I Wake Up Screaming is often described as Hollywood's first film noir: the first movie to feature the mix of dark psychology and mystery, not to mention the ominous mood of threat surrounding its protagonists that came to define that category of film. It's also arguably the best movie ever made by its director H. Bruce Humberstone, displaying unexpected elements of dramatic flair and creativity on the part of a director usually known for his straightforward approach to his pictures. The opening sequence is extremely clever, two separate interrogation sequences in adjoining rooms involving the male and female leads (Victor Mature and Betty Grable) which provide flashbacks that quickly bring the audience up to speed, and provides all one needs to know to solve the mystery. The centerpiece of I Wake Up Screaming is the dark motivation behind the sadistic, brutal actions of detective Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar). Without uttering a word, and scarcely even visible during his first five minutes in the action, Cregar's character dominates every scene he is in, and gives I Wake Up Screaming an unhealthy, unsavory tone. Music plays a major role in the structure and content of I Wake Up Screaming -- each of the flashbacks is accompanied by quotations from Alfred Newman's signature tune "Street Scene," variations of which also depict elements of New York life circa 1941; but the movie's principal romantic theme is E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen's "Over the Rainbow," which was then nothing more than a popular song salvaged from The Wizard of Oz, an unsuccessful MGM release from two years earlier. Viewed in contemporary times, when the song has become a pop culture touchstone, it seems bizarre and even slightly distracting, but the tune does contrast well with the urban grittiness of the Newman piece used elsewhere in the movie. Overall, I Wake Up Screaming represents its maker's best work, Grable's most interesting performance, one of Mature's most complex roles, and a high point for Cregar, as well as being successful and opening the door for a new kind of thriller, drawing audiences into new levels of sophistication in their viewing.
Well-known New York sports promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) is the prime suspect in the murder of Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis), a successful model and would-be actress. Questioned relentlessly by the police, and particularly by hulking detective squad commander Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar), he maintains his innocence. Meanwhile, Vicky's sister Jill (Betty Grable) is also being questioned. Their answers, given in adjoining interrogation rooms, become the basis for brief, neatly constructed interlocking flashbacks at the opening of the movie that explain a ton of plot in very little time. Both are released after admitting nothing, and the police begin working on other suspects, including journalist Larry Evans (Allyn Joslyn), aging actor Robin Ray (Alan Mowbray), and hotel clerk William Harrison (Elisha Cook Jr.) Jill had little use for Frankie, the man who had been promoting her sister's career, but the two are drawn together in the course of trying to sort out their lives and the murder of her sister, and her realization that Frankie is capable of truly loving a woman, and not just exploiting her. Meanwhile, Cornell makes it his business to pressure and torment Frankie, illegally entering his apartment and promising him an arrest and a death sentence. Eventually, the noose seems to tighten around Frankie as the circumstantial evidence piles up, until Frankie, trying to clear himself, uncovers a clue leading back to the real killer -- who was known to Cornell all along. Confronting the detective in his apartment, Frankie discovers a veritable shrine to Vicky -- copies of her magazine covers and photos filling the walls of his apartment -- and learns that the man had his own dark reasons for wanting to kill him. His psychosis finally catching up with him, his career and reputation in ruins, Cornell reveals the truth to Frankie as he proceeds to take his own life.
All Movie Guide - Bruce Eder
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