I’ve knowingly seen Cregar in a film, but I plan to seek out his other roles, which unfortunately are few. Cregar, who was quickly becoming a much sought-after actor in Hollywood, died in 1944 at the age of 31 after losing over 100 pounds crash-dieting, attempting to lose weight for a role.
I immediately kept trying to think who Cregar reminded me of and I finally determined that it was John Carrol Lynch (above right). I think Lynch looks frighteningly like Cregar, but see what you think.
Since this was a library DVD, I didn’t have time to listen to the Eddie Muller commentary for I Wake Up Screaming, but anytime Muller records a commentary track, that’s cause enough to pick up the DVD. Hopefully I Wake Up Screaming will get a Blu-ray upgrade someday. I’d certainly buy it.