Other Noteworthy Performances: Yoshizaburo Arashi (The 47 Ronin), Edward Arnold (Meet John Doe), Walter Brennan (Sergeant York), Joseph Cotton (Citizen Kane), Donald Crisp (How Green Was My Valley), Charles Dingle (The Little Foxes), Charles Coburn (The Lady Eve), James Gleason (Here Comes Mr. Jordan), Charles Hawtrey (The Ghost of St. Michael’s), Walter Huston (All That Money Can Buy), Walter Huston (The Shanghai Gesture), Gene Lockhart (The Sea Wolf), Robert Morley (Major Barbara), Tatsuo Saito (Ornamental Hairpin), George Sanders (Man Hunt)
Laird Cregar oozes menace in his role as the obsessive police detective Ed Cornell in I Wake Up Screaming. I’ve already talked about this early film noir gem so I won’t get into specifics of the plot. It is, however, important to note that Cregar steals the film from its two leads, Victor Mature and Betty Grable. Mature and Grable weren’t spectacular actors, but Cregar’s ability to conjure such a convincingly creepy character opposite the limited ability of these two is a testament to his skill.
Cornell’s contempt for the pair of young lovers is written for Cregar, but maybe he used his own personal jealousy for the two stars to focus his character’s contempt. After all, he could act circles around those two, yet they were stars.
This is all irresponsible conjecture of course. Cregar had just broken into pictures that year when Twentieth Century Fox plucked him from the stage and signed him to a contract. I Wake Up Screaming was one of his first assignments and he proved he had an impressive range after playing a sycophantic bull fighting critic (they exist?) in the Tyrone Power vehicle Blood and Sand. He just beginning to establish himself, but it is romantic to think of him being frustrated by the success of lesser actors and using that to fuel his approach to a rotten character like Ed Cornell.
In I Wake Up Screaming, Cregar sheds the frivolity and superficiality of the bull fighting critic from Blood and Sand in favor of the cold relentlessness of Cornell, a man consumed by his obsession for pinning the murder of a young nightclub singer on promoter Frankie Christopher (Mature). Like I wrote in my original essay on this movie, initially it isn’t clear if Cornell actually believes Christopher is guilty, or if he doesn’t care one way or the other. All we know is he is after Christopher for the crime. He sadistically harasses his suspect with a deathly calm. He isn’t outraged by the murder, but by Christopher, who he is and what he stands for.
Why is he so certain? Because he isn’t above manufacturing evidence. Orson Welles’ Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil also planted evidence against suspects, but we knew he actually thought they were guilty. We aren’t so sure about Cornell.
Laird Cregar plays Cornell as a quiet and determined man. He doesn’t have to threaten with words; the menace is in his eyes and body language. I love the way he delivers casual, throw-away lines so deliberately but with a hint of playfulness, that they could only contain a threatening subtext. It’s a contained, economical performance. Cregar rightfully eliminated any theatrical flourishes, understanding that quiet and persistent evil is scarier than cheap tricks.
It’s safe to say that Cregar would be better remembered today if he hadn’t died of a heart attack only a few years after this movie was released. He left behind an impressive resume of fine work in the few years he made films. He was assigned mostly supporting roles in his short career, but had broken into a couple of leading roles at the end. I’m sure he will be mentioned at least as a noteworthy in future years that I will consider. As it is he gave the best supporting performance by an actor in 1941.