Warning: SPOILERS ahead!! Not all noir films are whodunnits, but I Wake Up Screaming and Laura most definitely are. If you haven’t watched either film yet . . . well, WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?!!? Put this down, and go watch these films immediately. Then we’ll talk!
The two films we watched for our second Film Noir class with Elliot Lavine through Stanford University may provide different viewing experiences, but they are linked by a variety of elements. In terms of noir, they are arguably problematic: one is a bit too light-hearted, the other too stylish. And yet when you dig deep, they both possess aspects of film noir that prove them worthy of assessment as noir films .
Plus, they make a helluva double bill!
I Wake Up Screaming (1941) was a career highpoint for director H. Bruce Humberstone, who had previously directed four Charlie Chan movies, including two of my favorites (. . . at the Opera, considered one of the best, and . . . at the Racetrack, which contains one of my favorite clues). The film’s roots are in the pulps, as it is based on a novel of the same name by author Steve Fisher, who wrote mysteries with titles like Murder of the Pigboat Skipper. His book Destination Tokyo (1943) became a successful film (critic Bosley Crowther didn’t like it, so it must have been good), and Fisher wrote the screenplay. He also wrote the film versions of many genre films, like Johnny Angel, Lady in the Lake, and Song of the Thin Man.
20th Century Fox bought the rights to the book and prepared to nearly scrub the pulp right out of it. They renamed it Hot Spot and cast newcomer Victor Mature opposite Alice Faye, then replaced Faye with Betty Grable. They aimed the focus at the romance between Mature’s hero, a New York sports promoter named Frankie Christopher, and Jill Lynn, who sold records at a department store. Fortunately, the studio came to its senses: a scene where Grable sings “Hey, Daddy” to a customer as her middle-aged boss leers at her was scrubbed after it received negative comments at a sneak preview. And the cast rebelled against the new title, so it was changed back to the original.
This gives I Wake Up Screaming the title it deserves, and it is a wonderfully entertaining crime drama. Humberstone had clearly demonstrated that he knew his way around a mystery, and cinematographer Edward Cronjager, a Fox stalwart who had made every kind of movie from musicals starring Fred Astaire or Shirley Temple to King Vidor-directed Westerns, found a way to capture the dark aspects of Fisher’s story through a claustrophobic scenario and shadowy lighting, particularly in the early sections of the film. The movie is intensely urban, zipping along from swanky nightclubs to public swimming pools, with suspects hiding on rooftops or being grilled under the harsh glare in a police interrogation room. The score is an interesting study in contrasts, combining tense musical motifs with popular music, including the fairly recent hit from another studio, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which is played in every variation, from sprightly to mournful.
The cast that surrounds Mature and Grable is fabulous: Carole Landis plays Vicky Lynn, a waitress plucked from obscurity by Frankie in one of those Lana Turner “Hey, you, you wanna be a star?” moments; of course, Vicky takes New York café society by storm and ends up dumping Frankie for a Hollywood contract. When she is murdered in her apartment on the eve of her departure, suspicion falls on the hapless promoter, but also on his two pals, a hammy actor (Alan Mowbray) and a snide columnist (Allyn Joslyn) who were both obsessed with her.
There’s also the sad sack who runs the reception desk at Vicky’s apartment building to whom nobody would pay attention if he weren’t played by Elisha Cook, Jr. Just as in last week’s film, Stranger on the Third Floor, Cook, Jr. plays the patsy: maybe he’s guilty and maybe he’s not, but this is a guy incapable of controlling his own life and impulses. Sandwiched between these two roles is his masterpiece: Wilmer Cook, the gunsel, in The Maltese Falcon. If ever a man gave noir its credentials, it’s Elisha Cook, Jr..
And then there’s Laird Cregar.
Cregar had an all too brief career, mostly playing villains, until he died tragically. (So did Carole Landis, but that’s another story.) To my mind, the story threads revolving around Cregar elevate what could have been just another romantic murder mystery to something dark and creepy. Compare him to Sidney Greenstreet, another large character actor who populated noir films, also primarily as a shady character. Greenstreet tended to favor nattily dressed men of great charm, sensualists whose happy demeanor could give way to violence at the drop of a hat. Cregar is fleshy and creepy, a brutal lump of a man with eyes that can go steely or blank. Even when he banters, there’s something off about this guy, like he’s hearing voices in his head.
At the start of the film, a newsboy blares out the headline that noted singer Vicky Lynn has been murdered. At police headquarters, the cops are grilling Frankie Christopher in one room and Jill Lynn in another. Ed Cornell, the cop in charge, stands in the shadows as Frankie pleads his innocence, revealing in flashbacks how he and his pals met Vicky slinging hash and hatched a plan to pass her over as the next “big thing” by squiring her to the best nightclubs and having her seen by people with influence.
Meanwhile, Jill tells the police about the effect all of this had on Vicky, and it’s not hard to see that she is angry at Frankie for taking her down-to-earth sister away from her and transforming her into a manipulative swan. But it’s also easy to see, from the looks they give each other, that Frankie and Jill are smitten.
