I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

“She had youth, looks, a good figure. What more do you want?

I Wake Up Poster

Synopsis:
When an aspiring model (Carole Landis) is killed, her sister (Betty Grable) and her agent (Victor Mature) are questioned by a menacing police detective (Laird Cregar); meanwhile, they try to solve the murder mystery, and find themselves falling in love.

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Review:
I Wake Up Screaming remains a minor but intriguing mid-century American noir for two central reasons. First and most importantly, it’s a truly stunning visual treat: director H. Bruce Humberstone and cinematographer Edward Cronjager effectively transform a rather “prosaic melodrama into a highly influential exercise in sculpted lighting”, one so full of strategic contrasts and stylized imagery that its atmosphere is practically palpable. See stills below for just a few representative examples.

Second, the film is memorable for a creepy supporting performance by the solid (literally) character actor Laird Cregar — perfectly cast here as a menacing police detective who lurks around every street corner, shows up unannounced in suspects’ apartments, and mutters with deadpan certainty in response to Grable’s rhetorical question:

Grable: “What’s the good of living without hope?”
Cregar: “It can be done.”

We believe him instantly. Meanwhile, Mature and Grable are solid romantic sleuthing leads, and Landis (check IMDb for more on her tragic personal story) is effective as the aspiring starlet who propels the entire story into motion.

P.S. Listen for interesting use of “Over the Rainbow” as Grable’s theme song (!).

P.P.S. The film’s original title — until close to its release — was Hot Spot, hence the alternate title on the movie poster included in this review. The last-minute switch in names is unfortunate, since no character ever “wakes up screaming” in the film, and this title leads one to believe it’s a horror film rather than noir.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Laird Cregar as Detective Cornell
    I Wake Up Screaming Cregar
  • Stunning noir cinematography
    I Wake Up Screaming Cinematography
    I Wake Up Screaming Cinematography2
    I Wake Up Screaming Cinematography3
  • Plenty of enjoyable one-liners:

    “Why should I go on slinging hash when I can sling other things?”
    “I wouldn’t be in your shoes for all the gold in Kentucky.”
    “Must be a great life — like a garbage man, only with people.”

Must See?
Yes, simply for its stunning noir visuals and for Cregar’s performance.

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One Response to “I Wake Up Screaming (1941)”

  1. A must – yes, mainly as a riveting visual exercise in style over substance. This movie does look great; noir ffs will not feel at all cheated in that regard.

    As well, the screenplay does a fairly successful job in keeping us guessing. And, at about 80 minutes, the film does not overstay its welcome.

    One will certainly take issue with some of the story’s specifics: it does strain police procedural to see Cregar constantly bringing Mature in for questioning – simply because he wants to; and the ending very much strains credulity in terms of a major character. [One aspect rings very true, though: Landis’ character is presented quite accurately as something of an empty vessel with looks – and “a heart like rock candy”; a not-very-subtle opportunist.]

    Grable (particularly good) and Mature do work well together – though it’s always kind of funny in a film when people who start liking each other talk about getting married waaay too soon. đŸ˜‰

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