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I Wake Up Screaming: Far from “Kansas”

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By Anthony J. Steinbock.

The Maltese Falcon is often considered to be the first film noir of the classical noir period (beginning in 1941 and ending in 1958 with Orson Wells, Touch of Evil).[1] Released only two weeks after The Maltese Falcon (Houston, October 18, 1941) is another noir included in the classical catalog, namely, I Wake Up Screaming (October 31, 1941). Loosely based on a Steve Fisher novel of the same name, I Wake Up Screaming was imaginatively adapted into a screenplay by Dwight Taylor and creatively directed by H. Bruce Humberstone, with the inventive cinematographer, Edward Cronjager, and producer Milton Sperling.

Though shot in a more recognizable visual style, The Maltese Falcon has earned its titular fame not only because John Huston directed it, not only because it was based on a Dashiell Hammett novel, or because Humphrey Bogart played the starring role as Samuel Spade. Rather – and limitations of space to not allow me to elaborate here – this film called into question the familiar boundaries between appearance and reality, it exposed the lures of spiritual and economic idolatry, and in a modest way, it advanced the arbitrariness of the “absurd man.” While I do not take issue with the honorific place of The Maltese Falcon, I would like to focus on the distinctive contributions of I Wake Up Screaming to the noir cycle.

Many critics have already cogently commented on the distinctive and original visual quality of I Wake Up Screaming. Eddie Muller, author of Dark City, for example, stresses in his running commentary on the film how innovative lighting, sharp shadows, and single source key lighting exhibit for us today ample and even paradigmatic examples of cinematographic techniques that have come to characterize film noir.[2] In fact, he is wont to call this film the first film noir, at least for 20th Century Fox. But even if I Wake Up Screaming were not the “first” film noir, there are still abundant reasons to recommend this film as an exemplary “noir.” Indeed, there are aspects of the film that I think if recognized would place it even more securely among the canonical films of the noir cycle.

What forcefully commends its serious consideration and exemplary position in classical noir can be seen in the way in which it conveys a “new” (anti-Modern) view of the world that starkly contrasts with a former (Modern) worldview. One can argue, in fact, that its innovative visual techniques are expressive of and serve this end. The worldview portrayed in this film is at odds with an implicit optimism that things happen for a reason, that truth and universal justice can be easily discerned, that necessity will prevail over contingency, and that when all is said and done, we will be comforted by our familiar world. That is, I Wake Up Screaming imaginatively depicts our contemporary situation of encountering a relatively new disturbance in human existence, one in which ideals of truth, justice, trust, security – captured by the emotionally charged cipher of “home” – are radically called into question. Further, it is surprisingly anti-Modern not only in the aforementioned regard, but because of the suggested way of redressing this existential trauma. It does not advocate a return to traditional Modern and classical male virtues of rationality and courage; it does not counter with Reason’s naturalistic and dualistic counterpart, sheer instinct – though all of these are displayed in one way or another as alternatives; rather, it implies a way forward by retrieving what I call the order of the heart.

The anti-Modern worldview and the anti-Modern redress (i.e., the order of the heart) are two points that all the commentaries I have encountered seem to miss – despite their laudatory and critical appreciation of this film. How does this film advance its unique positions? Certainly, it presents angles askew, depth and volume through chiaroscurist lighting and shadows, upsetting frames and jarring edges, as well as inventive flashback narrative structures. Yet these originations are as much technical innovations as they are expressive elaborations of the film’s thematic messages. By artistically deviating from Fisher’s novel upon which the storyline is based, it originally adapts tropes, characters, and leitmotifs taken from the then recent MGM box-office disappointment, The Wizard of Oz (Fleming, 1939), and resourcefully deploys them, evoking the dread of a new existential situation, and a possible anti-Modern challenge.[3] Thus, rather than waking up from a consuming nightmare to our cozy experience of being home in the world in familiar certainties and surroundings (“there’s no place like home”), we instead wake up to a disorienting nightmare, which is the new world. The effective flashback structure, the brilliant use of shadows, angles, bars and grills, the character placement and displacement in the film, all deliver this moral dis-position.[4]

