Stars – Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Carole Landis, Laird Cregar, Elisha Cook Jr.
Director – H. Bruce Humberstone
Released by Kino Lorber Studio Classics
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin
I Wake Up Screaming is a first class Film Noir that comes highly recommended. There is a lot to like in this one. Victor Mature plays Frankie Christopher a New York City hustler who promotes prize fighters and anything else he can make a buck out of. We first meet him while several detectives crowd around him in a dimly lit room. They are grilling him with all the gas turned on but he stays cool. He did not kill the gorgeous dame Vicky Lynn played by Carole Landis. The band plays a stinger while we flashback to see that he picks her up in a cheap diner. He buys her nice dresses and takes her out to all the right nightclubs and introduces her to all the right people. He gets her name in the papers. Before long she’s got all kinds of advertising contracts and a job singing. But no he did not kill her. He only wanted to make a buck off of her. The girl that really sent him was her roommate and sister, Jill Lynn. Betty Grable plays her as a practical girl who has her head screwed on right. She is bright and cheerful. Betty Grable was a WWII pin up girl, the one all the wolves whistled at in the Buggs Bunny Cartoons. Her image in a bathing suit was painted on more than a few fighter planes during the war.
Director H. Bruce Humberstone made four Charlie Chan films. He worked with The Ritz Brothers and Danny Kaye. A legitimate jack of all trades, he does a splendid job with this one. So many compositions have that signature Noir use of shadow. He’s not afraid to let sequences get dark. We also get plenty of close ups that use these classic movie star faces to full avail. We get the story from a series of flashbacks till we are all caught up. There is a lovely bit where Frankie takes Jill out on the town. Somewhere well after midnight he takes her to his favorite spot – a private indoor swimming pool. it’s a lovely way to cap off their date. As they lounge on one of the fountains in the middle of the pool he tells her that she is the first girl he ever brought there. Without missing a beat a blonder strokes by and gives him the eye and a hearty, “Hey Frankie.” It‘s a charming moment.
Some say that a Noir is only as good as the trouble it causes. Trouble in this one comes in the form of the large hulking detective Ed Comell. Laird Cregar is kept in the shadows for the first part of the picture. When he comes out he is menacing and he has it in for Frankie. He follows him around. He brings him into the squad room for questioning. At one point he just appears in Frankie’s apartment to confront him when he comes home. He’d been sitting silently in a chair in the dark for hours. Laird Cregar never raises his voice. It is almost silky smooth. He just insinuates, prods and pushes at Frankie ever so politely. In one of the best scenes in the film he catches a ride with him. While they drive through rear screen projections of New York City he plays with a bit of string as he throws more accusations at Frankie. When he gets out he hands the string to Frankie. It is a perfectly detailed hangman’s noose, right down the knots above the noose. It reminded me of that tiny toy guillotine we see if the 1935 version of A Tale of Two Cities.
Laird Cregar was an immensely talent actor. Anything he is in, especially his starring vehicles like Hangover Square (1944) or any other supporting work is absolutely worth seeing. Elisha Coook, Jr. is on hand as a sleepy sleazy doorman at the sisters’ building. He has a way of delivering every line as if he means to say whadya accusing me for, I didn’t do nothing ! Throughout the film the main theme is this lovely blues riff that has been beautifully adapted for strings. It impossible to get it out of your head. Alfred Newman originally wrote it for Street Scene in 1931. Apparently it was so well liked by directors and producers that it wound up in several others films including Cry of the City, Kiss of Death, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and The Dark Corner. You hear it and it transports you to The City at night. The other theme that weaves in and out of the more romantic scenes is the unmistakable strains of Somewhere Over The Rainbow. Wizard of Oz had just come out two years earlier.
There are some good action scenes, too. We get to see Betty Grable smash some cop over the head so she and Mature can get away to prove his innocence. She has a neatly shot at night chase across the rooftops. The cityscape looks so magical with her throwing down a board to dash from one building to the next. Mystery and romance blend with this force of nature cop that is always closing in. Cregar seems to be lurking inside every shadow, hiding in the darkness of every dimly lit empty room. The film has a very satisfying conclusion with the unhinged killer identified and justice served. I first saw this film years ago when Joe Franklin hosted a week of his picks for great films you may not have seen on WOR TV in New York City. I remember that he showed The Mighty Barnum with Wallace Beery which remains an obscure treasure and this one which just gets better with every viewing. You need to see I Wake Up Screaming. If you have seen it, see it again. Laird Cregar and his noose await you.
Video – 1.33:1
The transfer has a pleasing amount of grain. This is definitely a film drenched in shadows and darkness. There is contrast yet it all feels very natural and proper. It’s worth noting that the beauty close ups of Betty Grable and Carole Landis are fully lit letting them look as stunning as they should be.
Audio – DTA Mono
All dialogue is clear. I could listen to that blues riff that drives Alfred Neman’s classic Street Scenes song all night long. It is one of the most fitting Noir themes, right up there with Laura. You hear it and suddenly you are in the shadows, collar turned up and looking over your shoulder for trouble.
Extras – Commentary by Film Noir Historian Eddie Muller, Trailers Eddie Muller, The Czar of Noir provides another entertaining fact filled commentary. His Noir tracks are always fun and informative.
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :
Blu-Ray – Excellent
Movie – Excellent