Friday, May 9, 2014

I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

1941 was an important year for film noir. It is often seen as the year film noir came to life, where a lot of things like German expressionism, the gangster movies of the 30s, a growing sense of disillusionment and fear due to World War II, and other factors, came together in a much darker, grittier and bleaker style of movie, which we now call film noir. 1941's 'The Maltese Falcon' is commonly seen as the first prime example of this new style, and it is indeed an awesome movie, but visually it is still clearly rooted in the 1930's way of shooting crime movies. If 'The Maltese Falcon' is the first film noir, then surely 'I Wake Up Screaming', which was released only a few months later, can lay claim to being the first film noir that also has the dark, chiaroscuro look so closely associated with the style. And like 'The Maltese Falcon', it also has a pulp novel background. The source novel, also called 'I Wake Up Screaming', was written by Steve Fisher, who might not be as widely remembered as Dashiel Hammett, but who was a prolific writer with over a dozen novels to his name as well as several screenplay credits including 'Lady In The Lake' and 'Dead Reckoning'.

'I Wake Up Screaming' was directed by H. Bruce Humberstone who had directed some of the 30s Charlie Chan movies but never really did any noir after this movie. The cinematographer was Edward Cronjager ('House By The River', 'Desert Fury') who came from a family of cinematographers, including his dad, brother and an uncle. There was no music composed specifically for this movie, but it does use 2 popular tunes, Alfred Newman's theme from 'Street Scene' and Harold Arlen's 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow', more about that later. Steve Fisher's novel was turned into a screenplay by Dwight Taylor ('Conflict', 'Pickup On South Street'), who would also write the screenplay for the 1953 remake 'Vicki'. The movie was originally called 'Hot Spot', for marketing reasons, the studio thought would better attract the audience that would go watch it for its lead actors, Victor Mature and Betty Grable. But before the movie was released, and after a lot of promotional material had already been made using the 'Hot Spot' title, the cast and crew convinced Fox to go with 'I Wake Up Screaming' instead.
'I'll follow you into your grave. I'll write my name on your tombstone.'
Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) is a sports promoter in New York City. One evening he spots a beautiful waitress, Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis), and decides she's to be his next new pet project. He introduces her to his friends and the socialites of NYC and in no time Vicky is the talk of the town. Vicky loves her new life, but her sister Jill (Betty Grable) whom she shares an apartment with, is less enamored and has her reservations about Frankie's intentions. But Frankie also sees things go sour when Vicky announces she's been invited to do a screentest and plans to move to Hollywood, all without Frankie's knowledge. Soon after this announcement, Jill comes home to find Frankie crouching over Vicky's dead, murdered, body. Frankie denies everything of course, but police detective Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) doesn't believe him. Even after another suspect pops up, the apartment building's switchboard operator Harry Williams (Elisha Cook Jr.), who's not been seen or heard off again since the murder, Cornell keeps hounding Frankie. He even sneaks into his bedroom at night, hoping Frankie might talk in his sleep and subconsciously mention something incriminating. Things don't get any easier when Harry returns to work, he'd only been out of town visiting his parents. Jill, who's initial apprehension towards Frankie had turned into a romantic interest, doesn't believe Frankie did it and together they set out to find the real killer, still with Cornell trying to pin the murder on Frankie. And there's also an angry letter Frankie wrote to Vicky after she told him about Hollywood, which could easily be read as a threat, which Jill is hiding in her apartment, just the kind of thing Cornell needs to put Frankie away.

The first third of the movie is told using flashbacks, by both Frankie and Jill, mostly set up during interrogation scenes at the police station. These interrogation scenes, and the usage of flashbacks, are a great example of how this movie is one of the earliest examples of movie that fit right into the classic noir period. Very chiaroscuro lighting, with key figures lurking in the shadows. Even tho Cornell is present in these scenes, it is only in the corner of the image or inside a dark shadow, so only on a rewatch is it clear who/where he is in these scenes. After about 20 minutes his face is revealed, which is also the first twist in the movie, as Jill recognizes Cornell as the creepy man she saw watching Vicky from outside the diner where Vicky was working, before Vicky met Frankie. Cornell does turn out to be obsessed with Vicky, and he has an alterior motive for trying to pin the murder on Frankie.