I want to illustrate this idea in five steps. After a brief summary of the basic plot (1), I examine the disruption, instability, and the idea of a feral humanity that is portrayed through key cinematographic and narrative devices (2). I then examine the main characters with an eye to their symbolic relevance with their Wizard of Oz parallels (3). This section is followed by highlighting the visual, staging, and musical clues for this interpretation of the film (4). I conclude with a brief summary suggesting how I Wake Up Screaming can be understood as one the first original noirs presenting an anti-Modern theme and posing a possible anti-Modern challenge often ignored by Modernity (5).

1. Plot Summary. In most general outline form, here is the basic movement: On a hubristic lark, Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature), the promoter, has the idea of making the hash-slinging waitress, Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis), a glamorous model with star potential. His two friends, a passé actor, Robin Ray (Alan Mowbray) and a hack column journalist, Larry Evans (Allyn Joslyn), join him for the fun of it. The film opens, however, with the headlines that a model has been murdered, and with Frankie being interrogated for Vicky’s murder. Through a series of flashbacks that then catch up with the present, the viewer learns that the lead inspector in the case, Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar), who has a perfect arrest record, is determined to find Frankie guilty of this crime, and virtually harasses him at every turn. (The viewer learns later, however, that Cornell knows from very early on that Frankie did not commit the murder.) Vicky’s sister, Jill (Betty Grable) and Frankie eventually fall in love, and try to discern the real murderer, working through suspicions of the actor and the journalist, discovering that it is actually the creepy switchboard operator, Harry Williams (the noir staple, Elisha Cook Jr.). Sneaking into Cornell’s apartment before he arrives, Frankie discovers that Cornell has an eerie obsessive fascination with Vicky: The apartment turned mausoleum/shrine is festooned with pictures of Vicki towering above tributes of flowers. After arriving on the scene, fresh bouquet in hand, Cornell explains that he blames Frankie for taking the once humble Vicky out of his reach, having given her all the ideas of fame and glamor. Having lost himself and his love, with “curtains to his brilliant career,” he purposefully and fatally overdoses on his prescription tincture.

2. Disruption, Instability, and Feral Humanity. The film opens with a headline announcing the murder of a young model (Vicky Lynn), and moves immediately to a dark and boisterous interrogation room. Hemmed in by shadowy figures on all sides, Frankie Christopher is set in relief by a blinding interrogation lamp. Clearly uncomfortable, on the defensive from the very start, Frankie is accused by an impersonal accuser who remains as yet undefined behind a murky curtain of anonymity. The voice of this indicter enters the scene, but his face and identity remain veiled as a darkened silhouette.

The unsettling position of Frankie in this cave-like chamber is now mirrored by a series of temporal displacements. The beginning of the story lands the viewer clearly in the middle of something. However, rather than going forward from this ambiguous present/middle in a linear progression of time, the viewer goes backward in order to advance. The flashback – which was not part of Fisher’s novel – was introduced here, a story-telling device that became solidified as a narrative technique in Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), and used to great effect in Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947). From the onset of the film, one is oriented by disorientation, presented with a series of forced recollections that catch the viewer up to the mystery of the social dynamics and murder.

Second, there are not only temporal disturbances, but also abundant forms of spatial disruption. The latter are vividly portrayed through the copious cages, grills, and bars. Not just convicts and suspects, but policemen and detectives are separated and jarringly connected by see-through cages.[5] The lattice-like confines – metallic or ephemeral shadows – tend to stress our human finitude, namely, the fact that we all live under the threat of our own morality – a pronounced theme of Maté’s D.O.A. (1950).[6]

wake-01Like in the consolation bar scene, oblique lines alternate with the shift of one conversant to the next; sharp angles and tilted frames all suggest that humanity is losing its balance in a world that no longer conforms to it, but to which it must adjust in order to survive.

