I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

Who wakes up screaming?

Is it Betty Grable as Jill Lynn, whose sister Vicky Lynn has been murdered after having been glamorized and launched into the entertainment world?

Is it Victor Mature as Frankie Christopher, who is accused of Vicky's death, an innocent one minute, guilty-as-sin film noir sap the next?

Is it Carole Landis as Vicky Lynn, who is the murdered girl, whose story the film closely follows as she rises via the graces and guiles of some scheming and powerful showbiz guys, to the heights of glamour and glory?

Or could it be Laird Cregar as Ed Cornell, the creepy devil of a cop, one of the best cops in all of film noir, the relentless, forceful, fearless demon-driven cop who will wait to the end of time to get his man?

Finding out who wakes up screaming in I Wake Up Screaming from 1941, an absolutely excellent early film noir, is a colourful mystery, winding and surfacing amid the shades of weirdness that make up this ahead-of-its-time film noir thriller.

I Wake Up Screaming is as close as one could get to a true film noir. There is plenty stylistic camerawork, with low angles, darkened shadowy corners, low-lit closeups and lights pointed directly at the camera too at times. All this and a complicated plot which is twisted further out of shape with various flashbacks.

I Wake Up Screaming is loaded with film noir class and is one of the best looking film noirs from the early classic era. There is also a decent amount of mild-mannered comedy in the first half of the picture, and an obligatory rubbishy joke at the end.

It very likely has one of the best film noir openings if all time. First up is the totally classy "Extra! Extra! Read all about it!" newspaper announcement from the kid news vendor, standing in the street. 

Film noir does always like to remind us of its complicity with the media, after all.

Then the action cuts to the most devilishly shadowed police interrogation room, where Victor Mature is sweating out an intense questioning from big son-of-a-brute cops. The story of how he got there unfolds straight away, because this is a no-nonsense noir.

Sweatin' out the truth . . .

It is a tale of sleaze, with the actors being powerful men. There is innuendo aplenty to signify this, too, and the background to the business in question, as in Sweet Smell of Success, is the entertainment world.

The story concerns the glamorizing of a young girl, who is then murdered. The setting is the stage and she is a showgirl and model, cleverly delineated from but not a million miles from the cinema industry.

By the time In a Lonely Place was made, the same could not be achieved.

Victor Mature - caged sleaze

Victor Mature is the sleazy agent, who sometimes has, and sometimes has not a heart. He is neither always on the level. The result is straight up tension, as the story bounces all over the place, like a messed up 1941 Pulp Fiction

Grable, however, might deliver the most impressive performance in the film as the sister of the murder victim. Though she cut her teeth on studio comedies, Betty Grable brings a lot of gravitas to the role she plays in I Wake Up Screaming

While Betty Grable never fits the femme fatale archetype, her motivations aren’t always clear, and her coy dialogue with Victor Mature keeps the audience guessing about what’s really happening.

Pay special attention to the film score. It’s less a full soundtrack and more a case of “we only had money to license one song, and by God, we’re going to use it.”

And that song is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”—yes, the song from The Wizard of Oz—and you can count the scenes that don’t use it on two hands.

Landis’ character’s origins mirror Oz’s plot arc: A girl living a humdrum life is pulled into a world of glamor she could only imagine, then returns home, but the return home is replaced with an untimely death at the hands of a mystery assailant.

The following three stills feature LAIRD CREGAR, a truly well-loved and adorable figure, who died aged 31 in 1944 having made only a handful of films. His best may be Hangover Square, but he was most well known in his day for The Lodger.

Interestingly, he plays a male character obsessed with the image of a woman. This is a film noir trope which surfaces more than once.

Despite the musical choices,  I Wake up Screaming is great for both hardened film noir lovers and viewers who are new to hard-boiled detective films. Laird Cregar is larger than life, and is always worth seeing. A sympathetic giant, he could do creepy as well as he could do loveable, although in his short career, it turned out to be creepy that he came to be known for.

I Wake up Screaming is a relatively easy entry point into film noir and injects enough humor and non-traditional pacing into the proceedings to surprise veterans of the genre.

We might ask again who it is that wakes up screaming, in this seminal seminar in noir. And literally speaking, it would appear to be Elisha Cook Jnr. 

Finally, a jazzy orchestral version of the tune Over The Rainbow appears several times (too many) in I Wake Up Screaming. It seems a poor choice, although the song was only two years old, and had probably not quite yet cemented itself to Judy Garland, and despite it being explicitly written for The Wizard of Oz, it doesn't after all this time appear to sit here very well.

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