Sometimes, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger wakes up grumpy. Other times, he lets her sleep in.
"I'll follow you into your grave. I'll write my name on your tombstone."—Ed Cornell
I Wake Up Screaming's time has come. It wasn't widely embraced in the era of its release, and it hasn't been trumpeted as loudly as other noirs of its day. Now that the pendulum of interest in noir has picked up inertia, we're in a frame of mind to appreciate films like this that brought us the noir style we know and love today.
Facts of the Case
Sports promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature, Kiss of Death) is hanging out with his pals in a diner one night when he notices the comely frame and spirited attitude of Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis, One Million B.C.). He bets his companions, a reporter and an aging actor, that he can make their surly waitress a star. Amused by the wager, they chip in to help her become the next "it" girl.
With the assistance of a slinky dress and fortuitous dinner companions, Vicky makes a splash at a posh New York club. Vicky's foolish pursuit of stardom irks her pretty-but-staid sister Jill (Betty Grable, How to Marry a Millionaire). When magazine covers and acting jobs come Vicky's way, Jill has no choice but to accept her sister's new lifestyle—but Frankie is not on her "nice" list for his part in Vicky's ascent.
It hardly matters. Vicky soon has no need for either Frankie or Jill. She's on her way to Hollywood. Unfortunately, she never gets the chance to make it big. And creepy Inspector Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar, Heaven Can Wait) is waiting in the wings to make sure Frankie takes the rap.
In 1942, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote that:
Though Bosley was a little hard on Landis and snubs the intricacy of the ending, he pretty much sums things up. I Wake Up Screaming is a little film, not a big one. It isn't spectacular in terms of acting, plot, or staying power. It won't keep you on the edge of your seat like The Killers does, or thrill you with star power like Notorious. In fact, I Wake Up Screaming isn't listed among the top fifty films noir at IMDb, and gets little recognition as a defining film in the noir style.
The movie's real hook is showing how mood can emerge from the ether when light and shadow are used to proper effect. Noirhead and frequent Fox Noir commentator Eddie Muller spends much of his commentary pointing out how I Wake Up Screaming was as influential as The Maltese Falcon in defining noir. He makes a strong case that I Wake Up Screaming is wrongly overlooked. His points have merit; there's no denying the definitive noir nature of the opening interrogation scene. A rude brick room with some stray bits of wood in it becomes a brooding, oppressive castle of shadow, with Frankie pinned under a spotlight like a lab rat on a glass slide. I Wake Up Screaming is filled with the harsh contrast and slanting shadows that so enthrall noir fans.
Nonetheless, I Wake Up Screaming is an accidental proto-noir. As Eddie points out, the interrogation scene is lit so harshly because director H. Bruce Humberstone wanted to disguise the identity of the main cop. Humberstone is not, and should not be, on the tip of many tongues when discussing noir directors. He was a formless contract director, and if he helped usher in film noir, it was by necessity rather than through a firm directorial stamp.
Humberstone's cast is likewise ill-suited for the noir mantle. Carole Landis was known for musicals, while Betty Grable was known for musicals and her million-dollar legs. Landis is only briefly in the picture, but she makes a mark quickly and leaves a lasting impression; no small feat for scant screen time and an underwritten character. Grable ekes out some nice girl/naughty girl vibes, but her performance is ill-defined.
I'm starting to think that Victor Mature is the guy they cast to act casual in order to be upstaged by the psychopathic performances by others. Mature is oily but amiable, and fits Bosley's charge of "virtually no distinction." In Kiss of Death, Mature was outmatched against Richard Widmark. In I Wake Up Screaming, creep master Laird Cregar takes the cake. His performance is so eerie and dominating that Inspector Ed can't help but be a bad guy (if not the bad guy). In fact, his vendetta against Frankie is so fevered that it makes the movie feel lopsided.
Indeed, I Wake Up Screaming has many parallels with Kiss of Death. Both feature Mature's character up against a psychotic, and both thrust him unceremoniously into a romance with a wholesome girl. Neither title has anything to do with the content of the film. Neither story is as compelling as the noirish cinematography that helps it land in the Fox Film Noir collection.
Speaking of the collection, I Wake Up Screaming fits right in with the other members of its cohort. The print has been cleaned up reasonably well. The transfer leaves in tasteful grain and is very light on digital trickery. Strong contrast and lack of stray coloration make the stark cinematography shine.
I Wake Up Screaming is notable for a strange audio decision: "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" is used as a recurrent theme throughout the film, often when Jill Lynn assumes focus. It is slightly disconcerting to link this murder mystery with the surreal The Wizard of Oz. That oddity notwithstanding, the stereo and mono tracks are relatively free of distortion, though some is present. The mix runs hot in places, with harsh sibilants and a muffled quality. There is a noticeable background hiss in quieter scenes. Otherwise, the track is clear and does a good job of establishing the scene.
Aside from Muller's engaging commentary, the other noteworthy extra is a deleted scene that plays to Grable's strengths. She is forced to sing a rather bawdy tune to satisfy a persnickety customer, which is a transparent ruse to give the audience a signature Grable tune. It has nothing to do with the movie, and would have fit in poorly. It is interesting now as an artifact that reveals the studio's struggle with the burgeoning noir style.
With its chameleon-like director, gaggle of musical veterans, and mixed bag of a plot, I Wake Up Screaming is an odd harbinger of film noir. Nevertheless, its early mastery of noir staples is intriguing. Grable and Landis are easy on the eyes, and Laird Cregar provides a high creep factor. If you like film noir, chances are you'll find a lot to like about this film—even if it won't leave a lasting impression afterward.
If noir could scream, would it sound like this?
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Film Historian Eddie Muller
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