Third, evicted from a controllable human world, the abundant images of confines and partitions suggest that the human social environment resembles a bestiary (think here of Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel, 1953). It is not the Modern vision of a rupture between the human and the animal, culture and nature, but rather a vision that the “human” is all too animalistic, feral, and at root nothing more. Indeed, this film is replete with so-called reductive animalist intimations that very few characters are able to deflect. Two early comments in the film make these allusions. Looking at a photo of Vicky who Frankie just promoted, he comments: “Here. Take a look at that.” Jill responds: “Hmm. Feeding time at the zoo.” Or Vicky to her sister: “We’ve got more wolves in New York than they have in Siberia.”

wake-02This is a topsy-turvy world in which human beings are in cages (police holding rooms, police offices, apartments, elevators), and feral animals are running free. I just want to highlight two occasions (though there are several more) in which human beings are purposefully evoked in terms of feral animals, and where social life is reduced to manipulation by uncontrollable drives. The suggestion is that as humans we are slaves to our wild natures, our instinctual animal energies; and rather than appeal to the old concept of reason, we have to adjust to this new realization of our reality. In one scene, Frankie wakes up in his bed to a startling figure of Cornell, apparently sitting for some time in an armchair in his (Frankie’s) bedroom.

wake-03Behind the seated wily Cornell is a painting of a black panther on a tri-fold room divider: the descending panther is directly over Cornell’s right shoulder, and on the other panels, fleeing gazelles; outside the window is a flashing neon sign, evoking an “asphalt jungle.” This feline hunter (alluding to Cornell as a predator) is featured in a couple shots, and the light that illuminates this scene brings the panther to advantage. The juxtaposition of the two equates Cornell with the stalking instincts of the stealthy hunter, slowly but surely pursuing its prey. It is not the police chief in pursuit of truth or justice as the viewer learns, but an individual chasing his specific aims.[7]

wake-04On another noteworthy occasion following this one, Cornell wants to recapture Frankie. Jill has helped a handcuffed Frankie elude detention, but as his accomplice, she is now held in police custody with Frankie on the lam. What does Cornell do? Does he appeal to crack detective work on how to find missing criminals? Does he put out an “All Points Bulletin,” like one might see happening, e.g., in The Glass Wall (1953), trying to track down a fugitive in the streets of New York? No. Cornell appeals to the strategy of a naturalist. The naturalist that he alludes to here is Fabre (not “Faber” – undoubtedly, Jean-Henri Casimir Fabre, who was a French contemporary of Darwin, and for all intents and purposes, was the father of modern entomology). The book he names is the fictitiously entitled, The Sex Life of the Butterfly.[8]

Appropriately, the district attorney asks Cornell what all this has to do with the Lynn/Christopher case. Cornell responds by recounting a story about how Fabre could not catch an exotic male specimen of an elusive butterfly from Africa. The technique was to let the female out of the glass box, and let it flit around the (Paris) apartment, and in a few hours the keeper had ten times as many rare male African butterflies filling the room. With the reduction of humans to feline predators, rodents, and insects, sexual love is reduced to chemical attraction of pheromones. The police detective is turned naturalist; criminology is turned entomology. The D.A. agreeably concedes: Let Jill loose, and we will have our man in no time (and maybe more than just one!).

In sum, there is a relatively disturbing view of the human situation. Human beings are on the defensive from the very start, and in a Kafkaesque manner, facing and impersonal accuser for something they did not do. The only way forward is to go backward. To be human is to confront finitude at every turn; already imprisoned like caged animals, humans interact with one another like feral predators and prey, where social life is not governed by reason or by spiritual emotions, but sheer instinct.

3. The Main Characters and Their Symbolic Relevance: Frankie Christopher is a sports promoter in New York, apparently, a well-known and successful one. There is nothing personal in what he does one way or another; it is simply his business to promote – a constant refrain – and he will promote just about anything without pangs of conscience: “from prizefighters to fan dancers,” including “hockey, ice carnivals, girls. Mostly girls.” Under interrogation by the still anonymous Cornell, Frankie explains why he thinks he could have made something of Vicky, replying matter-of-factly “that’s my business: promotion.”