Under examination, Jill recalls an odd thing that happened back when Vicky was still working at the restaurant: Jill was sitting at a table by the window waiting for her sister to get off work when a creepy guy walked past, stopped and stared slack-jawed at Vicky while she worked. Later, Jill notices him stalking the girls as they walk home. It was a disturbing event – at least, to Jill – and she demands to see the cop in charge. In walks Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) – and he’s the creep!
This, to me, is the great reveal of the film, more so even than the revelation of who killed Vicky. That’s what makes this noir to me: the whodunnit aspect is subsumed by Cornell’s obsessive love for Vicky – and his determination to frame Frankie for her murder as punishment for his having taken her away from this cop who never really possessed her. Cornell’s twisted nature makes the actions of the actual killer appear banal in comparison. It’s Cregar who generates the thrills here.
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An obsessed detective figures in our second feature, although in a very different way. Laura (1944) is another film that could have gone in a very different direction. It was meant to be a collaboration between director Otto Preminger and writer Vera Caspary, based on her play Ring Twice for Laura. However, the two could not agree on the direction of the story: Caspary centered her tale on a beautiful woman who became the object of obsession by several men; Preminger saw one of those men, the acidly funny newspaper and radio commentator Waldo Lydecker, as the most interesting character. Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox, sided with Caspary and removed Preminger from the director’s chair, replacing him with Reuben Mamoulian and making Preminger the producer.
The studio began to assemble a cast, which included George Sanders and, in the role of Waldo Lydecker . . . Laird Cregar! Preminger was horrified! Cregar had recently played the title role in The Lodger and had played villains in one film after another; how do you produce a whodunnit when you cast a guy like Cregar as the murderer? Preminger felt that Clifton Webb, who hadn’t made a film since 1930, opting for the Broadway stage, would be perfect for Waldo and, to that end, filmed a screen test with the actor reading for the part. Webb was in, Cregar was out. So was George Sanders: newcomer Dana Andrews was cast as Mark McPherson, a world-weary detective assigned to find out who came to advertising executive Laura Hunt’s apartment and shot her in the face. In addition to Waldo Lydecker, the suspects include Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price, not yet the master of horror he would become), a worthless gigolo who is also Laura’s fiancé, and Ann Treadwell (the great stage actress Judith Anderson, who had played Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca), who is also in love with Shelby, which is inconvenient since she happens to be Laura’s aunt.
Filming hadn’t gone on for long before it became clear that things were not working out with Mamoulian. Zanuck hated to admit defeat, but for the sake of the picture he returned Preminger to the director’s helm. Even so, Zanuck almost ruined everything after Preminger presented him with his first cut, complainin that the final revelation didn’t work and insisting that Preminger re-film it with a revised ending where the whole story of Laura turns out to be . . . a product of Waldo’s imagination. Fortunately, when this new ending was screened for audiences, they were baffled, and no less a personage than columnist Walter Winchell urged Zanuck to change the ending. Thus, Preminger got his way in the end, and Laura became a classic.
Like I Wake Up Screaming, Laura begins mostly in flashback as it tells of the rise and fall of a beautiful girl, ending in her murder. The big surprise in I Wake Up Screaming is that the cop in charge of Vicky’s investigation is willing to pervert justice due to his obsession with the victim. In Laura, Mark becomes obsessed with Laura largely due to the enormous portrait of her that hangs in her apartment, painted by a former admirer. However, Mark is a good cop and a good man: his obsession thaws a heart turned icy by the vicissitudes of his job, and makes him more determined to find real justice for the dead girl.
The big surprise in Laura, of course, is that she isn’t dead at all. Once again, we get our biggest shock early in the film: Mark falls asleep staring at Laura’s picture, only to be awakened by Laura herself, just returned from a weekend at her upstate cabin. It turns out that another girl, one of Laura’s models who was romantically involved with Shelby Carpenter, took a load of buckshot for the real target. The rest of the film involves Mark trying to find who wanted to kill Laura, giving the titular heroine time to fall in love with her policeman savior.
Even with the substitution of Clifton Webb for Laird Cregar, there’s not much mystery around who tried to kill Laura. Waldo Lydecker is the most interesting character in the movie, just as Preminger intended. Zanuck had not wanted to cast Webb due to his effeminate mannerisms, but this lends some fascinating layers to the character: it’s hard to believe that this Waldo’s obsession with Laura is in any way sexual. Through the mise en scene of Waldo’s apartment, it’s clear that he is a collector of beautiful things. From the start, he is drawn Laura’s beauty and natural charm, not in a romantic way but like a Pygmalion eager to create his own Galatea out of clay.
