Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Film Noir “I Wake Up Screaming” from a novel by Steve Fisher

In the debate over identifying film noir and its beginnings, John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon” from the Dashiell Hammett novel is just about the first. But so is “I Wake Up Screaming.” Both pictures opened in October 1941.

“Falcon,” is the far better film. But, despite problems with its screenplay and its presentation, “Screaming” has a lot going for it.

Based on a crime novel by Steve Fisher (my post about the book can be found here), the film version of “I Wake Up Screaming” changes the locale from Los Angeles to New York City, and the main character from a screenwriter to a sports promoter. I have read that Darryl Zanuck, boss of 20th Century Fox in those days, would not make movies about the movie business.

In the film, as well as in the book, a beautiful young woman is murdered and the man she has been seeing is the prime suspect. While the man tries to clear his name, one police detective is obsessed with the idea of sending the him to the electric chair.

Victor Mature plays the man and in an excellent casting decision, Laird Cregar plays the detective. Mature was a big guy who looked like a body builder and not the type who would be intimidated. But Cregar was a huge, heavy-set actor who looked like he could squash Mature. Cregar bravely played the role without a hint of begging the audience to like him. The detective is malevolent and scary.

In the book, the detective is emaciated and dying and like a ghost he haunts the man. One of the movie’s creepiest moments is when the man wakes in the middle of the night to find the detective sitting in a chair next to his bed, watching him.

Another oddity about the movie is the casting of rising musical-comedy star Betty Grable as the leading lady. She plays the sister of the murdered girl.

But the strangest thing in “Screaming” is its music. It uses – make that overuses – an instrumental version of “Over the Rainbow.” I cannot guess why the producers used such a recognizable tune associated with another movie.

“I Wake Up Screaming” was directed by Bruce Humberstone with too many light, even comedic moments. Humberstone is not known for film noir. Today he may not be known at all. But, he was a craftsman of the old school who directed a wide variety of productions including Westerns, comedies, and a lot of television later in his career. In the 1930s, he directed four of the Charlie Chan pictures. Those little films, if my memory is correct, usually had some dark, noir-like photography.

“Screaming” has some excellent high-contrast, black and white cinematography thanks to cameraman Edward Cronjager.

As for the debate over what constitutes film noir, I will just adopt Potter Stewart’s test for pornography and simply say, I know it when I see it.

(In 1964, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, wrote that phrase in an opinion on whether or not French director Louis Malle’s film, “The Lovers,” was obscene. Stewart said it was not.)

1 comment:

  1. I think given the choice of the film or the book, I'd plump for the book.