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I Wake Up Screaming (1941) H. Bruce Humberstone

Since the library is shut down for two weeks, I've got a bit of time on my hands, so I've decided to recycle some reviews from my previous blog (which, I was surprised to learn, goes all the way back to 2004). Stay tuned. There will be more!

I Wake Up Screaming (aka Hot Spot, 1941)

Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone

Produced by Milton Sperling

Screenplay by Dwight Taylor, Steve Fisher

Based on the 1941 novel I Wake Up Screaming by Steve Fisher

Cinematography by Edward Cronjager

Edited by Robert L. Simpson

Music by Cyril J. Mockridge

20th Century Fox

(1:22) Fox DVD; Noir City 16, San Francisco, 2018

I’m not sure you’ll hear any screaming whatsoever in I Wake Up Screaming, but I am sure that if you’re a fan of film noir, you won’t want to pass this one up. As far as dates go, this is an early film noir, but actually functions more as a mystery with several noir elements, which I’ll address in a moment.


I was fortunate to be in the audience at the kickoff of Noir City 16 in 2018 when Eddie Muller introduced special guest Victoria Mature, daughter of Victor Mature, star of the festival’s opening film. From where I sat, Victoria – an opera singer – looked quite young, far too young to be the daughter of a man making movies in the early 1940s. Muller asked her what it’s like watching the “big, giant shadow” of her dad on the big screen. Victoria replied, “Well, I didn’t know him when he was in his 20s or 30s… or 40s… or 50s…” Victor Mature was 64 when his daughter was born.

Victoria (who is serving as 2020's Ms. Noir City) mentioned that her dad was always self-deprecating, offering up the famous line, “I’m no actor and I have 64 films to prove it!” (Ms. Mature also proceeded to knock the audience out with a brief sample of her vocal talent.)

Muller commented that I Wake Up Screaming checks off all the boxes of film noir, especially visually, in 1941. “This film has a lot going for it and looks as much like film noir as any other film” from that year. Plus it features an actor who also appeared in two other important noir films from this general time period (The Maltese Falcon and Stranger on the Third Floor): Elisha Cook, Jr.

The film opens with Frankie Christopher (Mature) being grilled by the police for a murder he swears he didn’t commit. In the first of several flashbacks, we learn that Christopher, a young talent promoter, discovered a local waitress named Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) and groomed her only to watch her take off suddenly for the lures of Hollywood. Only she didn’t live long enough to get there…

Vicky’s sister Jill (Betty Grable) wants to help clear Christopher’s name and find the real killer, but police officer Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) hounds Christopher day and night, obsessing over how he can nail the talent scout for the murder.

I Wake Up Screaming (originally titled Hot Spot) is mostly a mystery with components of suspense and romance, but containing elements of noir so strong they can’t be ignored or dismissed as accidental. The first such element is the interrogation of Christopher in a darkened room, trying to escape a blistering white-hot lamp while surrounded by policemen. The scene has a slight German expressionistic feel, dark-edged and bleak, a somewhat disquieting opening for a 1941 American film.

Once the flashbacks begin, the tone of the film changes dramatically. Christopher and two of his pals (Alan Mowbray, William Gargan) visit a diner where he meets Vicky for the first time, clearly stricken with her. Before she gives them the check, Vicky asks, “Is that all?” One of the men says, “No, but the rest of it isn’t on the menu.” Vicky comes back with “You couldn’t afford it if it was.” It’s a fairly light establishing scene, but it does two things: first, showing us what Vicky is made of (which further attracts Christopher to her), and second, acknowledging that even this early in the noir canon, scriptwriters are pushing the limits of the code a bit.

Still, little else in this scene – and many others like it – seems to proclaim that we’re watching a film noir, which actually works to the film’s advantage, contrasting the “normal” world with the noir world. We know we’re fully into the deep end of the noir pool, however, anytime Laird Cregar appears onscreen as police inspector Ed Cornell.

We suspect something is up with Cornell and there is. He’s a strange character, using strange expressions, especially for a policeman. He frequently hounds Christopher, even to the point of appearing in his bedroom while Christopher is asleep. At one point he informs Christopher, “I’ll follow you into your grave. I’ll write my name on your tombstone.” Later Cornell asks his superior officer, “Have you ever read The Sex Life of a Butterfly?” which stuns us as much as the officer. These scenes – especially the nighttime scenes – are given a wonderful shadow-filled atmosphere by cinematographer Edward Cronjager. Hello, noir.

As the film progresses, the flashbacks pile up and things begin to get convoluted, but not necessarily in a bad way. This is, after all, film noir, and you expect those elements to be present. The film does, however, contain weaknesses, one of which is the believability of Vicky being discovered so quickly from behind a hash counter at a diner. Perhaps more of an irritant is the overuse of “Over the Rainbow,” which becomes so tedious that you might start screaming.

The performances are all good (including a nice role for the always interesting Elisha Cook, Jr.), but it’s Laird Cregar you’re likely to remember as the creepy cop. You can’t take your eyes off him. This is the only time I’ve knowingly seen Cregar in a film, but I plan to seek out his other roles, which unfortunately are few. Cregar, who was quickly becoming a much sought-after actor in Hollywood, died in 1944 at the age of 31 after losing over 100 pounds crash-dieting, attempting to lose weight for a role.

I immediately kept trying to think who Cregar reminded me of and I finally determined that it was John Carrol Lynch (above right), who really creeped me out in David Fincher's Zodiac (2007). I think Lynch looks frighteningly like Cregar, but see what you think.

20th Century Fox must've really liked I Wake Up Screaming, since they remade the film in 1953 as Vicki, directed by Harry Horner, starring Jeanne Crain, Elliott Reed, and Richard Boone. Vicki isn't a bad film at all, it's just totally unnecessary. If you're going to see it, watch I Wake Up Screaming first.

I Wake Up Screaming just played on TCM’s Noir Alley, hosted by Eddie Muller. If you missed it, you can hear Muller’s full commentary available on the DVD and the Blu-ray releases of the film.

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