In one scene, Frankie is ringside at a fight with Jill. He is standing and shouting: “Give him your left! Let ‘im have your left! Give it to him again! … Go after his stomach, you lug! His stomach!” I cannot help but think of the 1949 film by Robert Wise starring Robert Ryan, The Set-Up. In this film, the audience or spectators are paradoxically the participants; their vitriolic touts, aggressive gestures, and grotesque eating habits are clearly the places of violence – not the rather regulated and controlled fighting ring. The latter at least is contained spatially by ropes and temporally by rounds, and has a mediator in place if things get out of control.

Here, however, it is not so much that Frankie is invested with violence; it is more the case that he is supporting his impersonal business investment, rooting for a fighter of whom he “owns a piece.” (Although, as noted below, there are hints of another side of Frankie. A personal nature slips out: “he’s a great little kid,” says Frankie, “I raised him from a pup.” In addition, one begins to see Jill grow more enamored with his childlike spontaneous side.)

To get an even better sense of Frankie, it will be helpful to go back to the first flashback. He and his cohorts, Robin the actor and Larry the journalist, wager that they can take a rather naïve, attractive waitress and make her into a starlet. This is Frankie’s idea – to spot talent and bring it into being. Frankie buys her fine clothes, takes her to a nightclub, and introduces her to high-society. Robin coaches her on acting the part; they stage an argument over her so that she gets noticed, and the journalist writes a spot in his column featuring her social debut.

Just how good of a promoter is Frankie? Apparently, he is quite good, an artistic genius, even. When Jill and Frankie are hiding from the police, Jill liberating him from handcuffs with a hacksaw, Frankie confesses to her that “Christopher” is not his real last name. Placating her worry that he changed his name because of a criminal past, he reassures her that “Christopher” was just easier to spell. His real surname? Botticelli.

The name of Botticelli is chosen here, not because it is some extravagant Italian family name to emphasize Frankie’s New York Italian heritage, as is often suggested. The film wanted to evoke something else. Botticelli refers to the famous 15th century Italian artist, Sandro Botticelli, who painted the “Birth of Venus.”[9] In apparent anticipation of this revelation, Robin alluded earlier to Frankie’s artistic virtuosity: “But I doubt if even you, maestro, could make a lady out of a hash slinger.”

The rise of Vicky from waitress to the alluring and promising Hollywood starlet was Frankie’s creation, the birth of a “Venus.” After the three men accompany Vicky back home, concluding her successful social outing as the new glamor girl, the tables have turned. She is already too good for them all. She steps into the screened elevator platform, and ascends: the goddess of love. The heads of the three men in the parquet tilt upwards as they follow her ascent. Vicky passes out of their (mortal) reach: The birth of Venus.

wake-05Although, admittedly, the following scene is directed more at the creation than the creator, Frankie nearly compares himself to a mad scientist (not a creative artist). Vicky snaps at Frankie: “Some people think I’m a very attractive girl; you didn’t create that. I’m no Frankenstein, you know.” Frankie: “I wonder.”

I will return below to Frankie’s own transformation, which further confirms this thesis about his character and leads to another anti-Modern twist; for now it is sufficient to suggest that to the extent Frankie is the indifferent, venturing business promoter, Frankie Christopher symbolizes the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz; he has no heart.

Robin Ray is the has-been, slightly portly ham actor, longing for the spotlight of younger days (he mentions his desire to have been cast recently as Romeo). Robin is also the wannabe idealistic lover wanting to run away with Vicky, to renew his acting career, as well as his hope and belief in himself. His interior persona is revealed when he is called into the police station for questioning regarding Vicky’s murder. Opening with a policeman behind a grillwork cage, Robin is seated, nervously smoking a cigarette, looking at the wanted posters, then saunters to the water cooler to quench his thirst. When Frankie comes through the door and taps him on the shoulder, he startles him: “Hello, Robin.” Robin jumps and spills his water.