Obsession, like many noirs, is also this movie's underlying theme. Vicky's obsession with making it big, which can also be seen as a slight commentary on 'stardom'. Pretty much all men in the movie obsess over Vicky in one way or another. Frankie's job as a promoter requires a decent of level of obsession from the audience he's catering to, whether it's sports fans or people looking for the next beautiful face. There's also Frankie & Jill's obsession with finding Vicky's killer. But too much obsessing over something or somebody usually doesn't lead to a lot of good, and it doesn't here either. In one way or another, most of the main characters in this movie corrupt themselves for an obsession.
'Go ahead, you're an actor. Pretend you're going to your execution.'
Betty Grable wasn't yet the huge star she would become soon afterwards, but her role as Jill Lynn was already quite a departure for her, it's not like she was an unknown actress, far from it. She played comparatively few dramatic roles in her career, and played mostly in musicals and comedies. She doesn't do too bad here, but a noir dame she ain't, she's far too wholesome (a bit like Deanna Durbin in her noir-ish movies). Carole Landis on the other hand does have the look and attitude of a noir femme fatale here, but her part is far too small and one-dimensional to really do much with it here. Unfortunately her only other noir credential is 1946's 'Behind Green Lights' and of course her life ended rather abruptly when she committed suicide in 1948.

Landis was re-united for this movie with her co-star from 1940's 'One Million B.C.', Victor Mature ('Kiss Of Death', 'Violent Saturday'). Mature had a very distinct look that was his strongest asset, he was the first to admit he wasn't much of an actor, famously claiming his movies proved he wasn't an actor. He does a solid job here tho, even if he does tend to over-act a tad bit here and there, I especially enjoyed his performances during the more tension-filled scenes. What Mature lacked in natural acting ability, Laird Cregar ('This Gun For Hire', 'Hangover Square') had in abundance. He turns Ed Cornell into a creepy ominous character who doesn't need to carry a gun around, as he's too smart, looking down upon everyone, except Vicky Lynn, and who gives Frankie a tiny hand-made noose as a 'present'. The talented Cregar would die even sooner than Landis, in 1944, due to a crash course diet he undertook in order to become a leading man actor.

The movie also has a number of actors appearing in smaller parts who are no stranger to film noir, such as Elisha Cook Jr. (who was shooting 'The Maltese Falcon' at around the same time!) who would become the ultimate noir fall guy, William Gargan ('Behind Green Lights', 'Night Editor') and Allyn Joslyn ('Moonrise').

The movie is pretty strong overall, but it also has some parts that feel out of place. The burgeoning romance between Frankie & Jill is in itself okay, in theory, but it doesn't really work because there are very few sparks flying between Betty Grable and Victor Mature. There is also a scene between them that feels quite out-of-place, and not even because of their lack of romantic chemistry. After taking Jill/Betty out one night, Frankie/Victor tells her he enjoys a late night swim, so they end up in a public indoor pool. This part was clearly meant to show off Betty Grable's famous legs (she wasn't called 'The Girl With The Million Dollar Legs' without a reason) and Victor Mature's fit body (while still smoking inside a public pool!). Thankfully another even more out-of-place scene with Betty Grable singing to a customer at the department store she works at, was cut from the theatrical release of this movie, although it is included as an extra on the Fox Film Noir DVD release of this movie.
'Time's nothing in my life, it is in yours. Each minute's an eternity to a man in your shoes.'
Which brings me to the music. As I mentioned earlier the movie features 2 popular tunes. And feature it does, both songs are repeated throughout the movie, almost ad nauseam. Alfred Newman's theme from 'Street Scene', the 1931 movie it was originally composed for, would become Fox's go-to theme for movies set in New York City for much of the 40s and into the 50s and as such is featured in a number of noirs including 'The Dark Corner' and 'Where The Sidewalk Ends' and even Audrey Hepburn's 'How To Marry A Millionaire' from 1953. While I have no problem with 'Street Scene', mainly because it is so familiar due to its usage in films noirs, 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow' is much more problematic to me. It's far too sentimental and, dare I say it, boring to belong in this type of movie. It appeared in even more movies and TV series than 'Street Scene' however, still being used in various productions to this day.

Dwight Taylor made quite a few changes in the way the story unfolds, compared to the book. The movie uses flashbacks extensively as mentioned earlier, it takes place in New York City whereas the book is set in Los Angeles and one of the main reveals happens much later in the movie than in the book. Apparently Fox thought so highly of this interpretation, they got Dwight Taylor to re-write his screenplay, placing it back in Los Angeles again but leaving a lot of his other changes intact, in the 1953 remake called 'Vicki'. While I like 'Vicki', this 1941 version is the superior version in almost every way. I prefer Jeanne Crain's Jill over Betty Grable's, other than that this is the one to watch. 'I Wake Up Screaming' is a must-see noir, even if only for its historic value.


Here's the trailer which is pretty unique in that it has no narration and doesn't even show the movie's title. Maybe because the original trailer still had the 'Hot Spot' title mentioned all over, and a new one had to be made in a hurry?

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