I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone
Cinematography Edward Cronjager

I Wake Up Screaming (originally titled Hot Spot) is a 1941 film noir. It is based on the novel of the same name by Steve Fisher, who co-wrote the screenplay with Dwight Taylor. The film stars Betty Grable, Victor Mature and Carole Landis, and features one of Grable’s few dramatic roles.

Plot

A young promoter, Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature), is accused of the murder of Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis), a young actress he “discovered” as a waitress while out with ex-actor Robin Ray (Alan Mowbray) and gossip columnist Larry Evans (Allyn Joslyn).

Frankie hides out with Vicky’s sister, Jill (Betty Grable), with whom he is falling in love, but is eventually captured and interrogated by the cops. An obsessive police officer, Cornell (Laird Cregar), knows that Frankie is innocent but because the evidence is completely incriminating, he tries to put the suspect behind bars anyway. Frankie escapes and eventually finds the murderer’s true identity.

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Carole Landis

Critical response

Film critic Dennis Schwartz gave the film a favorable review, writing, “Veteran Fox studio director H. Bruce Humberstone (Charlie Chan at the Opera/Sun Valley Serenade), whose films ranged from Charlie Chan to Tarzan, puts forth his best effort in this thrilling film noir. I Wake Up Screaming was remade in 1953 as Vicki. Dwight Taylor bases his screenplay on the book by pulp writer Steve Fisher. In a jarring move that works in an odd way, ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ is the soundtrack that can be heard throughout. This early film noir, shot in a naturalistic style, showed how dark photography can increase a brooding mood and make the film more tense … The conclusion is filled with plot twists and surprise character revelations, as the marvelously sinister performance by Laird Cregar as the sicko detective dominates the screen. intriguing …

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25 January 2003 | by didi-5 (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

Despite Victor Mature’s claim that he never ‘acted’ in any of his films, he does well enough here. Full of shadows, sly humour and a storyline which keeps you guessing, plus that wonderful soundtrack (including snatches of Over The Rainbow), this stands as a monument to film noir – Betty Grable could clearly handle a non-musical role, Elisha Cook Jnr displays his twitchy vulnerability as he would in so many 40s thrillers. The real-life early deaths of Landis (playing Vicki here in a manner which reminded me of Vivien Leigh’s Blanche Dubois, all flirty giggles) and Cregar (superb here as the corrupt detective gliding and purring in that unusual voice like a huge cat) do affect viewings of this film and give the proceedings a hint of sadness. This aside, there is much to enjoy, particularly in the supporting characters of Mature’s actor and columnist friends. One niggle though, given the plot dependence on various people letting themselves into other people’s apartments, how come Vicki got herself locked out?

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Carole Landis

“Why Should I Go On Slinging Hash, When I Can Sling Other Things?”

Author: Michael Coy (michael.coy@virgin.net) from London, England
10 July 2000

A pretty waitress is given a shot at the big time by a handsome sports impresario. She grabs her chance with alacrity, but Fate has plotted a different course for her …

Bruce Humberstone directs this attractive early noir with a strong sense of visual style. His Director of Photography, Edward Cronjager, works wonders with elongated shadows and labyrinths of lattice.

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Betty Grable
Victor Mature looks good as Frankie Christopher, the romantic lead. Always a fairly limited actor, he never the less captures his character’s ambivalence sufficiently well for the viewer to be kept wondering about him until the final reel. But for all Mature’s efforts, Frankie remains a lightweight. He spends more time onscreen than anyone else, but remains in the viewer’s memory less successfully than the other three leads.

After almost a decade in films, Betty Grable was 25 years old in 1941 and already an established star when she took on the role of Jill Lynne. Her character has psychological depth, and Grable does justice to the part. Jill is the slightly staid older sister of Vicky the glamour girl. While Vicky gives free rein to her every whim, Jill suppresses her id, but her yearnings are simmering just below the surface.

Of course, those legendary Grable legs have to be put on display, and we get three glimpses of Hollywood’s most-insured thighs – first when the two sisters flounce around in robes, discussing the letter, then when Jill accompanies Frankie to the Lido Plunge, and finally when she is tottering up firescapes and over rooftops in her high heels.

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Inspector Ed Cornell is a figure of stature, apparently a good guy, but one who fills the viewer with a sense of uneasy foreboding. Laird Cregar captures brilliantly the bleakness and creepiness of Cornell, the cop who starts the movie as a silent shadow, but who grows inexorably to dominate the proceedings. The moment when Jill meets Cornell for the first time is a very dramatic one, just as Vicky’s first encounter with the eerie detective was disturbing. Robin Ray (Alan Mowbray) breaks down under interrogation, and Cornell’s stillness as the suspect sobs is rather unsettling. “You’re not a cop looking for a murderer,” Cornell is told, and we become increasingly aware that this repressed man is conducting some kind of unhealthy personal crusade. It is only at the very end of the film that Cornell displays any emotion, and then the floodgates open.

