I Wake Up Screaming: An eggs and break-your-legs film noir feast

I Wake Up Screaming cover artI Wake Up Screaming (1941 FOX)

Starring: Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Carole Landis, Laird Cregar

Directed by: H. Bruce Humberstone

Four stars out of five

Whether it’s the spontaneous eruptions of Over the Rainbow steaming through the score, the bizarre screen presence of Laird Cregar as a creepy cop with perfect elocution, or the architectural angles of Victor Mature’s eyebrows, there’s more than one reason why this seminal piece of film noir is nothing short of a wacky masterpiece. Shot just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and riddled with allusions to mounting political tensions, this adaptation of Steve Fisher’s novel ‘Hot Spot’ still feels contemporary thanks to its thematic obsession with celebrity. Carole Landis plays Vicky, a diner waitress who becomes the Eliza Doolittle of a sports promoter played by Mature. At first, her success is welcomed as part of a game, but when she announces she’s bailing on New York for a movie career in Los Angeles, she turns up dead the next day. Mature is the chief suspect, but her kind sister played by Betty Grable starts putting the pieces together, and before long, they’re on the lam in a desperate attempt to find the guilty party before Mature gets more volts than a Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. And yeah, Mac, there are tons of classic noir lines. From “Stop right there, I wouldn’t want to put a hole through you…” to “you’re a rat in a box with no holes… but I’ll make a hole for you, and it will be six feet deep filled with Quicklime…” the dialogue penned by Dwight Taylor (The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat) may feel stilted, but it’s undeniably clever and charged with sexual allusion that proved smart enough to elude the censors of the era. In fact, there’s a fair amount of humour in this black and white examination of human ego and frailty, and it’s what makes this early piece of noir stand out among its more earnestly dire peers. One minute, you’re hearing the details of a grisly murder, and the next, you’re watching light comedy in a ballroom. The whole thing is so off-kilter and random, you’re eventually seduced by its funhouse reflection of reality, gazing at people who are now long dead playing characters that will live forever.

Special features: “Daddy” Deleted Scene – Musical numbers never did find a home in the film noir handbook, but before the genre was set in cement shoes, Humberstone attempted to fuse Gershwin and Hitchcock in this scene featuring Grable working at a music store, singing “Daddy” to a client. Rife with cheeky references to sex and male dominance, the whole scene feels so out of place, you can see why they axed it from the final cut: It’s a musical number in a murder mystery. Yet, as a stand-alone piece, “Daddy” doesn’t just speak to the patriarchal mindset of the moment, it hums the melody of the female experience with a polite smirk, and a sassy dose of faux decorum.

— By Katherine Monk



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