“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.