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Laird Cregar
Carole Landis, the ill-starred actress who plays Vicky Lynne, deserves a special mention. Like her character, whose fictional tragedy she paralleled in her own life, Landis was a victim of her own beauty. A tough but brittle radiance, total self-absorption and an impatience with the trappings of success (“I’ve got about as much privacy as a lingerie mannequin!”) are Vicky’s salient attributes, but could be said to apply to Landis herself. She gives a confident performance and sings beautifully. Like Vicky, she shot to instant fame but never found love, and died in her 20’s. Thus does Life imitate Art.

The film contains some errors and improbabilities, but these do not seriously detract from the viewer’s enjoyment. Cornell gathers evidence (such as discarded cigarette butts) with blatant disregard for preservation and continuity. That Harry should pack Jill’s things, ready for her to move out, is just plain weird. The Assistant DA (played by Morris Ankrum) rides Cornell far too hard, given the detective’s peerless reputation – and would the lawyer have direct operational command over a detective anyway? Frankie is allowed to compound felonies, and threaten cops, with impunity. Unbelievably, the police grant him the freedom to crack the case, even though he is the main suspect.

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Music is used effectively throughout. “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” (the hit from the recent ‘Wizard Of Oz’) is Frankie and Jill’s love theme. Vicky’s signature tune is a wonderfully decadent jazz melody, brassily scored. Plot points are nicely underlined by discords in the incidental music, and during Cornell’s final speech, Vicky’s theme is reprised with great poignance and beauty on a muted trumpet.

We do not normally associate film noir with humour, but this one uses jokes well, both to punctuate the plot and to add a little light to the shade. Watch for gentle little gags involving latch keys, a Tootsie Roll, the girl at the Lido Plunge and a fold-away bed.

“You’ve got a heart made out of rock candy,” Vicky is told, and in life the hard young woman is an unsympathetic character. Death transforms her, and she haunts the remainder of the film like a sort of ghost, her photograph adorning walls and bedside tables, more appealing in reverie than she ever was in the flesh. There is no help for it, Vicky is gone for ever. The question is whether those who loved her can continue to live without hope. “It can be done,” intones the nihilistic Cornell.

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Just for the record, though two characters are startled out of sleep by bedroom intruders, nobody in “I Wake Up Screaming” wakes up screaming.

Lurid and Unforgettable

8/10
Author: David (Handlinghandel) from NY, NY
1 January 2006

I’ve seen this many times over the years and never tire of it. The plot is a little bit predictable. But the details are what count.

It’s like an Edward Hopper painting with dialogue, motion, and fabulously garish musical effects. Everything about it is seamy. Yes, the creepy plot but what a cast! Victor Mature and Betty Grable: These two were a couple to identify with? Not on a bet. They are as weird as Elisha Cook, always a pleasure to find in a movie, and the similarly excellent and mondo bizarro Laird Craiger. Carole Landis, a very likable performer who met a sad end in real life, was not exactly a wholesome beauty either. A beauty for sure but no sweet little thing.

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The rest of the cast is great too. Alan Mowbry is icky in an understated way that is also as glaring as the theatrical lights blaring out the title at its opening.

And — to be circumspect and give noting away: the shrine. The shrine will wake you up in days and years to come. Screams of horror; screams of laughter; screams of astonished appreciation for this one-of-a-kind cubic zirconium of a rare and unique gem.

Powerhouse Cast Makes Fox’s First Film Noir Sizzle

9/10
Author: Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci (dtb) from Whitehall, PA
30 January 2008

Victor Mature, Betty Grable, and Carole Landis had all been in movies together (mostly musicals) in various combinations, but I WAKE UP SCREAMING (IWUS) was the first film noir all three of them starred in. Maybe that’s why IWUS still feels so fresh; everyone in it and everything about it brims with verve and brio, as if all concerned were eager to start filming. Though the movie begins in a NYC police interrogation room (an effective change from the novel’s Hollywood setting), IWUS’s plot starts more like PYGMALION/MY FAIR LADY than pulse-pounding crime fiction like the Steve Fisher novel the movie’s based on. Flashbacks show how promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature), newspaper columnist Larry Evans (Allyn Joslyn), and veteran actor Robin Ray (Alan Mowbray) grab a bite at a Times Square eatery and end up betting they can turn their tart-tongued but beautiful waitress, Vicky Lynn (the incandescent Carole Landis), from a hash slinger to a headliner by getting her name in the papers and her face plastered all over town.

