Friday, October 1, 2010

I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

From AFI:
"After beautiful Vicky Lynn is killed, New York City police question Frankie Christopher, a promoter who sponsored Vicky, "glamorized" her and got her jobs as a model. Especially tough on Frankie is obsessed inspector Ed Cornell, who has never failed to get his man. Jerry MacDonald, a more sympathetic policeman, asks Frankie to tell them how he met Vicky, and Frankie tells his story: One evening, Frankie goes with his friends, fading actor Robin Ray and newspaper columnist Larry Evans, to a lunchroom where Vicky works as a waitress. Impressed with her beauty and ambition, Frankie decides to remake her, take her to all the smart places and put her on top of the world. Soon after, Frankie takes her to the El Chico Club, where Robin and Larry help him to get her invited to the table of the socially influential Mrs. Handel. The first step accomplished, the evening ends with Vicky having been offered two modeling jobs. Vicky then returns home to the modest apartment she shares with her sister Jill, a stenographer. Jill and Vicky argue, for Jill maintains that nothing good can come of taking the easy road to success. After a whirlwind of publicity and offers, Vicky tells Frankie that she has taken a screen test and is going to Hollywood without him. Bitter about her betrayal, Frankie storms out of her apartment and commiserates with Robin and Larry, both of whom have fallen in love with Vicky. As Jill begins relating her side of the story, she informs the policemen that she does not believe that Frankie is guilty of killing her sister. She informs them that before Vicky met Frankie, a mysterious man stalked her, and when Cornell enters the interrogation room, Jill recognizes him as the man who was following Vicky."

Completely unaware, I watched this film, which is an earlier version of VICKI, which I wrote about last week. The problem with watching this film in terms of noir, is that it is virtually the same film. Same names, same motivations, sometimes almost the same shot. Everything that applied last week applies here: the protagonist is the press agent who acts as innocent as he is, and doesn't cross the line to prove it. In fact, the one time he does escape, it's his love interest that attacks the police. If anything, there is even less obsession, as the role of the detective is reduced in this version, in favor of the press agent and the girl. Of course, since it's a Fox film, it uses Alfred Newman's "Theme from Street Scenes" heavily, but it also leans on "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" for its romantic moments, only 2 years after it was so famously used in THE WIZARD OF OZ.

BUT, this film is heavily stylized, drenched in grand, expressionistic low-key lighting and shadows. Some of the images are really striking and beautiful to look at. The question, then, is whether this formalist lighting, combined with a narrative in the crime milieu add up to film noir. The best argument I've heard thus far is that noir is not either/or genre or style, but both independently. If this were the case, this film would definitely be noir. But I'm not willing yet to compromise on the idea that the darkness of noir is experienced through the eyes of a criminal protagonist, an exploration of how far one needs to travel from dark to light. Thus...

Judgment: not noir.

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