Wednesday, February 10, 2010

#70: I Wake Up Screaming (H. Bruce Humberstone, 1941)

Released: November 14, 1941

Director: H. Bruce Humberstone; Screenplay: Dwight Taylor based on a novel by Steven Taylor; Cinematography: Edward Cronjager; Music: Cyril J. Mockridge; Producer: Milton Sperling; Studio: 20th Century Fox

Cast: Betty Grable (Jill Lynn), Victor Mature (Frankie Christopher), Carole Landis (Vicky Lynn), Laird Cregar (Ed Cornell), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Harry Williams), William Gargan (Jerry McDonald), Alan Mowbray (Robin Ray), Allyn Joslyn (Larry Evans), Morris Ankrum (Assistant District Attorney), Forbes Murray (Mr. Handel)

- "I'll follow you into your grave... I'll write my name on your tombstone..."

Say the name “Laird Cregar” to yourself. It just sounds menacing. And in this noir from early in the classic cycle, Cregar turns in a sinister performance that steals the spotlight from the superstars that it was originally intended to showcase. Betty Grable, Carole Landis and Victor Mature are the stars of note, and all three are quite good in their roles. But it is Cregar that leaves the lasting impression. He plays Detective Ed Cornell, the man leading the investigation into the death of upstart model Vicki Lynn (Carole Landis). Suspicion begins to drift toward entertainment promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature), who is responsible for guiding the career of Vicki and propelling her from a common waitress to an in-demand model and actress. Realizing that the evidence is pointing toward him, Frankie tries to hide out with Vicki’s jealous sister Jill (Betty Grable). It soon becomes obvious that Detective Cornell is hellbent on pinning the charges on Frankie, regardless of his guilt. It is then a race to see if Cornell can nail him on the charge before Frankie finds the killer on his own.

It’s a very noir setup, utilizing flashbacks and hardboiled dialog to recount the story of a starry-eyed young girl’s rise and fall. Coming as it does in 1941, when the stereotypical “noir look” that has become so familiar was still being developed, I Wake Up Screaming can justifiably be viewed as a very influential film. The early interrogation scenes, with Cregar and the police grilling a petrified Frankie Christopher, are the epitome of film noir. These scenes are like a playbook for how a prototypical noir should look, and even after viewing countless numbers of noirs over the years, they still hold up as some of the most impressive scenes I’ve seen. The shadows of the interrogating officers don’t simply fall onto back walls; they completely envelop Christopher and heighten the anxiety. These sequences are made all the more impressive when you consider the journeyman director and cinematographer that combined to make them. Without going to a reference book or film web site, I wouldn’t be able to name another film that either man ever worked on. Yet in I Wake Up Screaming, director Bruce Humberstone and cinematographer Edward Cronjager leave behind at least one lasting impression in the world of cinema. The work of both men shines throughout, utilizing low-key lighting and pitch-black shadows at every opportunity.

The production of this film has an equally interesting story – the kind of Hollywood folklore that never ceases to fascinate me. The original novel from pulp writer Steve Fisher was set in Los Angeles, giving an up-close look at the world of Hollywood and the consequences that can come with a rise in the industry. In 1941, though, Darryl F. Zanuck was still the head of 20th Century Fox and he had decreed that Hollywood-insider movies were strictly off limits. This accounts for the film being set in New York, but really doesn’t detract from the overall product. While no longer the entertainment capital of the world, New York still offered enough shady nightclubs, restaurants, and darkened streets to maintain the proper atmosphere.


  1. I already stated recently that I think this film is disappointing. It is definitely an important and influential movie. Laird Cregar was a tremendous actor and the look of the film is a clear precursor to future film noirs. I just find the dialogue and script to be really stilted and the use of "Over The Rainbow" as somewhat distracting. I also find Mature's acting to be fairly ho-hum throughout. I think this movie deserves to be on this list but there are at least 9 or 10 films you listed previously that I enjoy more....M.Roca

  2. Dave, I really like your description of the noir atmosphere of the early scenes in the police-station: "The shadows of the interrogating officers don’t simply fall onto back walls; they completely envelop Christopher and heighten the anxiety".

    This is a fascinating noir with a gestalt that transcends its melodrama origins in fashioning a dark city landscape where sexual obsession weaves a disturbing web of entrapment and bizarre transference. I would rank it much higher.

  3. I was surprised how much I like this film because generally I do not think much of Victor Mature as an actor but this film is so filled with moody atmosphere that his limited talent is not too much of a distraction.

