The Film: I Wake Up Screaming (It’s original title was Hot Spot — hence the poster incongruity.)
The Principals: Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Carole Landis, Laird Cregar
The Premise: Budding model and starlet Vicky Lynn (Landis) is murdered. Who did it? Was it her sister Jill (Grable), who was overcome with jealousy over her success, and love for her boyfriend/manager, Frankie (Mature)? Was it Frankie, furious over being thrown under the bus by the girl he helped turn into a star? Was it one of the society hanger-ons that were fluttering around Vicky, all expecting something out of her? Or was it the sinister man in black who was lurking outside Vicky’s restaurant, watching her clear tables and take orders? Was it the doorman? Who didn’t want to kill this pretty young thing?
Is It Good: It’s all right. It’s a fairly limp noir. It makes the mistake of shifting perspective to one character in particular, rendering it relatively impossible for them to be the killer. Noir works on the premise of suspecting everyone, of course, and this one certainly keeps you guessing until the end. But there’s a reason you go into one from the perspective of the detective, or the antihero trying to clear his name — you need some kind of anchor, even if he or she is a pretty dubious one themselves. You can’t have all your protagonists be murder suspects.
There are some really clunky production moments here too. Even with the benefit of hindsight, I wonder whose idea was it to use Somewhere Over the Rainbow as the theme? I’m not kidding. It plays continiously in the background (sans lyrics), becoming this weird demented Waltzing Matilda kind of thing as the characters talk very seriously about clearing their names and finding the killer.
But there are worse ways to spend an hour and twenty than a Betty Grable film. She’s quite luminous and adorable, perfectly cast as the naive and dubious Jill. It’s hard to figure out what she sees in Victor Mature’s Frankie — or why he takes so long to notice her.
It’s also an ideal little follow-up to HBO’s recent Mildred Pierce. A lot of the same social obsessions play into it. Vicky is quite a Veda herself — and Jill a bit of a Mildred.
Is It Worth A Look: Sure. It’s not a bad watch, and it’s good for a little suspense. What I enjoyed about it was the sheer power and terror the cops wield over everyone. This is L.A. Confidential stuff right here (Laird Cregar’s Police Inspector Cornell is a dead ringer for Buzz Meeks), as they haul all the suspects (including the pretty female) down to a dungeon like interrogation room. This is a world that not only condones some police torture, but Cornell just invites himself into Frankie’s bedroom, and hangs out until he wakes up. We all cheer for Harry Callahan and his disdain for the rights of the accused, but damn, it’s terrifying to see what the world was like without them. The highlight of the film is the cat-and-mouse game between Frankie and Cornell, both deeply suspicious in their own way, and both enjoying the moment when they get to screw the other over. It’s clear this is meant to be the heart of the film, but it gets lost by throwing in additional suspects and an obligatory love story, and by refusing to give you one side to really root for.
I should actually stop here and praise Laird Cregar some more. This guy was method. Now it’s common for actors to go study with real cops, firemen, soldiers, etc., but Cregar did it before it was cool or common. And he got caught up in a shoot-out with LA cops! Neat! I think it shows in his performance, which is just the right amount of smart and cruel. Cregar was a dedicated actor, and had a really tragic fate as a result. We missed some great performances out of him.
Random Anecdotes: The doorman should be a familiar face, probably most notably from House on Haunted Hill. Oh, Elisha Cook Jr., it’s guys like you that keep Hollywood ticking