Glossy Perfection

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The New York Sun

“I Wake Up Screaming” is one of the most beautiful black-and-white movies ever made. Nearly every detail, other than a few amateurish process shots, suggests the glossy perfection that exemplifies what Andre Bazin famously called “the genius of the system.” How else to explain the transformation of prosaic melodrama into a highly influential exercise in sculpted lighting?

On paper, the casting of Betty Grable and Victor Mature is no more promising than the unfathomable title. Director H. Bruce Humberstone and cinematographer Edward Cronjager were prolific hacks who began in silent pictures and ended on television, their careers defined by indis criminate efficiency. Producer Milton Sperling and screenwriter Dwight Taylor were initially known primarily for musicals.

Yet they created a film almost abstract in its attention to pools of light – a stylish display of technique that enhances a sentimental murder mystery in which exposure of the killer is secondary to the uncovering of sexual obsession and envy. The chiaroscuro police grilling in the first scene may indicate a typical postwar crime thriller, but “I Wake Up Screaming” was made in 1941, the year Orson Welles and John Huston directed their first films. If it lacks the substance of “Citizen Kane” and “The Maltese Falcon,” it rivals them in shoring up plot with procedural panache, a gleaming surface that came to characterize Fox’s “B” product.

Compare it with “House of Strangers” (1949), which Fox is also releasing this week in its Film Noir series. Here is an “A” film directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, with lots of talk, some of it pretty good (“My husband died happy,” “Your husband was happy to die”) and made better by a high-powered cast including Edward G. Robinson, Susan Hayward, Richard Conte, and Luther Adler. The story riffs on “King Lear” while prefiguring “The Godfather,” and offers a singular instance of a sexually liberated woman who comes out on top. Indeed, Robinson’s patriarch explains that the New World is vertical, unlike the horizontal Old World, and so sexually forgiving that “someday they’ll find a way for husbands to have babies.” The decor is nailed with inspired detail, and the location shooting is startling in its realism. Yet dry lighting (favoring grays over extremes of light and dark) and direction dates the film, despite its virtues, while the oily muck of “I Wake Up Screaming” simmers with a devious freshness.

The unusual look of “I Wake Up Screaming” derives from a combination of conventional camera placement and innovative lighting. Humberstone has a few neat camera moves, but for the most part he directs straight on, eschewing the upward and downward angles that distinguish Huston’s film and preferring flat pictorial design to the deep-focus dimensionality of Welles. Instead, the film stock glistens: The blacks are so inky you half expect to see your own reflection in them. Shot after shot is composed with an erotic meticulousness – not just set-pieces like the interrogation, in which shadows are necessary to postpone the disclosure of a character’s identity.

Consider the shot at 7:02, when, amid the backs of men leaving a hotel, Elisha Cook Jr. briefly turns around and the light shines from his face and white collars. Or the entrance of Laird Cregar 11 minutes later, like a ghost on the far side of a glass pane, inside of which Carole Landis is waitressing, doubled by her own reflection in the glass. Or Grable’s quick step into a perfect close-up at 31:29, to say nothing of the several glamour shots of Grable and Landis, their cheeks lit up like alabaster.

One of the odd things about this movie is the repeated breaking in of boudoirs without warrants or keys. As Mature wakes up in the middle of the night to find Cregar staring at him from a cushiony chair, Cregar is centered between a panther painted into the decor over his right shoulder and a framed photo of Landis to his left, shimmering in its frame.

During preproduction, “I Wake Up Screaming” was talked about as a project for Rouben Mamoulian and (in what would have been his American debut) Jean Renoir. But their participation would have meant a more costly film. Humberstone, who had shown a penchant for clever lighting in movies like “Charlie Chan at the Opera” and “Sun Valley Serenade,” promised to abide by studio frugality. Darryl Zanuck insisted that the setting be changed from Hollywood, as in Steve Fisher’s 1941 novel, to New York – he was opposed to portraying sleaze in his company town.

This meant replicating Broadway on the lot, including a nightclub large enough to stage the Rose Bowl, and gauche rear projection when actors venture outdoors and into a car. The lighting mitigates the dull interiors, especially hotel rooms, and so do the actors. Did anyone ever look better in hats than Mature and Grable? He is especially good, holding his own with the looming, velvet-voiced Cregar.

An indication of Mature’s extra-thespian appeal is a swimming scene with Grable (not yet the Army’s favorite pinup girl): The camera lingers more on his legs than hers. At one point, the producer feared making a Grable film without a musical number, so a very bad one was shot and deleted – it is included as a DVD extra. Even so, the score proved innovative, if repetitious, in its own right, consisting chiefly of three tunes, each assigned to a character: Alex North’s “Street Scene” (Fox’s unofficial anthem) for Mature, “Over the Rainbow” for Grable, and an ominous Cyril Mockridge theme for Cregar.

Taylor’s smart script begins by alternating flashbacks from the perspectives of Mature and Grable, the camera tracking from one to the other. His dialogue includes Grable’s advice to her doomed sister, “If you lose your looks you lose your entire bankroll,” and Cregar’s memorable response to her innocent question: “What’s the good of living without hope?” “It can be done,” he mutters.

Previously known for such scripts as “Top Hat” and “Rhythm on the River,” Taylor went on to write Sam Fuller’s Communists-in-the-subway noir, “Pickup on South Street.” In adapting “I Wake Up Screaming,” he combined elements of “Pygmalion” (Mature bets that he can make a star of a waitress) with themes other writers would explore years later in “All About Eve,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” and “Touch of Evil.”

Most of his script faithfully replicates ideas in Fisher’s novel, though he underscores a feminist aspect as Grable takes charge of the sometimes demure Mature, conking the villain with her shoe, sawing through handcuffs, and sneaking out a fire escape, remarking, “I wasn’t a campfire girl for nothing!” Taylor’s ending improves on the novel. It mercifully lacks Fisher’s closing line (the Mature figure greets the Grable figure with the words, “Hello, Mommy!”), and elaborates on the corrupt cop’s shrine to the sexually unobtainable, while adding a meek suicide and a tortuous speech in which the villain convinces his victim that evil really does have its reasons.

The Fox DVD missed a bet in not offering “I Wake Up Screaming” as a double-feature with the 1953 remake, “Vicki,” a mostly miscast version worth seeing for the hair-raising performance by Richard Boone in the Cregar role. For that matter, Fox – the waste-not-want-not studio – remade “House of Strangers” as the Western “Broken Lance,” already on DVD. In 1960, Fisher published a revised version of his novel, producing an uneasy concoction of name-dropping from the two eras. In the interim he had worked on several films (“Johnny Angel,” “Dead Reckoning,” “Lady in the Lake”) in the noir genre he had inadvertently helped to launch. What he couldn’t do is get anyone to film his Hollywood story as a story of Hollywood.

The New York Sun

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