    As for Humberstone, his success here is probably due more to chance and talent. His body of work is a mixture of Charlie Chan films, Laurel & Hardy and eventually some Fox musicals (I looked it up on IMDB) and this film is really his only standout. By the way, I like the Chan films in general as well as L&H.

    Another well done piece Dave.

  4. I remember I liked this noir, and it was the first (I think) where I saw Victor Mature (or was it "Kiss of Death"?) and decided that I like him rather than not. Though my favorite Mature performance is in The Shanghai Gesture (1941), which is unlikely to make this countdown.

    But I'm still doubtful about Betty Grable. I liked her in How To Marry a Millionaire, but not anywhere else.

  5. Oh, by the way, why don't we make bets about the top ten noirs in this countdown?

    I think they will be the following (not necessarily in this order):
    = Sunset Blvd.
    = Double Indemnity
    = Out of the Past
    = Laura
    = Night of the Hunter
    = Shadow of a Doubt
    = The Third Man
    = The Maltese Falcon (the one with Bogart)
    = The Big Heat
    = Touch of Evil
    = The Big Sleep
    = To Have and Have Not
    (Oops, more than 10 already! Whatever...)

    I would definitely include Vertigo (I consider it a noir), but I know opinions differ very much on it. The same goes about High Noon -- definitely a noir in my book, though set in full daylight.

    Other noirs which I adore but which are unlikely to make the TOP-10 (but which I expect to see in the countdown):
    = Nightmare Alley
    = Strange Love of Martha Ivers
    = The File on Thelma Jordon
    = Mildred Pierce
    = Ox-Bow Incident
    = Pickup on South Street
    = Where the Sidewalk Ends
    = The Glass Key and This Gun for Hire
    = The Lady from Shanghai
    = I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
    = Les Diaboliques
    = Ace in the Hole
    = The Killers
    = Criss Cross
    = Dead Reckoning
    = Gaslight
    = In a Lonely Place
    (more could be added, of course)

    And I HATE "Kiss Me Deadly" -- about the only noir I hate, and am not much of a fan of "Odd Man Out" or "Strangers on a Train."

  6. Are Gaslight, The Ox-Bow Incident, and I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang noir? I love Kiss Me Deadly and think Dave will rank it pretty high as most noir lovers would. Other possible top ten picks are Sweet Smell Of Success, The Killing, Murder My Sweet, Scarlet Street, Force of Evil, Body and Soul, Gun Crazy, Kiss Me Deadly, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Detour (though I find it overrated).....M.Roca

  7. Oh and Night and the City......M.Roca

  8. Quirky Character, High Noon is definitely more linked to the mythology of the noir than the western, so I can see what you mean, although I don't think it's a good movie. Dave, Laird Cregar is one of my absolute favorite actors, and it's really nice to see this here. Victor Mature often gets a bad rap, but he's in way more good or great movies than his reputation suggests (this, My Darling Clementine, Kiss Of Death).

  9. Cronjager's cinematography here is simply stunning, with it's expressionistic textures, a fact which I see Tony has also brought out in a review he penned months ago at his place that I haven't seen until now:

    But this is one of your greatest threads yet Dave, in terms of the passionate comments, the enthusiasm for the choice, and the insatiable desire by a number of people to ascertain where you will go with the rest of this countdown. I would add though to that conjecture, as frankly it is spoiling the one major thrill you have left here: the element of surprise. While many of us know what the greatest noirs are, we neithe rknow what order they will be presented or what surprises may be in store. Suffice to say that this is an excellent choice - true what John and Tony say that it might have even been higher - but you have now reached the point where it's one masterwork after another.

    I agree Dave that Hunberstone and Cronjager are one hit wonders here, but ah what a hit they collaborated on! You are on a roll with the insightful essays. This is like six extraordinary reviews in a row!

  10. Great comments and input from everyone. As for what is to come in the countdown, I'm not going to reveal much, but I will say that some will be surprised by some of the films that are and are _not_ included. To accommodate all of the movies I wanted to get to, I did some cutting and adding for what would be included -- that's the beauty of being in charge! :)

  11. I keep forgetting about Sweet Smell of Success -- probably my 2nd favorite film after Sunset Blvd. Why do I forget about it? Because I think it's a phenomenon, not a movie, thus it does not fall into any genre.

    The Killing -- great movie, bad acting of Sterling Hayden (he totally SCREWED the ending, not right emotions AT ALL)
    Murder My Sweet -- I have yet to see it
    Scarlet Street -- good, I agree
    Force of Evil, Body and Soul, Gun Crazy -- I haven't seen them yet
    The Postman Always Rings Twice -- too long to be good
    Detour -- quite good, but a lil' bit overrated, I agree