Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I Wake Up Screaming isn't a great movie but it has a real distinction; it's one of the first film noirs that actually looks like a film noir, with a lighting style several years ahead of its release date of 1941. The other noirs around I Wake Up Screaming just weren't as visually stylized: The Glass Key, Johnny Eager, The Maltese Falcon. The Fritz Lang films of the 30s had a more extreme kind of Germanic look, as did the weird and wonderful RKO Stranger on the Third Floor from 1940.
What I Wake Up Screaming doesn't have is a strong noir sensibility. Yes, there's a strange mystery and a cop obsessed with the memory of a dead beauty, as in Laura several years later. But the obsession here is almost a gimmick, and much of the story plays like a misplaced light comedy from the late '30s ... with strange overtones.
Police Inspector Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) is convinced that New York promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) murdered Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis), a beauty he had transformed from a waitress into a society model and celebrity. Convinced he's being framed, Frankie gravitates toward Vicki's sister Jill (Betty Grable). Other suspects emerge, but even Jill believes that Frankie could be the killer.
I Wake Up Screaming certainly has the noir look. Its structure is convoluted for almost no reason. Characters immediately begin relating lengthy flashbacks, visualized accounts that are almost laughably tidy. One witness finishes his story of what happened on a particular night. The cops then stroll over to a second witness, whose account just happens to pick up exactly where the previous one ended. The flashbacks are so complete that the movie could easily be reassembled back in chronological order.
The movie has a number of interesting gimmicks. The cops unnerve a pair of Vicki Lynn's boyfriends by playing back her Hollywood screen test after she's been murdered, creating a cinematic "return from the grave" almost identical to that by Louise Brooks in the creepy ending of Prix de beauté.
Putting Betty Grable in a noir seems almost a contradiction. She glides through scenes with perfect, I mean perfect hair (count the comb lines on her temples) and remains a pastry bon-bon no matter what happens to her. The reason I Wake Up Screaming isn't a strong noir is that noir themes just never take hold. Betty's Jill interacts with a strange selection of men. Victor Mature is a double-talking bon vivant promoter but a suspected murderer (of her own sister) lacking a convincing alibi. Elisha Cook Jr.'s desk clerk is even creepier than usual. He he takes it upon himself to enter the dead Vicki's apartment and "gather her things together." It's too bad the production code wouldn't allow Cook to be seen fondling Vicki's "things" É or maybe it isn't.
Laird Cregar is a completely overbearing tub of a cop with a permanent sneer. Just like more conventionally heroic detectives, Cregar's Inspector Cornell doesn't believe anybody's alibi and uses underhanded means at all times. He barges into Grable's apartment with a sexually intimidating manner (still a creepy scene) and then simply shows up in Mature's bedroom in the middle of the night, without excuses. Every noir critic who ever wrote about I Wake Up Screaming makes special note of the implied "homoerotic subtext."
By the way, Laird Cregar must have been a HUGE man. Victor Mature is no midget, but Cregar's head looks to be twice as big. With eyes so far apart, Cregar must have had terrific 3-D vision!
If all of the above gives you the idea that I Wake Up Screaming is a core noir exemplar, it's unintentional. The rest of the movie is like a sour late 30's comedy. The basic idea of promoting saucy waitress into a top NY chick celeb is made for a screwball farce, at least until the plan turns sour. Allan Joslyn and Alan Mowbray are an unprincipled columnist and a ham actor respectively; they dish up a lot of borderline smutty remarks and (listen closely) sneaky anatomical references. We can tell that Fox tried to steer the film toward a much lighter tone; a deleted scene has Grable singing to a record in a music store, as Ethel Merman might do. The original title was Hot Spot which indeed sounds much more like a musical than a thriller.
Speaking of music, I Wake Up Screaming's music score has not dated well. The basic music cue is "Street Scene," the Alfred Newman standard heard in a whole string of Fox noirs as either a signature theme or an economy measure. It comes back again and again here, most jarringly when its opening notes are heard, like a klaxon horn, to signal the start of all but one of the flashbacks. It's almost as wince inducing as the crazy electronic noise that accompanies any mention of a particular Indian in Major Dundee.
But that's not all. The "Street Scene" theme shares equal track space with, of all things, "Over the Rainbow" from The Wizard of Oz. We've heard that the Judy Garland musical wasn't an instant classic but we'd have to think that particular tune was firmly associated with Dorothy Gale. It's officially Betty Grable's theme but ends up being played at the strangest moments, like when Laird Cregar's unhinged detective is waxing melancholic.
Fox's DVD of I Wake Up Screaming is presented in a fine, sharp transfer that preserves every B&W grace note of Edward Cronjager's proto-noir cinematography. The transfer is so accurate that we can finally tell that a few overexposed rear-projection driving scenes were filmed that way in the camera.
That missing Betty Grable singing number is here and will thrill her fans; it's not bad. The galleries include a mass of artwork for the first, aborted release under the title Hot Spot. A trailer rounds out the extras.
Eddie Muller's commentary is one of his more joky efforts. It contains plenty of solid information as well as a sharp overall analysis of the picture. He really likes seeing his favorite bit players show up. Muller stops the presses to point out a wild dialogue line, when columnist Alyn Joslyn phones in a scoop with the words, "Hold that story about the Jap spy with the Kodak, I got something better for you!" As the movie was filmed in August of 1941, that line predates Pearl Harbor and is therefore uncannily prescient - maybe.
Having that strong of an anti-Japanese line in there before the start of hostilities sounds highly unlikely to Savant. The film was previewed on October 16 as Hot Spot but not released as I Wake Up Screaming until January 16 of 1942. I'd like to advance the theory that when the movie's title was changed the scene was re-shot to accommodate that line. It's possible that (a big fat guess here) the original dialogue line had been made obsolete by the Pearl Harbor attack. A rush change just before Christmas would still make a mid-January release date. Perhaps Fox's lab was working overtime as the infamous LA "Air Raid" took place, the one that inspired 1941.
Then again, it's even more possible that Mr. Muller knows the inside story that explains the line as a genuine original from the shooting script. His info on all things noir is nigh unimpeachable.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
I Wake Up Screaming rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary by Eddie Muller; galleries of stills, ad art, etc.; trailer; special Hot Spot ad art gallery; deleted Betty Grable scene.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 15, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson