This two minute dive demonstrates how 1941’s I Wake Up Screaming lays down a stylistic marker for early noir, but doesn’t get held in the same regard as that year’s noir classic, The Maltese Falcon.
Noir is a contentious subject in film circles. The filmmakers who made most of them, especially the early ones, insist high and low they had no idea they were making anything specific. The critics who studied them in the aftermath can’t agree on whether noir is a genre, a style, or nothing at all. The historians argue over when noir begins, when it ends, and whether it has phases that mark change.
One thing that is certainly true, however, is that when noir is discussed, John Huston‘s 1941 adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel, The Maltese Falcon, is sure to get brought up. It’s not hard to understand why. It’s got Hammett’s street-infused, tough-guy dialogue, for one thing:
Spade: I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. Yes, angel, I’m gonna send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in 20 years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.
Playing Spade, Humphrey Bogart establishes an entirely new way of thinking about characters, almost beginning the cinema audience’s attachment to the anti-hero. Huston’s assured direction is on display in this classic shot from early in the film, when Spade gets a phone call informing him that his partner has been shot.
Huston also flexes some muscle in a long take (partially represented in this clip – the full scene isn’t on YouTube, unfortunately) near the end of the film, when all the major players, including Spade, the femme fatale (Mary Astor), and the conniving bunch of crooks hot on the trail of the titular bird (Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook, Jr.) gather in Spade’s apartment to hash out who’s going to get what.
Critics and historians alike point to The Maltese Falcon as a watershed moment for noir, as Huston, the original Hammett novel tucked under his arm, his cast on display in front of his camera, basically invents the form that would set a lot of parameters for films to follow for the next twenty years, and spawn countless imitators.
However, that year also saw the arrival of another film, Bruce Humberstone‘s I Wake Up Screaming, that, when held in comparison to The Maltese Falcon, is much more overtly noir in its mise-en-scene, cinematography, and thematic darkness. In fact, the film hits the box office just two weeks after Huston’s.
Now, I’m not going to pretend that I Wake Up Screaming is a better film than The Maltese Falcon; it isn’t. Falcon deserves its place in Hollywood history; Screaming, well, I’m not so sure. Humberstone isn’t much of a classic auteur, and certainly doesn’t have the cinephile credibility of John Huston.
I’ve read a lot about noir, and I haven’t seen much on this film. That’s surprising, given its genuinely noir construction; that becomes especially important in the context of its contemporary, The Maltese Falcon, which has been written about ad nauseum. This is a film that wears its noir style completely on its sleeve, in a wildly slapdash manner that has the feel of relentless experimentation. It’s as if Humberstone is sitting on set, continually shouting, ‘Sure, try it!’
The film (which was remade in 1953 as Vicki, another noir), is about an investigation into the murder of an up-and-coming model/socialite named Vicky (Carole Landis). The lead detective on the case, Ed Cornell (an unhinged Laird Cregar), thinks it’s her boyfriend, Frankie (Victor Mature) the talent agent, who’s responsible. Frankie works with Vicky’s sister Jill (Betty Grable) to try to prove his innocence, all the while he’s hunted by the increasingly unorthodox and maniacal Cornell. He didn’t do it, of course; the real culprit is the doorman, Harry (Elisha Cook, Jr.), who was obsessed with Vicky and was rebuffed.
It’s Cook, Jr. who makes the connection between I Wake Up Screaming and The Maltese Falcon interesting. He appears in both, beginning to establish a status as a noir character actor that would last for years to come, with roles in Dillinger (1945), The Big Sleep (1946), Born to Kill (1947), and The Killing (1956), all major noirs.
It seems appropriate, then, to examine Cook’s key two minutes in I Wake Up Screaming, which is when the film and the characters put his guilt under the lights. It’s a great showcase for Cook’s noir persona, but also demonstrates some of Humberstone’s stylistic choices. Here’s a link to the full film, which is available on YouTube. Start at 1:13:34. Watch until 1:15:54.
The scene begins with a textbook shot of noir mise-en-scene, with bright light casting through the lattice work of a staircase, grafting the bars onto the wall, just as we’re about to get a scene where the law closes in on Harry.
The massive amount of space in this wide shot, with Harry framed in the left hand corner, emphasizes the sheer size of the forces about to come down on him. This is consistent with noir’s general approach to space – huge, urban centers pressing down upon the characters who struggle to fight back against them, only to succumb to futility. Humberstone’s sound design in this shot is also crucial: silence, save for the soft ticking of a clock. That leads into his second shot of the scene:
He’s establishing the ticking clock; time is running out for Harry. Next, he cuts to a wide shot of Frankie, waiting in a stairwell, then cuts in to a closeup on Frankie, his face obscured by the metal grate of the elevator shaft.
