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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » I Wake Up Screaming (Blu-ray)
I Wake Up Screaming (Blu-ray)
Kino // Unrated // November 1, 2016 // Region A
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted November 5, 2016 | E-mail the Author
Sure, sure, Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) may have made his bones in sports, but he prides himself on being able to promote anything. Take that pretty little thing over there. Vicky (Carole Landis) may be a sharp-tongued waitress slinging hash in a diner now, but dress her in the right clothes, take her to the right places, and put her in front of the right people, and a star will be born. Heck, he's even willing to put his money where his mouth is, and a couple of his pals -- newspaper columnist Larry (Allyn Joslyn) and over-the-hill thespian Robin (Alan Mowbray) -- take his bet to play Pygmalion. As always, Frankie's gamble pays off. Within a few short weeks, Vicky is everywhere: as a model, as a chanteuse, and, seemingly soon enough, as an actress. Her celebrity is short-lived, however, transitioning too quickly from the society pages to the obituaries.

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I Wake Up Screaming opens in a darkened interrogation room, with a single, searing light bearing down on Frankie. Dead certain that he murdered Vicky, the detectives force him to retell his story over and over and over as they wait in vain for some cracks to show. You see, Vicky was about to cut out to Hollywood on her own, leaving Frankie short one meal ticket. They also suspect that maybe she was getting in the way of whatever was going on between Frankie and her sister Jill (Betty Grable). Hell, Vicky's body was discovered with Frankie crouching over it. Any one of those would make him a prime suspect, but all three...? To be fair, the detectives eye some of the other folks in Vicky's circle, including her sister, the squirrelly switchboard operator (Elisha Cook, Jr.) in her building, and the other two men in on Frankie's bet. At the end of the day, Inspector Cornell (Laird Cregar) knows who's to blame, though, and he's not letting Frankie out of his sight until he's convulsing in an electric chair. When Cornell gets his mitts on the damning evidence he's been aching for, Frankie finds himself on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of the cops while desperately clawing for something...anything...to prove he's not the man they should be looking for.

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I Wake Up Screaming isn't a perfect fit for the film noir mold, but then, this is 1941. Its cameras were rolling at Fox's studios at the same time as The Maltese Falcon's were on Warner's lot, and no template had yet been formed. Though much of what would go on to be associated with film noir is present and accounted for here -- the stark interplay between light and shadow, its not altogether linear storytelling, its setting of a big city captured largely in the dead of night, its more adventurous camerawork -- I Wake Up Screaming is lighter in tone than its title might suggest. While this is very much a crime thriller revolving around a murder investigation, it has a playful sense of humor. Its vision of New York is that of bright lights, glamorous nightlife, and endless hope that dreams very well may come true -- a far cry from the desperation, deceit, and decay that so often typify films noir. The police are portrayed as competent, trustworthy, and dogged in their pursuit of justice. Even though Cornell breaks more than his fair share of rules along the way, it still comes across as if he thinks he's the hero of this story. He could've done the same things in the same way in another thriller and unmistakeably have been the good guy rather than yet another obstacle for Frankie to sidestep. Frankie himself would not be mistaken as any sort of hard-boiled anti-hero; he's well-to-do and a class act through and through, although there's enough possibility of something sinister to understand why he'd remain a suspect. Vicky qualifies as a sort of femme fatale, though she doesn't exactly seduce Frankie and company down a treacherous path. She is what they made her. For crying out loud, there's a doe-eyed romance (however devoid of chemistry it may be), an unambiguously happy ending, and a sequence with Gable showing off her legendary gams as she and Mature splash around in a swimming pool. No other film noir would dare use The Wizard of Oz' "Over the Rainbow" as a leitmotif.

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Despite its lighter tone, this is still an engaging thriller and a wildly effective whodunnit. Its twists are unexpected yet well-earned. Given the type of film that I Wake Up Screaming is, it's wonderfully cast. By and large, these are characters we're meant to embrace warmly, and bringing in the likes of Betty Grable and Alan Mowbray accomplishes just that. Even Cornell earns a measure of grudging respect. I Wake Up Screaming is rightly labeled as a film noir, but those who bristle at that categorization should at least acknowledge that it's a gateway to what the genre would soon offer. I appreciate I Wake Up Screaming's place in the history of noir, but better still, I appreciate it as a fun and exciting thriller. Highly Recommended.

