I Wake Up Screaming

“I’ll follow you into your grave. I’ll write my name on your tombstone.”

It’s hard to pin down exactly when film noir came into being, almost as hard as defining the term itself. Some argue that Stranger on the Third Floor kicked it all off, others point to John Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon, and there are those who reckon it was even a year or two after that. So where does that leave I Wake Up Screaming (1941)? Well it came out around the time of The Maltese Falcon, so it falls into that early/proto-noir grouping. Unlike Huston’s film, there is a degree of unevenness to the tone; it veers between some broadly farcical moments and a darker, shadowy world of danger and complex psychology. In fairness though, the latter aspect does dominate and, even if one concedes that it’s not fully fledged noir, there is some wonderful photography and imagery on show.

The opening is a dramatic one, with a newspaper seller announcing the murder of Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) as the camera invites us into police headquarters. Inside, over the course of two interrogation sessions, we learn who this girl was and how she came to meet her end. Both Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature), a promoter, and Jill Lynn (Betty Grable), the victim’s sister, are under the spotlight and – via flashback –  filling in the background for the audience. It’s shown how Frankie and two friends (Alan Mowbray & Allyn Joslyn) make a Pygmalion style bet to turn waitress Vicky into a celebrity. Seeing as they have quality material to work with, things turn out fine. Maybe too fine though, since all three men have romantic designs on their muse, while she has plans to move to Hollywood. Anyway, Vicky winds up murdered and Frankie is sweating it out in the interrogation cell as suspect number one. The investigation is being headed up by an unusual cop, the soft-spoken and slow-moving Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar). Cornell seems sure Frankie’s the killer and is determined to break him. This immense and vaguely sinister figure becomes Frankie’s shadow, teasing and menacing him. On one memorable occasion, Frankie wakes suddenly from a bad dream only to find the Buddha-like figure of Cornell sitting in a chair in his room, just watching him. As Jill and Frankie join forces to trace Vicky’s killer, they draw closer together and it also starts to become apparent that the motives behind Cornell’s obsessive determination to nail his prey may not be quite as clear cut as they first seem.

I Wake Up Screaming, adapted from Steve Fisher’s novel, is as much a whodunit as a film noir. It’s the behaviour of a couple of the characters and the chiaroscuro lighting and imagery that earn it a place in the noir lineup. I mentioned the uneven tone, and that’s perhaps most evident in the opening segment, where the action alternates between the interrogations and the flashbacks. The latter tend to be bright and have a light, jokey feel about them as the three friends go about making Vicky over. This is where the transitional nature of the film is noticeable, as those scenes are reminiscent of the screwball style of the 30s. It also reflects something of the director’s background. H Bruce Humberstone is maybe best remembered for his handling of a few of the best Charlie Chan movies, and those flashback scenes recall that kind of mood. Cameraman Edward Cronjager had worked with Fritz Lang, and would do so again, and it’s tempting to wonder if this association may have had some influence over the look of the interrogation scenes. These are pure noir, full of harsh key lights, deep shadows and threatening, disorienting camera angles. In fact, this style dominates the remainder of the film and results in some strong visual imagery. I don’t often spend a lot of time discussing the musical scores in these pieces, but I’ll do so here as I feel there’s some added significance in this case. The movie’s main theme is Alfred Newman’s Street Scene, which would become something of a staple in Fox crime pictures. However, another very famous melody, Over the Rainbow, also features prominently throughout the film, and it’s that I particularly want to focus on. Initially, this might seem an odd choice for a noir/crime movie, being so closely associated with The Wizard of Oz. Nevertheless, it not only works but is also highly appropriate – that half-hopeful, half-melancholic song perfectly captures the nature of two important characters, both striving and straining to reach something that must forever remain unattainable.

