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Entertaining Murder Mystery & Impressive Early Example of Noir Visual Style.
on June 30, 2006
"I Wake Up Screaming" was the first film noir made at 20th Century Fox. Its greatest distinction is its visual style whose low-key lighting and dark shadows would become archetypal of film noir after World War II. Cinematographer Edward Cronjager created a striking early example of "noir" lighting -what John Alton appropriately called "mystery lighting"- in this film made in 1941, before the United States entered the War. The story is based on the novel of the same name by Stephen Fisher, adapted for the screen by Dwight Taylor, who moved the action to New York, gave it a flashback structure, and turned it into one of those hybrids so common in pre-War Hollywood that combines multiple genres: Mystery, romance, musical (the singing scene was cut), comedy, suspense, and psychological drama. But the suspense does dominate.
When model and aspiring actress Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) is murdered, the police are quick to blame Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature), a fight promoter who met Vicky when she was a waitress, introduced her to all the right people, and managed her ascent to glamour girl -until she left him for Hollywood. Vicky's down-to-earth sister Jill (Betty Grable) disapproved of her career choice but doesn't want to believe Frankie responsible for her death. The Assistant District Attorney thinks early on that the creepy switchboard operator (Elisha Cook, Jr.) at the Lynns' apartment building is the killer, but sadistic police detective Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) won't let up on Frankie, constantly harassing and threatening him, leaving Frankie little choice but to find the killer himself.
"I Wake Up Screaming" opens with an eyecatching credit sequence of names in lights sprawled across a dark cityscape. That got my attention. Then we move on to an interrogation room at the police station. Frankie Christopher is harshly lit with one lamp, surrounded by police officers in the shadows. Gorgeous, dramatic, low-key lighting. The faces of some characters, even Frankie, are sometimes completely blacked out. I don't know if that is due to a film with limited tonal range or if it's deliberate. But it's daring. Everywhere we go in the station house, there are bars and shadows. The implication that the characters are trapped as if in a cage is overwhelming. The police station is like a template for film noir aesthetic. This really surprised me in such an early film, but it's fabulous.
This was Betty Grable's first non-musical role. She's all sweetness and goodness, but she is also level-headed, practical, and brave in the mold of a film noir helper-heroine. Unfortunately, every time she appears on screen we hear "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", which eventually drove me a little nuts. Victor Mature makes a strong and appealing protagonist. But the stand-out performance comes from Laird Cregar as the very creepy, obsessed police detective Cornell. He's truly unsettling and one of the most memorable noir villains. The dialogue isn't hard-boiled except for a few lines delivered by Vicky. But "I Wake Up Screaming" is a superb example of the film noir style as it was entering Hollywood's visual vocabulary.
The DVD (20th Century Fox 2006): A few scenes show some white specks and lines, but this print is generally good. Sound is good. Bonus features: A deleted scene called "Daddy" (4 min), in which Betty Grable sings. This doesn't fit the tone of the movie well, so it was best left out. "Hot Spot" (text) is a brief account of the film's title change from "I Wake Up Screaming" to "Hot Spot" and back again. We can watch the opening credits for the film with the "Hot Spot" title (1 min). There are 3 "Still Galleries": A Poster Gallery (3 posters), a Production Stills Gallery of behind-the-scenes photos (8), and a Unit Photography Gallery of publicity stills (38 photos). It's interesting to note that scenes are much more brightly lit in the publicity stills than in the movie itself. There is a theatrical trailer (2 min). Film noir historian Eddie Muller delivers a good, nearly constant audio commentary. He compares the screenplay to Steven Fisher's novel, provides background information for many of the creative crew and actors, discusses the noir visual style and the juxtaposition of light and dark thematic elements in the film. Muller speaks a lot about the people involved in the film, as always. Subtitles for the film are available in English and Spanish.