By and large, I Wake Up Screaming looks marvelous in high definition. Its filmic texture is retained beautifully, and the intricate details showcased throughout are frequently striking, particularly the very fine patterns in the cast's wardrobe. There is a bit of shimmer to Robin Ray's coat at one point, but that's limited to a single, brief sequence. The high contrast photography is reproduced well on Blu-ray, and although I'm sure the story was much the same seventy-five years ago, it can be a bit jarring for a scene to feature a crisp master with deep blacks and piercing whites, then cut to a decidedly different grayscale in soft-focus closeups. Though speckling and the like are too mild to ever pose any meaningful distraction, the same cannot be said for one of the disc's other visual flaws. Though it's not a persistent nuisance, there are too many instances of warping and wobbling, starting as early as just a couple of minutes into the film. The impact cannot be reproduced effectively in static images, but still, look at the ghosting in these screenshots:

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There's also a sequence with Inspector Cornell riding alongside Frankie that goes black for several frames, and that too is jarring enough to take me out of the film somewhat. As unfortunate as those issues are, they're hardly dealbreakers, and I would very much still say that I'm impressed by this presentation of I Wake Up Screaming overall.

I Wake Up Screaming is presented at its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, and the film and its extras fit comfortably onto a single layer Blu-ray disc.

Presented in two-channel mono, I Wake Up Screaming's 16-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is largely where I'd expect it to be. There is moderate background noise, but those pops, thumps, and hiss only occasionally intrude and are otherwise easily shrugged off. The sibilance to the dialogue isn't anything all that unusual for a film of this vintage, and every last line is readily discerned. What little variation in music is to be had shines well enough.

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Commentary aside, there are no other audio options.

Don't toss out your Fox DVD quite yet, as some unfortunate omissions prevent this from being the definitive home video release of I Wake Up Screaming. A deleted Betty Grable musical number and an alternate title sequence are even listed on the back of the packaging, but neither are anywhere to be found on the disc itself.

  • Audio Commentary: Noir historian Eddie Muller chimes in with this terrific commentary that's carried over from the earlier Fox release. He speaks to how this proto-noir showcases so many elements that would go on to define the genre. Comparisons are drawn to other films noir, such as a flashback structure predating that of Double Indemnity. Muller compares and contrasts this film with Steve Fisher's novel of the same name, including a massive change in setting that helped to streamline production and restructuring the story to be less linear. Muller intersperses so many terrific details throughout that it's an incredibly fun listen, such as how Laird Cregar was tormented when sitting in on an interrogation by some real-life detectives and the response from a hard-working immigrant father when Victor Mature wired with the news that he'd arrived in Hollywood with eleven cents in his pocket. Among the many other topics of conversation are the motivations behind its late change in title, the clever ways in which I Wake Up Screaming skirted around the Hays Code, why it's worth noting how different in appearance Laird Cregar is from the legendary Cornell Woolrich, and the tragic ends met by some cast members that are presaged by certain events in the film. Muller's commentary is, as ever, quite a rewarding listen.
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  • Animated Image Gallery (4 min.; HD): These high resolution scans are indescribably gorgeous, showcasing a variety of poster art, production stills, and behind the scenes shots. The flipside of the case teases "Alternate Hot Spot Ad Campaigns", and that artwork under I Wake Up Screaming's original title is offered here as well.

  • Trailer (2 min.; SD): The last of the extras is the film's rather unusual theatrical trailer. Also included are trailers for He Ran All the Way, 99 River Street, Daisy Kenyon, and Boomerang.

The Final Word
Kino Lorber has done such an extraordinary job bringing so many films noir to Blu-ray, and despite a couple of missing extras and the wobbly missteps in its presentation, it's a thrill to see one of the genre's very first entries honored so. Highly Recommended.
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