H. Bruce Humerstone’s I Wake Up Screaming (1941) is a rather convoluted and diffused film noir. It stars Victor Mature as Frankie Christopher a playboy sports columnist and promoter who pins his hopes and desires on Vicki Lynn (Carol Landis); a shoot from the hip cafeteria hash slinger.
On a dare, Frankie introduces Vicki to New York society, including ham actor Robin Ray (Alan Mowbray) and press agent Jerry MacDonald (William Gargan). Together, this trio of wolves is responsible for turning a nobody into New York's most talked about glamour girl virtually overnight.
All is not sables and diamonds among this moneyed set. Vicki’s sister, Jill (Betty Grable) doubts Frankie’s honorable intentions – a skepticism that worsens as Jill begins to fall in love with Frankie herself. The wrinkle is that Vicki is pure poison - a least to the men in her life. She uses her new found clout to launch a film career for herself without them, completely ignoring the fact that her new found popularity would not exist without them.
Ah, but then there’s the murder that puts a period to it all. Vicki winds up with a toe tag and Frankie and Jill are up for suspicion of the crime against slightly obsessed police inspector Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar). So, who killed Vicki? Dwight Taylor's screenplay (based on Steve Fisher's novel), is really grasping for straws, pinning the who mess on off beat Harry Williams (Elisha Cook Jr.); a sycophant hotel clerk who's been ogling Vicki from afar.
With so much star talent thrown in, one would expect some high stakes tension. But the story only comes to life in fits and sparks. The beginning volleys back and forth between stylish melodrama (set in some absurdly elaborate settings like the New York Club where Frankie introduces Vicki to high society for the very first time) and atypical noir. There’s a bit of ‘who done it’ going on for the first thirty minutes. Afterward, the plot digresses into 'a damsel in distress' scenario and then a bad chop-job of 'the wrong man accused' plot line as Frankie Christopher desperately tries to clear his name.
I Wake Up Screaming is a very early noir. Perhaps it can even be credited for kicking off the cycle. But first doesn't necessarily equate to best. The screenplay is sloppy and full of narrative holes at best. Sometimes that's a plus. The Big Sleep comes to mind and proves the adage that 'story isn't everthing'. But I Wake Up Screaming has too many misfires along the way and not enough vintage noir style to fill in the gaps.
Worse, the acting is uniformly bland. Victor Mature is not an actor I admire. Let's call him the Keanu Reeves of his generation.That's a personal preference, of course, but there's no overlooking that Mature is stiff as a board and not terribly engaged with the material. His Frankie Christopher is an opportunist utterly bored with the art of the scam. He seems even less interested in scoring with either sister.
Betty Grable's an odd choice for this dark thriller. She's the real knockout - not Landis - but pretending at the dowdy sister none too convincingly. Grable once said that she had two assets in Hollywood and that she was standing on both of them. That's an astute realization on her part, and it accurately pinpoints where on her list of talents serious acting comes in. Here's a clue: it doesn't!
This leaves Carol Landis as the film's femme fatale. Landis plays an enterprising bitch with minor aplomb, a cross between Virginia Bruce and Dolores Gray. She's much more convincing in her elegant rented duds than carrying her note pad as the hash slinger.
Laird Cregar is a rather curiously effeminate police detective. We’re never quite sure whether his fascination with Vicki’s murder has to do with solving the crime or is actually a front to stick it to Frankie Christopher, who perhaps is more his type. The scene that solidifies this homo-eroticism comes just after Christopher is paroled. He awakens in the middle of the night to discover Detective Cornell quietly observing him from the foot of his bed.
Fox’s DVD transfer is below par. Though the image is quite clean with grain adequately represented, there are several glaring instances of distracting halos. The image tends to sporadically wobble from sprocket hole damage - right to left – during the opening scenes.The audio's been re-channeled to stereo. I'm not a big fan of this. It's not true stereo, but a sort of 'echo chamber' mix that spreads the original mono across all speakers. Thankfully, we also get the original mono. Extras include an informative audio commentary by Eddie Muller, a deleted scene where Grable’s Jill is put upon by her much too old boss who aspires to be her sugar daddy, a stills gallery and the film’s original theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)