I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

*. While The Maltese Falcon is often referred to as the first film noir, this Fox title was made at almost exactly the same time and on the DVD commentary noir historian Eddie Muller makes a case for it being just as important. He describes it as “one of the first films that can legitimately be called film noir” and identifies it as the very first noir produced at Fox.
*. I mention this not to argue the case for it being the first noir, or proto-noir, or something else but only to indicate that it was an early example of what would evolve into a type. Some of the iconic noir elements are already here. There’s the dramatic use of shadow. There’s a pair of his-and-hers police interrogations, one of them under a glaring (not to mention steaming) spotlight. There’s an innocent man on the run from the law.

*. And yet for all the film’s psychological creepiness, it’s missing something of the noir edge. Muller mentions a couple of ways this is expressed. In the first place there are the many abrupt gear shifts from thriller (the murder mystery) to romantic comedy (young lovers on the lam). To this I would add the way Victor Mature plays the character of Frankie Christopher/Botticelli. It’s almost as though Frankie doesn’t take the jeopardy he’s in seriously, even when his life is on the line.
*. The other factor that lightens the noir edge is the score. Or the lack of an original score and the use of Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow” throughout. Yes, “Over the Rainbow.” And I do mean throughout. Muller laughs at how many times it gets played. Is it inappropriate? I think so. The thing is, you can’t hear that song today (and probably couldn’t in 1941) and not think of The Wizard of Oz (1939), so it turns into a distraction as well as not really being suited to the action.
*. I also wonder how they got the rights to it. The Wizard of Oz was an MGM release and this is a Fox movie. I’m assuming they paid for it, but that just makes me wonder all the more why they wanted it.
*. I’m not a fan of Victor Mature, and even in a movie like this I think he falls short. As so often in noir, it’s the heavy who holds our interest. Unfortunately, while the imposing Laird Cregar starts off strong, by the end of the picture I almost feel that he’s become bored with the role. I enjoyed his almost sadistic pleasure in hunting Frankie though, and the way his “300 pounds of sexual perversion” (Muller) looms over America’s pin-up queen Betty Grable.

*. There are a couple of special touches. I like how the musical number is presented as a test shoot of the murdered woman being watched by several of the suspects. That was a neat idea. Also interesting was Cregar’s shrine to the victim. Is this the first such shrine in a movie? They would become almost standard in later stalker stories. Cornell’s worship of Vicky has reminded some critics of Lydecker’s obsession with Laura, and I suppose it may in fact have been an influence on that story most immediately.
*. I also liked the shot where the camera seems to pass through the florist’s window, taking us inside so we can hear the dialogue. For some reason Muller objects to it. I’m not sure why. When Welles’s camera passed through the skylight in Citizen Kane (a movie released only a month earlier) it was a showstopper.
*. The source novel by Steve Fisher had the same title. The movie, however, was originally released as Hot Spot, which I believe refers to the electric chair (a punishment Frankie is threatened with). After some fighting with the studio I Wake Up Screaming was restored. I’m not sure I agree with the decision. While catchy, I don’t see where it has anything to do with the movie. I haven’t read the book and I’m not sure where it comes from or what it refers to. I can’t even make a guess as to who might be waking up screaming.
*. It’s an interesting movie in a lot of ways. The leads were all just becoming stars. A new genre was coming into being. Cregar’s Cornell is a memorable villain with an obsession that would go on to have a long life (though Cregar himself would not). Elisha Cook Jr., hapless as always, is good for a laugh in his big scene. Victor Mature tossing his cigarette onto the deck at the public pool is one of those vintage moments that stick in your head, as was his line that nobody in their right mind goes to a library at 9 o’clock in the morning. Not true!

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