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It works *too* well: dazzled by her own success, Vicky snares a Hollywood screen test and contract right under her shocked benefactors’ noses, only to be murdered on the eve of her Tinseltown departure. Jill finds Frankie standing over Vicky’s body, swearing he found her that way. Hotshot Police Inspector Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) insists Frankie’s lying. 15-year veteran Cornell has never been wrong, and he’s obsessed with making an example out of hapless Frankie. But does justice alone explain Cornell’s zeal, or does he have a hidden agenda? The cat and mouse game is afoot between Frankie, determined to prove his innocence, and Cornell, a smoothly sinister behemoth of a man, ready, willing, and able to go to any lengths to railroad Frankie. Undeterred by the lack of a search warrant, Cornell even sneaks into Frankie’s bedroom to watch him while he sleeps (“Someday you’re gonna talk in your sleep, and when that day comes, I wanna be around.”), doing his damndest to wear Frankie down with smilingly delivered threats and manipulation. With wily Cornell’s festering resentment of Frankie, you can’t tell what he’ll pull next. A formidable, menacing presence, Cregar rocks in the role. His silky voice and charming smile somehow make him even scarier; no wonder IWUS put him on the map.

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Victor Mature’s Frankie is a great match for Cregar’s Cornell, with his outer charm and inner toughness. Always an appealing presence, Mature was a better actor than he got credit for, making it look easy. He was hot, too; no wonder Cornell sneeringly calls Frankie “Handsome Harry!” 🙂 Elisha Cook Jr. is fine as Harry Williams, the oddball switchboard operator and original suspect. (Fun Fact on film historian Eddie Muller’s commentary track: Cook filmed his role as THE MALTESE FALCON’s Wilmer at the same time he filmed IWUS.)

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Things heat up as Jill and Frankie acknowledge what sharp Vicky had already realized: they’re in love and eager to protect each other. It’s cute and typical of the era to see Jill get starry-eyed when Frankie wants to marry her. It’s even cuter when Frankie reveals his original surname as Jill dreamily sighs, “Mrs. Botticelli.” Vicky’s whirlwind trajectory from waitress to glamour girl to corpse plunges Jill into a world of murder, terror, and obsession, propelling her to flee with the man she loves, dogged by Cornell at every turn. When the plucky Grable’s wholesome sexiness meets Mature’s playful yet virile allure, it’s Chemistry City! Dwight Taylor’s screenplay tightens Fisher’s sprawling novel almost to the point of claustrophobia (in a good way), with sharp, witty dialogue and comic relief balancing the nerve-racking tension. Taylor’s dialogue is snappy, suspenseful, and poignant in all the right places. Loved that “key” exchange early on! Edward Cronjager’s lush, expressionistic black-and-white photography is a thing of shadowy beauty, used especially well in Cregar’s early scenes as combinations of heavy shadows and bright interrogation lights hide him from view.

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Even with studio sets, IWUS evokes early 1940s NYC, even the rooftops. When Frankie shows Jill his old East Side neighborhood, it’s fun as both a getting-to-know-you scene and a mini-travelogue of the non-touristy places where native New Yorkers go. This continues when the lovers become fugitives and Frankie shows Jill where to hide in the big city, including the library and a 24-hour grindhouse. Even the swimming pool scene has that spirit; sure, it’s there primarily to show off sex symbols Mature and Grable in their swimsuits, but it reminded me of the city’s neighborhood pools at their best. One ironic-in-retrospect bit, considering IWUS came out before the U.S. entered World War 2: incensed upon spotting Frankie and Jill dancing so soon after Vicky’s murder, Larry calls in a blind item about them, snapping, “Scrap the stuff about the Japanese spy with the Kodak and run this!” Apparent nods to Fisher’s pulp roots: 1.) Frankie takes Jill to The Pegasus Club, possibly a shout-out to the novel’s narrator/writer hero, nicknamed “Pegasus,” a.k.a. “Peg.” 2.) During a Cornell/Frankie confrontation, a newsstand features Black Mask Magazine. (This scene gets my vote for cleverest use of a Tootsie Roll.) Finally, according to Muller’s commentary, Cornell was named after Fisher’s pal and fellow pulpster Cornell Woolrich.

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Nice, quirky use of music, too, particularly “Over the Rainbow.” Fans of vintage movie music will notice that the opening credits music is the same theme, Alfred Newman’s “Manhattan Street Scene,” also used in THE DARK CORNER. When Jill brings Frankie home to show him an incriminating letter, listen carefully: in the background, “Over the Rainbow” and “Manhattan Street Scene” cross-pollinate into a sinister new theme, courtesy of music arranger Cyril Mockridge. Ironically, although Mature and Joslyn each have scenes where they awaken with a start, nobody in I WAKE UP SCREAMING ever actually wakes up screaming! How could you wake up to find a huge cop staring at you and *not* scream? 🙂

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