The title of this atmospheric thriller, I Wake Up Screaming, implies a recurring nightmare that plagues our protagonist. And this is largely true, but for nightclub promoter Frankie Christopher the nightmare isn’t confined to his dream state and he doesn’t have the luxury of waking up – screaming or otherwise. Frankie is caught in a real life nightmare that threatens to destroy his life in this early example of the film noir genre.
When beautiful and ambition singer/model Vicky Lynn is murdered, Frankie, as her manager and sort of boyfriend, is immediately suspected. Inspector Ed Cornell is convinced the slick manager killed the chanteuse and, despite the absence of any evidence linking him to the crime, he relentlessly dogs Frankie. Cornell is quietly determined to see Frankie fry for Vicky’s death and is confident that the evidence will surface. Cornell is patient, content to torture Frankie with gruesome predictions of his fate. Frankie even awakes one night to find Cornell sitting in a chair by his bed, staring creepily as though taking a break on a hunt.
Frankie desperately tries to prove his innocence. He joins forces with Vicky’s sister Jill to stay a step ahead of Cornell. Naturally they fall in love, though the romance is uneasy since it isn’t clear if Cornell’s suspicions are unfounded or not. That’s one of the surprising joys of this film: we aren’t sure just who we should be rooting for in this battle of wills between Cornell and Frankie Christopher. Is Frankie being railroaded by Cornell? Or is Cornell’s relentless pursuit warranted? Does he see something we can’t through Frankie’s charm (and the traditional moral insulation of being the lead played by Victor Mature in a Hollywood picture)? The reality is less clear cut and more horrible than either of these options. (Do yourself a favor if you haven’t seen this one: avoid reading synopses or watching that terrible “unofficial” trailer on You Tube. They all give away too much.)
I Wake Up Screaming chronicles a nightmare in which everything is turned inside out. Frankie and Jill don’t have a murderer or some other leather-faced criminal to fear. It is a police detective who fills the villains role, a figure usually reserved for heroes. (And Laird Cregar is an absolutely chilling presence as Det. Cornell. Orson Welles would go on to play a version of this character in Touch of Evil, but with a crucial difference in their approaches to detective work.) It’s an oppressively topsy-turvy world brought to life through Edward Cronjager’s shadowy photography. We can’t tell the good from the bad, because with evil everywhere even the good have to lurk in the shadows. Even the music, eerie variations of “Over the Rainbow,” confirm that we are through the looking glass.
The movie isn’t perfect. It’s handicapped by a lackluster performance by Betty Grable as Jill and Victor Mature is fine, but he was never the strongest actor. Laird Cregar, though, steals the show as Ed Cornell. His brooding intensity and sociopathic single-mindedness make him a chilling antagonist. The movie is strongest when Laird’s Cornell and Mature’s Christopher face off, playing a high stakes cat and mouse. We see just how the forces meant to serve and protect us can just as easily be turned against us and, no matter how loudly we protest, they can destroy our lives. (Would any of us have the gumption to fight Cornell the way Frankie does?) It’s a unsettling, though immensely entertaining film, that reminds us of the fragile balance between the power of the police and the rights of citizens. But don’t be put off by high sounding themes. It’s also a great mystery that will keep you guessing.