I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

Tonight's entry:

I Wake Up Screaming is a murder mystery adapted from a pulp novel by Steve Fisher, himself the author of another well-regarded noir, Roadblock (1951).

The murder mystery side of it is somewhat light in the sense that it's fairly obvious who the killer is all along. Its watchability comes from more from the psychodrama between Frankie (Victor Mature) and Jill (Betty Grable) as they navigate the strange corridors of her sister's murder. 

The film opens with both of them being questioned separately about it.

Frankie, a New York sports promoter, spots Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) in the diner where she works and vows to make her a star and introduce her to "cafe society," starting that very evening at the El Chico Club.

"All the smart places - all the way to the top of the world."
Frankie's friends, fading actor Robin Ray and newspaper columnist Larry Evans (Alan Mowbray and William Gargan, respectively), also vie for her affections.
The most any of them get for their troubles is a spare key - and just enough kisses and (unfulfilled) promises for more.

Vicky's sister Jill, whom she lives with, is skeptical of the intentions of all these men rushing to help her out.
In addition to rocking some serious hair, Grable and Landis play off each other well throughout.

But when Vicky turns up murdered in her apartment shortly after breaking the news to Frankie that she was leaving for Hollywood where she's been promised a screen test, Frankie goes from Henry Higgins to number one suspect. One cop in particular, the fantastically sinister Lt. Cornell (Laird Cregar), is particularly passionate in his belief that Frankie is the murderer, even breaking into his apartment to watch him in case he says something in his sleep.  

Spoiler alert: Cornell's the killer.
He was obsessed with Vicky Lynn, as Frankie learns when he goes to Cornell's apartment and discovers the walls plastered with Vicky's pictures.

Frankie teams up with Jill to figure things out. At first distrustful of him, she slowly comes around to championing his innocence, spending most of the third act meeting him in a 24-hour theater, his hiding spot. 

Inevitably, they fall in love.

When exposed as the killer, Cornell drinks poison and dies. Frankie and Jill get married and go dancing. The End. Oh sure, I'm skipping a hundred things. But a) you don't need little ol' me and Friday Night Film Noir for a full-on plot breakdown. And b) discussion is fine, but this is a film to be watched. The plot and script - functional and agreeable as they both are - are wholly secondary to the visuals. 

Gary Giddins in New York Sun review: "The unusual look of I Wake Up Screaming derives from a combination of conventional camera placement and innovative lighting. Humberstone has a few neat camera moves, but for the most part he directs straight on, preferring flat pictorial design (and) the film stock glistens: The blacks are so inky you half expect to see your own reflection in them. Shot after shot is composed with an erotic meticulousness - 

"not just set-pieces like the interrogation, in which shadows are necessary to postpone the disclosure of a character's identity."

"Consider the entrance of Laird Cregar, like a ghost on the far side of a glass pane, inside of which Carole Landis is waitressing, doubled by her own reflection in the glass."

"Or Grable's quick step into a perfect close-up at 31:29:"
"To say nothing of the several glamour shots of Grable and Landis, their cheeks lit up like alabaster."
I'll add the shininess of their hair to this - particularly Grable's. This isn't a black-and-white film; it's black-white-and-blonde.

It surprises me that this came out in 1941. It's a better fit for the films Twentieth Century Fox was releasing at the tail end of the decade, a whole World War and a hundred noirs later. In addition to the signature noir cinematography described above, I Wake Up Screaming features several things soon to be synonymous with the genre: a female victim dead-on-arrival, a story told at least partially in flashback, and a male protagonist obsessed with the dead woman. 


I really don't know Victor Mature from too many things. Outside of this, actually, I think the film I've seen him the most in is Head, the Monkees movie. Night and day from I Wake Up Screaming

Prior to seeing this film, I'd associated Betty Grable only with her fame as a WW2 pin-up or the trivia of being the first actress whose legs were insured for a million dollars, a publicity stunt since repeated by many an aspiring Alpha Female. 

The spectacle of a young starlet struck down on the eve of her probable megastardom, with her family and loved ones puzzling out a shadowy world of clues and intrigue in the aftermath, has some unfortunate real-world resonance, as Carole Davis died (ruled a suicide, though her family maintains it was murder) on Independence Day, 1948.

In closing: as Bosley Crowther noted in his otherwise boneheaded review of the film in the NYT "the picture never does make clear who it is that wakes up screaming." 

True Enough. Great title, though. It was originally released under the generic Hot Spot. Which is equally a poor fit for the story that plays out on screen, but I Wake Up Screaming is clearly the better marquee choice.



  1. (1) That really is a great title, although (predictably) I'd have expected it to represent some sort of monster flick or slasher film instead of a noir. There is a certain amount of crossover between those genres, of course, so it works.

    (2) "Frankie's friends, fading actor Robin Ray and newspaper columnist Larry Evans (Alan Mowbray and William Gargan, respectively), also vie for her affections." -- I enjoyed that sentence if for no other reason than that I always enjoy examples of why the Oxford comma is a must.

    (3) I wonder if there are people in the world whose walls are plastered with images of a singular person and who get highly offended any time a movie represents their kind as psychopaths. Do they think, "Hey, we're not ALL murderers!"?

    (4) I like the fact that in that shot of Grable and Mature in the 24-hour theatre, it's clear most of the patrons are there only to sleep. That's how cheap movies used to be.

    (5) I don't believe I've ever seen Betty Grable in anything. Looking at the screencaps of her here, I'm struck by how incredibly of-her-era her looks. Maybe it's a function more of her hair and makeup than of anything else, but I wouldn't expect to see anyone who looks anything like her in an era other than the forties (and maybe the fifties).

    (6) I'd never even heard of Carole Landis. Now I know why.

  2. 3) Probably! That's funny, actually - I'd never considered that angle before. It seems like one of the tropes that should have been turned inside-out in such a manner by now.

    5) I love thinking about that kind of thing. I think you're right and Betty Grable could very easily be the 1940s placeholder. Clara Bow for the 1920s, perhaps. Someone should make a list of celebrities by decade and then open up the voting to separate those who look exclusively of-their-era.