Starring Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Carole Landis, and Laird Cregar
My rating: ★★★ 1/2 stars
Early film noir depicts well-rounded characters in the intriguing story of the murder of New York glamour girl.
I Wake Up Screaming (aka Hot Spot), superficially, is a brisk little whodunit from 20th Century-Fox. Yet, unlike traditional whodunits, the identity of the perpetrator becomes less important as the movie progresses. Instead, the film becomes more about style, venality, lust, and the urban night world than it is about the resolution of the mystery. I don’t know if viewers in 1941 realized that they were seeing something different. Variety’s review credits it for being something better than a run-of-the-mill mystery, but Bosley Crowther in The New York Times, while pointing out those elements that distinguish it from typical mysteries, criticizes the film for failing as a whodunit. Reading his review in hindsight, I can see that he recognized that there was something new that stretched the bounds of the mystery, but he interprets those innovations as a failure to live up to the established generic standards. In 1941, critics didn’t have the language to describe what they were seeing on screen. Later, American critics would import a term from their French counterparts to describe this new brand of crime film: Film noir.
The film, based on the novel by Steve Fisher, begins with the murder of New York glamour girl Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis). The police interrogations of her sister, Jill (Betty Grable), and her promoter, Frank Christopher (Victor Mature), lead to flashbacks revealing how Vicky rose from a waitress to a model with a promising Hollywood career ahead of her. This rags-to-riches tale, however, hardly feels uplifting as we know that it ends prematurely in murder. In fact, everything about the development of Vicky’s career feels underhanded and exploitative. From the very beginning, we’re in a lurid world. Frank is aided in his promotion of Vicky by a has-been actor (Alan Mowbray) and a cynical, self-serving columnist (Allyn Joslyn). However, there’s a particularly moving revelation later in the film when the jaded columnist shows a little postmortem kindness.
The police are not white-hatted good guys either. The most ominous character in the film is the lead detective, Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar), who had been stalking Vicky before she died and seems driven beyond all reason to pin the crime on Frank. Cregar is brilliant in the role, almost seductively intimidating. He presents an unstoppable force yet, at the same time, suggests an undercurrent of pathetic weakness. Director Bruce Humberstone makes great use of Cregar’s massive form to create a sense of unrelenting menace.
Nothing in Humberstone’s filmography would suggest that he would be a film noir pioneer. Yet, I Wake Up Screaming, coming out a mere two weeks after The Maltese Falcon and, thus, ranking as one of the earliest films noir, displays fully mature stylistic elements of the genre, in addition to the non-linear storytelling. The darkness looms heavily in the corners of the frame. Blinds, cages, grates, and bars create textured shadows over the characters. The camera cants, or it cuts to an unsettling close-up, distorting the reality of the image. Cinematographer Edward Cronjager, had a more celebrated career than Humberstone, being nominated for an Oscar seven times, but, again, his filmography doesn’t suggest that he would be a film noir innovator. (Humberstone and Cronjager had just finished the Sonja Henie vehicle Sun Valley Serenade, a film far removed from the world of film noir, when they made I Wake Up Screaming.)
Victor Mature is an actor ideally suited to film noir. He’s sleazy in a not unappealing way. Frank Christopher is hardly a typical heroic figure; he’s a man whose disreputable lifestyle is the cause of his own troubles. The film takes pains to make clear that Vicky was not sexually involved with Frank, the actor, or the columnist; yet, I can’t help but think that the scene in which their relationship was revealed as platonic was prompted by the requirements of the production code. It seems obvious that Frank and Vicky, while clearly exploiting each other and not having any real romantic attachment, were having a physical relationship. (However, I doubt that was the case with the actor or the columnist, neither of whom seem particularly heterosexual; again the production code may have had an influence in toning down these portrayals.)
Betty Grable is less appropriate for her role. The movie makes Jill Lynn more upstanding and inexperienced than she was in the book, where she is cynical and worldly. I doubt Grable could pull off cynical and worldly; she appears as a wide-eyed innocent. Regardless, Grable doesn’t project the intelligence or the wherewithal to hunt down a killer.
The romance between Frank and Jill, while a key element of the plot, is not buoyed by any chemistry between Mature and Grable. We’re told they’re in love—by Vicky, as a matter of fact—but we don’t see the spark between them. We don’t understand what stalwart Jill would see in the smarmy Frank.
The real standouts in the cast are the supporting players, particularly Cregar. Landis displays great potential as the hard-nosed, beautiful Vicky. In addition to Alan Mowbray and Allyn Joslyn, the cast features such familiar faces from classic films such as Elisha Cook, Jr., William Gargan, Morris Ankrum, and Charles Lane.
Modern viewers may become irritated by Cyril Mockridge’s score, which incorporates the familiar melodies from “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz and Alfred Newman’s score for Street Scene. The repetition of these themes, rather than highlighting the action, distracts the audience from it.
I Wake Up Screaming is not as well-known as other films noir. However, it displays all the necessary characteristics of style and story to make it a classic example of the genre. Beyond merely appreciating it as such an example, I found the story more thoughtful and engaging than the typical Hollywood whodunit of the time. It brings home the idea of the tragedy and, ultimately, the senselessness of the murder. Credit has to be given to the filmmakers and the performers because, while this film works in engaging the audience on an emotional level, the 1953 remake Vicki (with Jeanne Crain, Jean Peters, and Elliott Reid in the Grable, Landis, and Mature roles) just leaves viewers cold.