But, it’s no ordinary closeup. It’s a canted angle, the kind that would certainly come to be associated with noir-ish films much more famous and celebrated than this one, but it’s here, nearly ten years before these types of shots came to define one of the most admired noirs of all time. There are the thin, shadowed stripes casting across Frankie’s face and body, but also the shadow of his hat that lands on the wall behind him. Mature’s dead eyes, stony expression, all of this feels like the height of noir, rather than its beginnings.
The scene largely establishes tension in its first half through the use of crosscutting – the plan is to have Jill call the front desk and pretend to be Vicky, attempting to lure Harry into giving himself away. Humberstone cuts to Jill, pacing in another location, about to pick up the phone to dial the desk. In her shots, there is no ticking clock, only silence, even though there is an insert of her wristwatch, which she glances at before picking up the phone.
The smash cut back to Harry is bridged with a harsh, irritating buzz which awakens him. The sound of the buzzer lasts a full ten seconds before Harry answers the phone, putting the earpiece around his head. Along with the sound, Humberstone crashes in from a medium shot across the desk, pushing the camera to a closeup of Harry that ends at this distance.
It’s not as though camera moves like this are unheard of in classic Hollywood films; however, they don’t happen very often. This push in announces itself quite strongly, and its movement is arrested by the silencing of the buzzer and what replaces it – Jill’s voice, saying ‘Hi Harry, it’s Vicky.’ Harry’s eyes fly open, but the shadows cast on his face from the desk lamp directly above him turn his face into a hollowed out skull. You can barely even register his eyes opening wider, the shadows are so dark.
He slams the phone down, terrified, and Humberstone brings the buzzer back, using it to bridge cuts to Frankie (still waiting in the stairwell) and then back to Harry, including a POV shot of Harry looking at the dropped headset on the switchboard. All the while, the buzzer rattles the soundtrack, the unavoidable sound that, like Poe’s telltale heart, reminds Harry of his cruel murder.
It’s when Harry picks up the phone again, and hears Jill (playing Vicky) taunt him once more that he cries out, and Frankie moves down the stairs, thinking they’ve trapped their man. Humberstone makes the same camera move again, pushing in across the desk and into a closer shot of Harry before he yells, as though he’s experiencing deja vu, feeling the terrible reminder of his crime all over again.
Here’s a classic piece of noir cinematography, as Frankie approaches Harry:
Harry is at the desk with his head down, and doesn’t see Frankie approaching him. We do, first through the appearance of his shadow on the wall, disrupting the lattice shadows that were cast on the wall at the start of the scene in the wider shot. Humberstone goes to the push-in well again, dollying in across the desk and into a two shot of Harry and Frankie, who hovers over his shoulder, ready to elicit the confession he needs to clear his own name.
From here, Humberstone is going to go to a pretty standard shot-reverse shot coverage pattern for the conversation between Harry and Frankie, as Frankie puts the screws to the doorman. The difference is that Humberstone tilts the angle, matching his earlier shot of Frankie in the stairwell.
Frankie’s shot looks up at him, with the bars from the stairway (which have followed him throughout the scene) on the ceiling above him. He’s imposing, powerful. Harry’s shot, on the other hand, looks down – Frankie looms into his frame, trapping Harry against the wall. Harry’s shot has bars, too – the mail slots over his left shoulder forecast his own imprisonment. Here, one man, Frankie, is escaping jail, while the other, Harry, is being forced into one.
The music has continued to run under the scene since Frankie revealed himself to Harry, a slight, haunting tension. But, it crashes with a piercing shriek once Harry lets it slip that Cornell is mixed up in it, too, and has let him off the hook in order to jam up Frankie for the crime. Here’s the shot where the shriek occurs, as Frankie grabs Harry by the lapels:
While this is a crucial use of music and image together, it’s also important to dwell for a moment on what it signifies: the corruption of an officer of the law. Censorship rules at the time were such, dictated by the Hollywood Production Code, that police officers could not typically be seen as violating the rule of law that they were sworn to uphold. Noir films often bristled against these censorship rules, and were the subject of much consternation for the board in charge of approving their scripts prior to production. That Cregar’s cop, Cornell, could be seen as less than upstanding, is quite a coup for this film’s thematic commitment to presenting a dark vision of the world.
The film as a whole is worth a watch, despite the fact that it will never, and likely shouldn’t, reach the iconic status that its sister film, The Maltese Falcon, has certainly earned. However, I would argue that the seeds of noir are not just sown by Huston, with his classic contribution to the genre, style, or whatever noir is; Humberstone, who never made another project that could be classified as noir, deserves some credit for defining its look.