In much of film noir, sometimes the dirtiest thing about the streets is the cops. They either hold strong to such an unbreakable moral code of justice that they’ll destroy anything from a life to their families to ensure its vitality. Or they’re just as corrupt as the gangsters they through behind bars – beating their way to a promotion, pocketing seized cash in the meantime. One wicked example of the latter is the cop at the heart of Bruce Humberstone’s twisting tale of crime and punishment, I Wake Up Screaming (1941), featuring one of the most subtly psychotic cops I’ve seen yet on the Hardboiled Hangover.
Victor Mature (Kiss of Death) stars as silver tongued sports promoter Frankie Christopher. He mainly plugs pugs and horses, but when he meets stunning waitress Vicky Lynn (Carol Landis), he figures sure, I could get in the dame business. So he works his magic and puts on a good show for Vicky – taking her out to expensive clubs to mingle with high society. By the end of the night she’s convinced that Frankie is her ticket to stardom. It’s a naive conception that Vicky’s equally gorgeous, but more grounded sister Jill (Betty Grable) finds stupid and foolhardy. But her warnings fall upon deaf ears and Vicky leaves her apron behind for a shot at the spotlight.
She winds up dead.
The number one suspect is Frankie, who the cops believe gradually became ragingly jealous over Vicky’s many admirers. Leading up the investigation is Inspector Ed Cornell (Laird Crager), a burly, soft-spoken brute who’s more than convinced Frankie is the killer. There are a few other suspects, including a couple of society men who were equally as infatuated with Vicky as ol’ Frankie boy, and the doorman at her apartment, played by noir’s favorite perpetual fall guy, Elisha Cook Jr., but Cornell’s sights are set on Frankie alone. To a disturbing degree.
I haven’t seen any other films by Humberstone. Judging by his IMDB, he was mainly a western man and after this film, never delved into noir again. He sure as shit help set the mold for the classic era though. With the help of art direction by Richard Day (On the Waterfront), I Wake Up Screaming is dripping with traditional noir sensibilities: low angles, deep shadows contrasted with bright light, men caged by shadows, etc. The narrative structure too is pure noir, with its flashbacks and frequent plot twists. What a title too, huh? I Wake Up Screaming has got to be one of the best titles for a film noir = it barks at you with anxiety and paranoia.
It’s baffling, in fact, that I Wake Up Screaming is barely mentioned when reading about the birth of film noir. It was released in 1941, the same year as The Maltese Falcon, and is visually and thematically much more along the lines of what even a casual viewer would consider noir. Yet Bogie and the bird are given more credit. No justice, I tell ya.
Victor Mature is great as always. As Frankie, he’s able to shift our sympathies for and against him. Man he plays it slick during the police investigation. Bu the real show stopper here is Crager. He’s a towering rock with a kid’s voice. Mature is a tall drink of water, but Crager is his equal in stature, only with about 200lbs on him. There’s an absolutely wild scene where Frankie wakes up in the middle of night and Cornell is quietly sitting in a chair in his bedroom, watching him sleep. It’s so psychotic.
As the film goes on, we find that Cornell just might be the most disturbing bit of riff raff in the film. Well, him and Elisha Cook Jr. – who was shooting his part as the gunsel in The Maltese Falcon at the same time as I Wake Up Screaming. It’s a really fun ride, with plenty of great leads to guide you through the claustrophobic landscape. I highly recommend I Wake Up Screaming if you’re searching for one of the early progenitors of the classic noir style.