I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

January 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

Despite the occasional title so simplistic is seems to dismiss any notion of real content, film noir is a fascinating genre. It’s a dark genre that’s full of shadows and snappy, backbiting dialogue (Trevor Howard, in the excellent British noir They Made Me a Fugitive explains he once killed a man with a beer bottle, and then adds “Don’t worry, it was an empty bottle.”) yet it often seems to conform to certain film conventions — the formation of a couple at the end, and the vindication of the innocent. It’s as though the genre is a highly dramatized metaphor for the kind of muck we’re sometimes dragged through in personal struggles, or even the larger struggle in society to make progress, a process that often seems to involve two steps forward and one step back. It’s a genre that seems to say we’ll get there, but we’re going to have a hell of a time doing it.

The hero is frequently a reasonably attractive everyman, and in this early noir it’s Victor Mature as a show-business promoter named Frankie Christopher, accused of the murder of one of his discoveries, Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis). Much like Laura (reviewed here) the film introduces a handful of men that were practically obsessed with the murdered woman, though this time Christopher slowly learns to appreciate her sister Jill — also attractive, but in a less conventional way — in a subtle illustration of the difference between lust and love. But the best and most fascinating performance in the film belongs to Laird Cregar as a policeman so keen to arrest Christopher he’s willing to invest his own time and money. To call him a physically imposing presence is an understatement — he’s a wall that moves around the room threatening to close in on Christopher. And without giving away too much about the film, the script gives him one scene that completely humanizes the character. While a viewer watches a film like this expecting that most of the actors will certainly have died by now, I was surprised to discover the sad detail that Cregar only had feature roles in a handful of films before dying of heart failure at 31 years old.

It’s pretty much a dead genre, film noir. Even if it had a great deal of stylistic influence on generations of filmmakers, it somehow couldn’t translate into colour, or a world where men don’t wear hats and people don’t frequently smoke. In the film world, it’s somehow a bit of an evolutionary dead end, and a modern attempt at a noir needs to borrow so many old trappings it can feel like parody as much as tribute. But they fascinate me, because much like Westerns — which have, of course, survived the decades more comfortably if they’re produced less frequently these days — the simplicity of the framework allows for some remarkably strong statements to hide in plain sight. They’re a curious urban brother to Westerns — so overtly stylish they sometimes threaten to be cartoonish, and yet they’re all based on some kind of strange, secret and vaguely shameful truth. If our modern-day mythology starts with the pioneering spirit of Westerns, film noir is the urban, unavoidable next stop. And it’s only if we ever get to a perfect world that it will be completely obsolete.

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