Director Bruce Humberstone’s thriller I Wake up Screaming (1941) features a mix of flashback-heavy noir and comedy as it tells the story of a New York boxing promoter (Victor Mature) railroaded for the murder of a star (Carol Landis) whose career he had been building.
Early Hollywood icon Betty Grable stars in a rare dramatic role acting alongside genre heavies such as Laird Cregar and Mature, the latter of whom would go on to be better known for historical epics such as Samson and Delilah and Zarak. The idiosyncratic casting results in a film that switches genres on the fly, creating an unpredictable narrative.
The plot keeps the audience guessing with murky character motivations and frequent flashbacks uncovering previously unknown details. That said, it’s never too difficult to follow, especially if you have any love for the noir tropes like the dirty cop or the rakish protagonist man forced by a bad rap to harden up and take matters into his own hands.
The film’s opening half lets the mystery take a backseat to several comedic scenes that set the stage for murder. Mature’s straight-man character carries many lighter moments throughout the film. He’s a delight to watch go up against Cregar’s bad cop.
Grable, however, might deliver the most impressive performance in the film as the sister of the murder victim. Though she cut her teeth on studio comedies, she brings a lot of gravitas to the role. While Grable never fits the femme fatale archetype, her motivations aren’t always clear, and her coy dialogue with Mature keeps the audience guessing about what’s really happening.
Pay special attention to the film score. It’s less a full soundtrack and more a case of “we only had money to license one song, and by God, we’re going to use it.”
That song is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”—yes, the song from The Wizard of Oz—and you can count the scenes that don’t use it on two hands.
Landis’ character’s origins mirror Oz’s plot arc: A girl living a humdrum life is pulled into a world of glamor she could only imagine, then returns home, but the return home is replaced with an untimely death at the hands of a mystery assailant.
Despite the musical choices, I’d highly recommend I Wake up Screaming for both noir lovers and viewers who are new to hard-boiled detective films. It’s a relatively easy entry point into film noir and injects enough humor and non-traditional pacing into the proceedings to surprise veterans of the genre.
I Wake up Screaming screens Jan. 19–21 at 5th Avenue Cinema. Admission is $4–5 or free with a PSU student ID. For more screening information, visit http://www.5thavecinema.com.