In retrospect, there’s something incredibly sad about I Wake Up Screaming, and it’s not just the fate of some of the characters. Within a few short years, both Carole Landis and Laird Cregar would be dead. Landis would die by her own hand, and Cregar would bring on a fatal heart attack as a result of extreme dieting. Landis was pretty good in the role of the victim, seen only in flashback and in a clip of film her character made as a screen test. Although her screen time is limited, she still conveyed the ambition and single-mindedness of the character well enough. Cregar is phenomenally good, the best thing about the whole picture in my opinion. Despite the fact he may not have thought so himself, his bulk was one of his greatest assets as a performer. He dominates the frame whenever he appears, and his mock joviality comes across as nothing more than a veneer to cover up something much more sinister below. But there’s more than that, something about the eyes or voice had a soulful quality, a hint of regret maybe. By the end of the movie, Cornell (apparently Steve Fisher named the character after fellow writer Cornell Woolrich) develops into an extremely poignant figure. I always thought Cregar was great in anything I’ve seen him in, and his passing away at such an early age was a real tragedy. There’s also a small but pivotal role for cinema’s favourite runt, Elisha Cook Jr; the man was born to play losers and victims, and his plaintive, bewildered persona is put to good effect in this film. Which brings me to the two leads, Betty Grable and Victor Mature. Grable was essentially a musical star, not the kind of person you expect to see in a hard-boiled crime movie. Having said that, she does fine as the sister of the victim and is quite credible in a serious dramatic role – there was a short musical number shot for inclusion but this was, quite sensibly, cut and is presented as one of the extras on the DVD. If I have any quibbles about her it’s only that her relationship with Mature seems to grow too quickly to be realistic – still, that’s a scripting rather than an acting issue. Victor Mature featured in a fair number of noirs, and I have no problems with his work on this one. However, it has to be said, and again this really relates to the writing, that both Mature and Grable’s characters are a little too straight and square. Noir always works best when there’s a touch of ambiguity or doubt surrounding the protagonists, and that’s never convincingly achieved with either of these characters.

I Wake Up Screaming is on DVD from Fox in the US as part of their noir line, and looks great. The transfer is very clean and sharp, and the contrast is strong. The disc also offers a fair selection of extras, the commentary track by Eddie Muller and the aforementioned deleted scene being the most notable. As I’ve tried to make clear throughout, the film is not full-blown noir. Cinematic genres and styles are all about evolution, things don’t arrive fully formed out of the blue. As the world, and the US in particular, plunged further into crisis and war,  cinema would gradually reflect the darkness and disillusionment more. Even if films like I Wake Up Screaming don’t quite go the full distance, they’re still not too far off. Either way, it remains a classy movie that is recommended viewing.

26 thoughts on “I Wake Up Screaming

  1. Great review, Colin, with some fine, atmospheric screen grabs! This sounds like an intriguing film. I like how you delve into its not quite noir nature. I haven’t seen this one, but judging from the other films of his that I HAVE seen, I’m completely with you re: the consistently fine work of Laird Cregar, who indeed passed away much too young. Doubtless the struggles that plagued his personal life informed his acting choices and allowed him to bring such pathos and soul to his parts. I think you’re also fair to Victor Mature; he never seems to get his due from critics, but I find him nearly always effective.


    • Jeff, taken as a whole, it’s a very good movie. It’s quite honestly littered with strong, atmospheric and memorable visuals. I reckon you should give it a go – I think you’ll like it.

      As for Victor Mature, I have been critical of aspects of his work in the past – some of his western roles just didn’t do it for me. However, I think he did great work in noir/crime films and yes, he probably doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves.


  2. Great review Colin – and I think you are certainly right, coming as early as it does in the Noir pantheon is does feel like a work that bridges different styles. But the interrogation scene, which you highlight, and that wonderful shot in which the detective is placed in dark silhouette in the foreground are definitely Noir. The Cregar character is probably the most Noir aspect, which seems fair given the connection to Woolrich (apparently it wasn’t just the name that Fisher used in relation to the author). I’ve never seen the remake VICKI – is it any good?


