Grilled by homicide detectives, showbiz promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) recounts how he bet his friends he could turn beautiful blonde waitress Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) into the toast of the town. Overnight, Vicky became a showbiz sensation but with her ego inflated by this burst of fame she juggled Frankie’s affections with those of his high society pals, ham actor Robin Ray (Alan Mowbray) and newsman Larry Evans (Allyn Joslyn) in a bid to climb even higher. Now Vicky is dead, leaving Frankie prime suspect in her murder, doggedly pursued by ruthless police detective Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar), who has never lost a case. Only Vicky’s lovely sister, Jill (Betty Grable), can clear Frankie of the murder charge but she is as uncertain about his innocence as she is about her feelings for him.
I Wake Up Screaming marked a departure for musical star and forces’ sweetheart, Betty Grable being the closest she ever got to film noir. Not that she made a clean break from her image given Jill Lynn is a wholesome good girl not a sultry femme fatale in the classic noir mould. Nevertheless Grable ably demonstrates her oft-overlooked facility with weightier drama, though it is arguably the tragically short-lived Carole Landis who shoulders the more traditional noir role. Landis, who made a splash as the original cave cutie Loana in Hal Roach’s production of One Million B.C. (1940) opposite Victor Mature and proved a sparkling co-star for Grable in Moon Over Miami (1941), excels as the complex, morally ambiguous girl whose first taste of fame leaves her hungry for more and increasingly bitchy till her unfortunate end. In real life, neither Hollywood studios or film critics accorded Landis the respect her talents and screen charisma were due. Even Four Jills in a Jeep (1944), a self-penned vehicle based on her own book about her exploits entertaining troops stationed overseas during the war was unfairly dismissed as “self-praise.” Stardom eluded Landis which, coupled with personal problems, sadly drove her to suicide aged just twenty-nine.
With shadowy cinematography and a story part-told in flashback via multiple narrators, I Wake Up Screaming bears some of the superficial trappings of noir but is significantly lighter in tone. Based on a novel by Steve Fisher, who co-wrote the screenplay with Dwight Taylor, it is a snappy crime thriller lacking the intensity and romantic fatalism that characterise the best of film noir, but weaves a palpable mood of mystery that hinges on a fittingly ambiguous quandary. Jill repeatedly denies her feelings for Frankie, yet love proves precisely why she cannot believe in his guilt. It drives her own personal investigation, probing not only the mystery but Frankie’s character. Inevitably, he proves kinder and more personable than she initially suspected. Equally compelling are the early, Pygmallion-style segments wherein Frankie moulds Vicky into a society smash and unwittingly creates a monster. Well-handled by versatile journeyman H. Bruce Humberstone, the film has a machinegun pace and vivid semi-comic characters closer to a musical, which is perhaps no surprise given he later directed Grable in the musical Pin Up Girl (1944). His fluid direction renders the tale engrossing and often surprisingly witty.
As borderline psychotic-obsessive detective Ed Cornell, Laird Cregar gets a great introduction. The film uses his menacing frame and sinister voice to good effect including a memorable scene where Frankie awakens in bed to find Cornell’s ghoulish face staring back at him. Also worth mentioning is the delirious sequence wherein cops haul the hapless Robin into a darkened room where he and other suspects are confronted with a 35mm film of Vicky performing a song. She is a ghost returned to confront them with past sins. Scenes such as these are suitably haunting as indeed proves Cornell’s casually despairing response to Jill’s statement of what is the good of living without hope? “It can be done.” Perennial shifty guy Elisha Cook Jr. is also on fine form. While the identity of the killer is no great surprise, luckily the plot packs a few twists that, coupled with the ingratiating performances of Grable and Mature, leave this a consistently entertaining thriller. Cyril J. Mockridge supplies the score that is suprisingly upbeat for such an ominously titled picture (released first as Hot Spot then renamed after test screenings proved audiences preferred the original title). Also listen out for the love theme which is none other than “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz (1939)!