Based on the novel of the same name by Steve Fisher, I Wake Up Screaming is a hardboiled noir through and through. The title is the stuff of horror, but this 1941 motion picture is an early example of the crime genre’s journey to the shadows. Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone and featuring a screenplay by Fisher and Dwight Taylor, this film sears and sizzles in nighttime New York.
Originally called Hot Spot before the cast insisted the picture retain the Fisher title, I Wake Up Screaming is one of the forbearers of the American film noir tradition. It’s often mentioned along with The Maltese Falcon as among the very first fully-formed noirs and it certainly has all the hallmarks.
Victor Mature stars as promoter Frankie Christopher. He’s young and he’s a star-maker. One night, he bets some colleagues that he can transform an average waitress named Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) into a big star. He does so and she begins to climb the ladder, much to the chagrin of her sister Jill (Betty Grable). Soon, Vicky turns up dead.
Obsessive cop Cornell (Laird Cregar) is on the case. He wants to pin Frankie with the crime, but the promoter swears his innocence. He hides out with Jill and they fall in love, with Frankie hoping to find the real killer while he avoids Cornell.
The noir footprints are immediately apparent with I Wake Up Screaming, with police interrogations dragging Jill and Frankie through webs of shadow. The use of lighting is tremendous, with a blinding light providing a focal point while the cops slink around in the darkness. And the lens absolutely loves it when Cornell strikes up a match.
The characters don’t fare much better on the streets, but at least there’s light outside. The bustling streets of New York make for a pulpy backdrop, with Frankie and Jill moving from nightclubs to swimming pools as they run from the law. They even frequent an adults-only theatre, where Jill is told to put her shoes back on.
I Wake Up Screaming is a love letter to the pulp tradition, which kind of makes it an essential film noir. It’s not as polished as The Maltese Falcon or other top-tier efforts, but Humberstone’s picture sure as hell belongs in the conversation. He’s a master of his own sense of two-fisted control and he yanks out some stellar performances, especially from Cregar.
It’s hard to imagine that the heavy of the piece is not even 30-years-old, but that’s part of the tragic magic of Laird Cregar. He haunts the shadows, showing up in Frankie’s bedroom at all hours of the night with another stack of intimidation. He lights a match on the door. He’s built like a house. He’s the reason people wake up screaming.
Grable is actually rather good in an atypical role and she manages to display unique spark, like when she’s sawing the handcuffs off of Mature’s character. The way she pauses and lets her facial expressions do some of the talking displays a crisp approach to the performance, while her bright eyes don’t hurt the cause either.
Mature, for all the effort he puts in, sneaks down the line and puts in a compact if ordinary performance. He doesn’t quite have the sleaze factor of a big money promoter and the film errs a little too close to old-neighbourhood boyishness, but he does a fine job all the same.
Other pieces of the puzzle come together somewhat uneasily, like the Cyril J. Mockridge score. It makes almost insufferable use of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as a love theme for Frankie and Jill, plus it blares out Alfred Newman’s “Street Scene” about 541 times.
Still, I Wake Up Screaming is a top-quality film noir and a top-quality motion picture. It introduces the sordid side of murder and love and takes shape in the shadows. It features a bang-crash performance by Cregar and showcases the darker side of New York nightlife. Plus, Betty Grable appears in a swimming costume. Oh yeah.