    • Thanks Sergio. Generally, I feel the film is more noir than not. The first twenty minutes or so, with the flashbacks, sees it jumping around and alternating between styles. After that however, it does settle down and adopts a more consistent tone, no doubt due to the fact that Cregar becomes more involved.
      I believe you’re right that the character of Cornell, and not just the name, was inspired by Woolrich. Of course Woolrich himself was such an enigma that it’s difficult to say with any certainty.

      I’d say the remake, Vicki, isn’t a bad movie, judged on its own merits. In comparison to the original though, it’s weaker and feels a bit flat and dull. Richard Boone, and I’m a big fan of his, took on Cregar’s part – he did well enough as you might expect. The thing is Cregar added something really special and it’s impossible to replicate that.


      • Cregar really was a special kind of actor, i quite agree. The recent DVD releases of HANGOVER SQUARE and THE LODGER provide some very sympathetic if not unvarnished portrayals of the actor – and of course the films themselves are great. I do really rate I WAKE UP SCREAMING (and what a great title!).


        • Yeah, two very fine movies that were well presented on that Horror set – Fox were releasing some quite classy editions around that time.

          I love the title too; it really grabs you. I find it very hard to believe that the intention was to ditch it and use the Godawful Hot Spot in its place.


  3. Well done on using the HOT SPOT poster (which I only just realised – not too quick on the uptake these days obviously) – I hadn’t realised the title had ever actually been used. As you say, the original was much better even if a bit ‘overt’. One of the things that is starting to drive me crazy on IMDb is how they are using alternate titles as the main titles for well-known films where these were subsequently changed for TV screenings or for other reasons so that you you find these obscure titles in filmographies and realise that it’s a ctually not a totally different film just an obscure version of the title.


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  5. I bought “I Wake Up Screaming” on the strength of your excellent write up and also because I’ve become a bit obsessed with the genesis of the form.
    “Screaming” is at least as noirish as the later “Big Steal” (1949), and certainly no less so than say “Laura” or “Gilda”. There’s that slightly out of kilter tone early in the piece, but I think it accentuates the darkness that follows, the naïvety of the principle characters allows Cregar’s creepy detective to be all the more jolting.
    I’d love to hear your thoughts on another First Place contender, one that to my eyes is a fully formed Noir arriving as early as 1937, “You Only Live Once”. It fairly drips in Lang’s patented visual iconography and is an exercise in narrative ambiguity par excellence.
    Thanks as always for a fantastic site,
    Chris B


    • Chris, I’m flattered that my article drove you to seek this one out – I hope it lived up to your expectations.
      The early parts do contain the least noir aspects of the film, but it does build up as it goes along.

      On You Only Live Once, Lang is a great favorite of mine and I’ve been working through his stuff slowly so I ought to get round to it at some point.


      • Mate, I’d picked up on you being a fellow Lang Lubber from some of your other articles. His films are my antidote and a refuge from the insults of modern cinema. Instead of leave your brain at the door, it feels like I’m actually a little bit smarter for having watched his films!

        BTW after you gave us the choice of movies the other week I immediately ordered Sealed Cargo – That poster was too intriguing and I’m a fan of Dana Andrews, but not going to say what I thought of it til you get around to your review.


        • Thanks Chris. “Lang Lubber” – I like that phrase 😀

          I agree you almost always come away with something positive after viewing Lang’s movies. Even something weak like Cloak and Dagger still has points in its favor.

          I will write something on Sealed Cargo at some point, and I hope you’ll pop in to share your thoughts.


  6. This one did not work for me. Just cannot take Miss Grable seriously in a dramatic role. Having said that, I will add it to the re-watch list as your review does hit on a few things I might have missed first time around. (it has been 20 years or so since last seen).


    • I know what you mean yet I think Grable plays her part very well. If you just take her on what you see of her in this movie then she is OK, and the movie itself (while not perfect in every respect) has a lot going for it.


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