Customer Reviews: I Wake Up Screaming
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"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.
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on July 11, 2006
The 1941 film I Wake Up Screaming reportedly set the standard for this type of noir thriller and the good news is that it gets everything right. Incorporating a perfect blend of noir elements and emphasizing the flashback story, the atmospheric lighting, and, most of all, the inherent moral ambiguities of the main protagonists, I Wake Up Screaming is a riveting suspense thriller from beginning to end.

The movie begins with as well-known New York sports promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) is hauled down to the New York City police headquarters, a prime suspect in the murder of beautiful café waitress Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) who Frankie has since helped become a flourishing model and prospective actress.

Of course, Frankie denies having anything to do with the crime but the massive detective squad commander Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) is totally convinced if his guilt. Meanwhile, in the adjoining room, Vicky's sister Jill (Betty Grable) is also being questioned. She recently came to New York to stay with Vicky as a type of live-in maid and she was the first person to discover the body and saw Frankie standing over it.

As both Jill and Frankie recount their stories - in brilliantly edited flashbacks - we are introduced to a number of supporting suspects: There's a manipulative and self-serving journalist Larry Evans (Allyn Joslyn), aging actor Robin Ray (Alan Mowbray), and the creepy, sinister switchboard operator William Harrison (Elisha Cook Jr.) who works in Vicky's hotel and who packs Jill's luggage up without being asked.

Jill and Frankie are soon released. Jill just wants to forget the whole thing and move on, but Frankie pursues Jill, all the while maintaining his innocence. The two are drawn together in the course of trying to sort out their lives and the murder of Vicky, and Jill's eventual recognition that Frankie is capable of truly loving a woman, and not just exploiting her. The couple soon realizes that Cornell - who is unremittingly in hunt of his prey - must be framing Frankie for the murder. But did Frankie really murder Vicky and if he didn't, who did?

The plot takes lots of mysterious twists and turns and the noose seems to tighten around Frankie, as the anecdotal proof seems to pile up. Jill begins to fall in love with him - in one instance, she even helps him escape from the law, which threatens her safety and makes her an accessory to the crime - yet she's also plagued by uncertainty, she can never know for sure what the true motivation of Frankie really is.

Obviously, the real attraction of the movie is the wonderfully foreboding noir atmosphere, utilizing light and shadow to great effect, the director really manages to stretch as much as he can out of the dark goings on.

Betty Grable as Jill is quite a revelation in a dramatic role. Landis as Vicky is only briefly in the picture, but she makes a mark quickly and leaves a lasting impression, and Mature - an actor I don't normally like - is very imposing and impressive as Frankie, a desperate man on the run and fighting for his life. Mike Leonard July 06.
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on March 14, 2006
I Wake Up Screaming (1941) is an excellent, atmospheric, pre - WWII Film Noir classic with Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Carole Landis, Laird Cregar and Elisha Cook, Jr. This under-rated film is a must for lover's of the genre. The cast is excellent, including Betty Grable who is best known for her Fox musicals. Laird Cregar is memorable in one of his best rolls of his short career, giving a complex and disturbing performance. The ending is a real chiller and you will be kept guessing as to who the murderer is. Check it out. You won't be disappointed. I rate this film up there with my other Film Noir favorites: Laura, Gilda, Double Indemnity, Out Of The Past, Woman In The Window and Murder My Sweet...footnote: The original title was Hot Spot, but Zanuck had it changed because as the film was to be released, USA entered WWII and he feared audiences might think it was a war movie. Fox re-made this film in 1953 as Vicki with Jeanne Crain and Jean Peters in the lead roles. However, Richard Boone's performance does not have the complexity and depth that Cregar brings to the role.
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on August 22, 1999
When ambitious waitress Carole Landis reaches for Hollywood fame, she is found murdered in the apartment she shares with sister Betty Grable. Suspicion falls on Victor Mature's, Carole's promoter, but Betty believes in him and helps, through devious ploys, to unmask the real killer. Plenty of twists to keep you guessing in this exellent film noir, based on the book by Steve Fisher. Grable had one number to sing in this but, in order to sustain the dramatic content of the film, it was cut and Grable's occupation changed from songplugger to stenographer.
When previewed, this film (then entitled Hot Spot) was given the thumbs down by the audience - they thought they were in for a Grable musical treat. Zanuck and director Bruce Humberstone, re-edited the film and added new key scenes, working day and night to have it ready for its premiere. Reverted to its original title, it soon became a success and is a highly rated movie in its genre.
Laird Cregar steals the acting honours as the sinister detective investigating Landis's murder. And that excellent supporting actor, Elisha Cook Jr., is one of the "red herrings" under audience suspicion.
Cameraman Edward Cronjager does much to add to the atmosphere of this classic mystery with some fine low-key lighting and imaginative photography.
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on June 18, 2006
What struck me about "I Wake Up Screaming" was how it tackled provocative themes in the Production Code era most prominently psychotic obsession. It's distinguished by great writing and excellent acting. The performance that stands out in my mind is the one delivered by Laird Cregar, a detective who dogs Victor Mature's talent promoter for the murder of a model that he groomed for success. It's the kind of turn that stands out among the great supporting roles of film noir. The film strikes the requisite mood and the soundtrack sports a variation of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" that is used to good effect.
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on October 7, 2002
No one wakes up screaming in this feature, though it's a wonder, given the way the characters show up in each other's darkened apartments! A good deal of the action, as well as the dialogue, appears to be utterly fantastic--so it seems appropriate that Grable's presence is often accompanied by strains of "Over the Rainbow". Such incredibility does lend to the unpredictability of the plot-line, though, so the movie can be enjoyable if one doesn't think about it too deeply. It's also fun to watch Grable in a film noir--and amusing to see how a swimsuit scene is worked into the story!
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on January 3, 2000
A surprisingly nifty, engrossing little thriller from 1942. Mature is a promoter accused of the murder of an actress he represents; he hides out with Grable, the actress' sister, but is finally tracked down by detective Laird Cregar. A cleverly ironic twist insures watching this little gem won't be in vain! A very unusual film for musical star Grable and quite successful in it's day; the ultimately tragic Carole Landis is memorably beautiful and the film's theme is, amazingly, OVER THE RAINBOW (!). Remade in 1953 as VICKI. Carole Landis was a beautiful young blonde of Polish/Norwegian stock who first made her mark in Hollywood in 1940 playing Loana in the cultish Hal Roach production ONE MILLION YEARS B.C.
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on June 16, 2006
As a Carole Landis fan I was thrilled that one of her best movies was being released on DVD. Betty Grable is the star but Carole steals the movie. Carole plays a vixen who makes every man she meets fall for her with tragic consequences. She gets to wear some terrific costumes and even sings a song. There is a wonderful supporting performance by character actor Laird Cregar. You even get to see Victor Mature in a bathing suit! The quality of the DVD is excellent, the picture and sound were never better, and there are some fun extras.
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The nice thing about noirs is that they don't have to be about doomed men, traitorous women and a bad fate waiting just around the corner (although many great noirs are). For me, a good Forties noir is about style, almost always centered around crime or a mystery of some sort, with an instantly recognizable look. I Wake Up Screaming is an effective noir, but it also is a romance with a light touch. What keeps it from being just another light weight romantic caper, in my view, is the approach the movie takes to the crime.

Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) is a good-looking waitress in New York when she's spotted by a sports promoter, Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature), who bets two pals he can promote her into becoming a society celebrity. With their good-natured help, he succeeds. But Vicky has an eye for the main chance. After she becomes a well-known name, she cuts a deal for herself for an opportunity in Hollywood. She announces to Frankie and his friends that she's leaving the next day. That night, she's murdered. The police bring in Frankie for questioning. One of the cops, a hulking detective named Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar), is sure Frankie is the killer. Frankie had motive and he had opportunity. All Cornell needs is some firm evidence. The police also bring in Vicky's sister, Jill (Betty Grable), who had been living with Vicky. By questioning her they are able to find some possible holes in Frankie's story, but they eventually have to let Frankie go. It's apparent that Jill may be in love with Frankie, but at first Frankie doesn't realize this. Eventually they team up to try to find the real killer. Dogging them at every step is the looming menace of Ed Cornell, determined to pin the crime on Frankie.

I Wake Up Screaming has all the stylistic flourishes of a good noir: Off kilter camera angles, deep shadows, harsh lighting, tight close-ups, smoky interrogation rooms and vivid characters. Frankie's two pals are played by Alan Mobray as a former star actor on the slide down and by Allyn Joslyn as a friendly but somewhat amoral newspaper gossip columnist. Elisha Cook Jr. shows up as a nervous hotel clerk. Laird Cregar, a big, fleshy guy who almost always played above his age (he was only 27 when he made this movie), brings a kind of creepy, relentless sadness to his role. While Betty Grable and Victor Mature were never known as outstanding actors, they both had a great deal of good-natured personality about them. They handle the serious stuff well, but they do a fine job as the amateur sleuths moving from affection to love.

One other thing that has always struck me about this film. It seems to me that, for a 1941 mystery noir, it brings a lot of psychological drama to the table. Partly this is through the structure of the film. Particularly in the first third, the story is told through a series of flashbacks bouncing between the interrogation rooms of the police and the recollections of Frankie and then Jill. Then later we get more flashbacks from Frankie's two pals that establish their vulnerabilities as well as making some plot points. During all this there is the growing awareness that something unhealthy is ticking away inside Ed Cornell's head.

All in all, this is a first-rate noir, and it combines nice style with a satisfying ending. It's only available on VHS tape, but if you're a fan of film noir I think it's worth getting.
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on September 9, 2006
From the title, it would appear that I WAKE UP SCREAMING is a 1941 thriller with blood curdling scenes to keep you awake at night. Actually, this is a noir mystery -- a whodunit. The title overstates the action which is still quite good -- just not frightening.

Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) is under the hot lights as prime suspect in a murder investigation of waitress Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis). With flashbacks reminiscent of BAREFOOT CONTESSA (1954), each man in the life of the victim recalls his encounter with Vicky.

Jill (Betty Grable) takes center stage as she discovers Frankie standing over her sister's body. Wanting to believe his innocence, the two work together to find out what really happened while Police Inspector Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) is relentlessly on the heels of Frankie. In the end, all the pieces neatly fall in place.

Mature has a difficult role. The way he is hounded, it would seem he would wake up screaming every night. Instead, he remains level-headed but belligerent. Landis only appears as a memory so beautiful Grable (who at one time was the highest paid Hollywood actress with legs insured for one million dollars) is the real star.

If you like mystery and suspense you can rest easy after I WAKE UP SCREAMING. (4.5 stars)

Movie quote: "What's the good of living without hope?" "It can be done."
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