As a tribute to the Noir City festival of film noir in San Francisco, my DVD of the Week was just featured at Noir City. In I Wake Up Screaming, the promoter Frankie (Victor Mature) discovers the hardscrabble beauty Vicky (Carole Landis), and seeks to turn her into a star. She gets her Hollywood contract, but leaves Frankie behind with a pile of nightclub tabs and furrier bills. Vicky turns up murdered, and the cops, led by the menacing Cornwell (Laird Cregar) try to pin the crime on Frankie. Frankie and Vicky’s sister Jill (Betty Grable in a rare dramatic role) try to find the Real Killer. They discover that Frankie isn’t just a convenient suspect, he is being framed – and the stakes get higher as they race the cops to solve the crime.
As befits a noir, we see gritty diners, top end nightclubs, the police interrogation room and an all-night theater. When the light goes on in the den of a stalker, set up as a shrine to his victim, it’s a jaw-dropping moment. I Wake Up Screaming is on my list of Overlooked Noir.
This is Laird Cregar’s movie. Cregar’s hulking and insolent Cornwell dominates every scene that he’s in, and several times he makes us literally jump. Cregar understood how to use his size and looks to intimidate. Cornwell is almost buoyant as he explains to Frankie how he intends to ruin Frankie’s life. But when Cornwell doesn’t know that he’s being watched, he drops his chin and lapses into an open-mouthed stare at Landis. This is a very early and groundbreaking portrayal of a stalker. There are early hints to his unhealthy obsession, but nothing prepares the audience for the revelation of just how unhealthy it turns out to be.
Cregar was an immense acting talent. A closeted gay man and overweight, he was uncomfortable in his own skin. Sadly, aspiring to become a leading man, he died suddenly from damage caused by a quackish, extreme diet. (At the time, no one could foresee Raymond Burr’s path – playing film noir heavies and later becoming a huge star on TV.)
In her brief career, Carole Landis was usually cast based on her impressive, top-heavy figure. Here, she brings some nuance to the role of Vicky, for whom there is more going on than apparent. She’s far more than the Eliza Doolittle that Frankie thinks she is. It’s later revealed that she can get what she wants from a slew of men and that she can make a canny and ruthless business deal. She cheerfully cuts Frankie out of his Return On Investment with an “it’s just business” attitude. Landis was only 23 years old when she made I Wake Up Screaming. After four stormy marriages, she committed suicide at age 29 – right after boyfriend Rex Harrison refused to leave his wife for her.
The hunky Mature went on to spend an entire decade shirt-free in sword-and-sandal movies. Of course, Grable would soon become the favorite pin-up girl for the US military in WW II. The most unintentionally funny part of I Wake Up Screaming is when the two decide to top off a date with a late-night swim at a NYC indoor pool. It is easy to visualize the studio brass ordering the poor screenwriters to somehow get Grable and Mature into their swimsuits.
Before getting stuck in beefcake roles like Samson, Horemheb the Egyptian and Demetrius the Gladiator, Mature proved himself to be a pretty fair noir hero, especially in 1947’s Kiss of Death. He’s good here. So is Grable, without any singing or dancing (although she did have a song in a deleted scene on the DVD). Film noir favorite Elisha Cook, Jr. has a role that seems small but juicy, until it becomes pivotal.
Scholars place 1940’s Stranger on the Third Floor as the very first film noir. Released in 1941, I Wake Up Screaming is a very early noir, along with The Maltese Falcon, Johnny Eager, Suspicion, High Sierra and The Shanghai Gesture. Director H. Bruce Humberstone and cinematographer Edward Cronjager did not become giants of noir, or even notable noir artists, but their lighting was impressive. Cregar often lurks in the shadows, and when he doesn’t, we usually see his shadow, often dwarfing another character. Cregar also gets the horizontal shadows of Venetian blinds across his face. At least three times, characters turn on the light to find that another character has slipped into their apartment – yikes!
The exposition in I Wake Up Screaming is pretty muck by-the-numbers. The primary appeals of the film is the proto-noir style, the matter-of-fact sexiness of Landis, the easy-to-root-for pair of Grable and Mature, and the amazing performance of Laird Cregar. Incongruously, the song Somewhere Over the Rainbow keeps showing up in this dark and oft creepy movie. I don’t understand how or why, but it is an effective choice.
I Wake Up Screaming plays occasionally on Turner Classic Movies. The DVD is available with a Netflix subscription, or you can buy it from Amazon. I Wake Up Screaming was featured at the Noir City 2018.