Director: H. Bruce Humberstone
Cast: Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Vicky Lynn, Laird Cregar, Alan Mowbray, Allyn Joslyn, Elisha Cook Jr.
I Wake Up Screaming is an engaging whodunnit told initially in a non-linear style through interviews, in which everyone appears to be a suspect, even perhaps those trying to solve the case. It cuts right to the chase, in fact, the victim is already dead when the film begins.
As far as themes go, the film does deal with two or three intertwined themes that are perhaps more pertinent now than they were then. It illustrates the importance of the media, not necessarily talent, in shaping and also perhaps destroying celebrities. It tangentially discusses narcissism and the personality warping effect of having fame thrust upon you, rather than earning it. It doesn’t dwell on these themes however. This film is fairly quickly paced in fact, and doesn’t waste much time. At a mere, according to IMDB, 82 minutes in length, this movie really moves.
The tone of this film feels unique, and depending on the audience it can arguably be perceived as oddly engaging or perhaps frustrating and disjointed. It not only deals with a murder but other stereotypically twisted noir themes and plot points, yet it comes across as light, fun and chipper for the vast majority of its running time. It has moments of menace too, but most of the movie is downright cheerful. This reviewer kind of liked this imbalance. It was sort of refreshing and endearing, though some may scratch their heads, especially if it is compared to other well known noir films.
The darker moments come from two excellent actors. As far as performances go Laird Cregar and Elisha Cook Jr. really stand out amongst the otherwise perfectly adequate performances in this film. Elisha Cook Jr., is always a scene stealer with memorable roles in many great film classics including, but not limited to, The Maltese Falcon (which happened to be released the same year as I Wake Up Screaming), The Big Sleep, Shane, The Killing, and Rosemary’s Baby. He is perfect in this film, as he often is. Unfortunately, you don’t see much of him, which is true of a lot of his characters. It isn’t surprising Elisha Cook Jr. worked in television and movies from the early 1930s to the late 1980s. The other performance really worth noting is that of Laird Cregar, who tragically didn’t have a similarly long career due to a radical diet that ultimately resulted in his death at the young age of 31. Laird Cregar is really remarkable as a creepy and intimidating detective despite his soft voice and pudgy face. He single handedly provides all the gravitas in this picture.
Part of what makes Cregar’s performance so ominous is the way he is shot. This film may seem run-of-the-mill at first glance, but stylistically it makes really good use of shadows, canted angles, and music. Whether or not these touches are consciously noticed or they just seep in to the brain, they have an impressive effect on the viewer and they serve to add to the impressive nature to this compact and fact paced film. While watching it, pay attention to the use of lighting, especially in regards to Laird Cregar’s performance.
While it isn’t of the same caliber as Laura or Citizen Kane, it could be compared in some aspects to both films. A fan of those two films and films from this era or genre will especially enjoy this wonderful little pseudo-film noir.