Laura makes Waldo feel a little like a god: he created her, he feels responsible for her, and he’s not giving her up to any grubby man with designs on possessing her sexually. Evidently Webb was private throughout his life about his own sexuality. It feels like he shares this with Waldo, making no attempt to cover his demeanor with false machismo but keeping himself to himself. In an early scene, Mark comes to question him, and Lydecker welcomes him into his bathroom where he is sitting nude in his bath, working on the day’s column or script. Mark smiles bemusedly even as Waldo rises from his tub and asks for his robe. It’s erotic, but there’s nothing ultimately untoward about Waldo’s interactions with the detective. He actually enjoys Mark’s company – bemusedly, of course, in his cat and mouse game, but also genuinely, as they share meals and confidences – until it becomes clear that McPherson loves Laura. Then it becomes intolerable when Laura returns – and returns Mark’s feelings – which causes a re-emergence of Waldo’s murderous impulses.
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Early in our class, one student noted that in these early examples of noir women are not treated in the same way as they are in post-war films. I mentioned last week that a lot of the noir movement embodied the fear and anger of white men in the post-war era, who returned from battle to a much-changed society. The image of Rosie the Riveter was replaced by a figure of evil, a woman who used the weapons at her command, chiefly her body and her overweening ambition, to make saps of poor guys in order to gain wealth and social advantage.
I find it fascinating to look at the role of women in these two early films. Both “victims” are beautiful girls who rise in society – by being molded by men. Both men feel betrayed when these women assume an independent stance: Vicky decides to drop Frankie as her agent and move to Hollywood, while Laura decides to marry Shelby Carpenter. Interestingly, both movies infer that both women are making bad choices! Vicky may or may not make it in Hollywood, but the chances are good that she is poised to be exploited by another promoter, this one simply in a different locale. (How “lucky” for her that Frankie, who saw her as nothing more than a beautiful body, had no personal interest in her; he likes her sister, the “good” girl, whch means Frankie must be a good man.) And while Waldo has no business dictating who Laura sees or marries, he is right about Shelby, whose opportunism where women are concerned knows no bounds. (I find it ironic that Zanuck and company protested the casting of Clifton Webb based on his effeminacy but had no problem casting Vincent Price, only slightly less effete and almost certainly bisexual in real life, as a chronic womanizer.)
At least with Shelby we don’t get the sense that he wants to possess Laura in the way Waldo and Mark do. He would probably enjoy being a charming husband and lover to Laura, even as he continues to romance her aunt and any passing model who graces his wife’s business. Judith Anderson does a great job with “Aunt” Ann, taking us past her elegant façade to reveal a fallen woman, one who admits that she is not good, that she and Shelby deserve each other. (Evidently, Preminger is responsible for pulling Anderson back from an over-the-top, stagey performance that Mamoulian had encouraged; it certainly works here.)
In the end, Laura takes about five minutes to decide that the obsessive cop who she found leering at her picture is worthy of her love. As I said earlier, Mark is a good cop and a good man; still, one can’t help feeling in these modern times that he oversteps his bounds and that perhaps Laura is heading into yet another relationship with an overbearing guy who wants to control her.
Meanwhile, modern audiences can’t help but admire Vicky. She knows from the start that Frankie and his pals are handing her a line, probably with ulterior motives, but when she realizes the possibilities for personal advancement, she takes her chances. One could argue that it all goes to her head, that she flirted with just about every man in the film before dumping them all. She was even kind to her stalker and her killer, at least before visions of stardom entered her head. I think of it differently: if we see Vicky’s ambition as not a flaw but an asset that needs to be carefully navigated in a time when women were sexualized, victimized and routinely put in their place, then it’s amazing how far she goes in such a short time. We see her being charming, we see her singing well, we see her as a good big sister and a hard worker. In Vicky, we may find the antecedents of the femme fatale of late 40’s/early ‘50’s noir, but Vicky is a much more sympathetic figure, and her death feels more resonant when watching the film today.
I know we’re meant to like Jill more, and there’s no reason not to like this spunky girl played by Betty Grable, who always managed to balance being sexy with being wholesome, but she barely registers as a rounded character here. It makes me think twice about the cut scene, where we got to see Jill at work, without any of the other players around her, navigating through her own world of wolves. We know what her boss wants in payment for her favor – it’s actually played pretty much for laughs – and we get to see Jill negate the possibility of this ever happening. In the end, though, the scene is cut: Jill is given less of a life (instead of a singer, she’s “just” a stenographer), and her presence serves more as a guide for the audience to be sure that Frankie is a good man. The first time he visits Vicky at home, we know him as a fight promoter and a murder suspect, but when Jill opens the door her look softens slightly, and we know he’s a hero. She goes on to prove that she’s not like the other girls he knows, first by rejecting the whole idea of Vicky as a star, then by following a nightclub visit with a trip to the local swimming pool, then by believing in his innocence and helping him escape. In the end, Frankie solves the murder (God knows how) and cleans up the police force . . . and Jill becomes his prize.
And so . . . no femmes fatales here: just two women punished for their personal ambitions by being made prey, a loyal sidekick to the main male figure, and an older woman with enough low self-esteem to love a cad. I would hazard to say that the depiction of women is problematic at any point in this movement. The three films we watch next week won’t change my mind on that score. In all of them, we see women struggling against the restrictions placed by men in films made by men who think they know how women should behave. Is it any wonder that, in film noir and perhaps most classic films, the women who don’t stand by their men are the most fascinating, even when such actions spell their doom?