The experience was far from disappointing.
Some of the best film noirs are the lesser known ones, the B-noirs. They fit into the genre, and in a day during which online trailers didn’t exist, that brought in a guaranteed audience. But since they were given less studio supervision due to their modest budget and general low-key nature, they had more room to play around and push boundaries. The resultant movies such as The Big Combo and Gun Crazy get to be similar to big name films like The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity but receive the extra boost of unregulated experimentation. That doesn’t mean they went crazy with the freedom, but it does mean they got to slip in a lot more transgressive and unconventional material. I was eager to see I Wake Up Screaming before Kino released it. When the announcement came in that they put it on Blu-ray, I jumped at the opportunity to screen it. The experience was far from disappointing.
The opening shot depicts sports promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) illuminated by a blinding lamp, a group of menacing, smoking detectives questioning him relentlessly about the death of the model he lifted to stardom. In the other room is Jill (Betty Grable), the sister of the deceased, who Frankie happens to be in love with. This unfortunate connection doesn’t fair well for Frankie or Jill, and Detective Collins (Laird Cregar), who leads the case, seems to be up to something more than finding justice. His campaign against Frankie reeks of some sort of personal beef. As circumstantial evidence mounts up, Frankie must lead his own investigation into the death of his promising ingénue, leading him to confrontations with the many high-profile industry people who he introduced her to.
The lighting and camera work are just as rich and economical as all of the best film noirs but probably not as striking as the work in Gun Crazy. There aren’t as many social mores being broken like in The Big Combo either. What sets this one apart for me is how it intertwines the familiar criminal underworld setting with the high life of New York fashion and fame, with an almost Agatha-Christie-whodunit spin. A good deal of the film is told through flashback, allowing us to piece the mystery together as viewers just as the police are. What could have been reduced into a modest chamber piece is given room to breathe with great use of temporal and spatial variety.
The performances are exceptional as well and also surprising. From the looks of him, Detective Collins would be the one-note, brutish cop who can’t be reasoned with. But Cregar defies the qualities that could easily typecast him by being devilish and aloof with what would be a stock character otherwise. His coolness is unsettling, and provides a very strong foundation for great character subversion. In this crime thriller, the accused is dogged and morally rigid, while the common image of the strong man, the dealer of justice, is warped into a softly spoken but unspeakably dangerous symbol of corruption.
I Wake Up Screaming is included with several other film noir titles that Kino is releasing at once. This release comes with a commentary by film noir historian Eddie Muller, as well as an alternate title sequence that was made for the film’s second title, Hot Spot. Ad campaigns with the unused title are included as well, along with an animated image gallery and a deleted scene. | Nic Champion