Robin fretfully asks, “How do they go about these things? What do they do to you?” Frankie: “Oh, nothing much. It’s sorta like playing handball, only you’re the ball. Say, you should have worn overalls. I’m afraid you’re gonna get that suit all messed up.” Robin: “Are you serious?” Frankie: “What do you think”?

As they enter a special interrogation room, Robin inquires as if afraid of the dark: “No lights?” Frankie, egging him on retorts: “You’re lucky. Go ahead. You’re an actor. Pretend you’re going to your execution.” Robin sits in a dark, smoke-filled screening room, watching the screen test of Vicky (a screen test that he had originally arranged for the both of them). Wringing his gloves, eyes darting furtively from each corner, he springs for the door trying desperately to get out of the locked room, rattling the doorknob: “Let me out! Let me out of here”! He admits in the D.A.’s chambers that he had been shaken up to the point of causing an uproar when he learned that Vicky wanted to go it alone, not wanting “to hitch her wagon to a falling star.” But he did not kill her. On the day of her murder, he had an alibi: he visited a sanitarium, a place he goes regularly when things get tough, “and they take care of me.”[10] To console him, Frankie offers the somewhat pathetic, cowered, ashamed, defeated man a cigarette. Robin Ray owns the character of the cowardly lion.

Larry Evans, the column journalist figures as the scarecrow. From the outset Larry is portrayed as a yellow-journalist. He seems to write as the wind blows. Perhaps one of the most convincing indications of this yellow-journalism, and in general that he lacks the smarts and an acuity of discernment, is the scene when Frankie and Jill step out to go dancing. Seeing them together, he jumps up from his table and grabs a phone calling his office: Larry tells them to scrap a story about a Japanese spy. Now, when this film was shot, the United States had not yet entered the war, and Japan had not yet bombed Pearl Harbor. But we have here a possible momentous story about Japanese espionage on US soil that could have international consequence. Instead of letting this story stand, Larry orders them to run a relatively inconsequential bit of gossip: “What sister of what recently murdered girl is stepping out with the dead girl’s boyfriend? Dancing on the grave, I call it. The murderer has yet to be found.”[11]

The memory of an elephant, Larry has not. After returning to her apartment, chivalrously climbing in through the window to unlock the front door, Vicky announces that she is leaving for Hollywood. “You won’t forget me, will you?” she asks Larry. “I won’t for at least two weeks.” With a little wounded pride, she probes: “Two weeks isn’t very long, is it?” Larry: “It is for a columnist.” The basic sense we get of Larry is that he is scattered, has a short attention span, and is not in possession of keen powers of discernment. For these reasons, he fits nicely the role of the friendly but witless scarecrow.

All three characters, Frankie, Robin, and Larry (they each discover) are given a key to Vicky’s apartment – they are all travelers along the yellow brick road of Vicky’s success, and each in their own way are enamored with Vicky.

From inside and outside, the inspector, Ed Cornell, is the most mysterious of figures. Notice that the heavy shadows at the very beginning of the film, the key lighting, the bright lights trained on Frankie under interrogation – all this keeps Cornell hidden from direct view while he orchestrates the events and players. He remains behind the shroud of shadows, the curtain of anonymity: the Wizard.[12]

wake-06A characteristic noir look is scripted here by the innovation of the screenplay: casting Cornell as the murky mysterious “Wizard-figure,” with only his authorial voice barking accusations and orders from behind the cloak of shadows. Frankie’s response to Cornell highlights the case, snapping at the shadowy figure at the left edge of the screen: “You’re a pretty tough guy, aren’t you, with a crowd around? Why don’t you come out in the open so I can see you?” The shadowy silhouette behind the lamp [Cornell] responds curtly: “Never mind that.” A little latter, Frankie is staring into an interrogation lamp from whence the anonymous voice originates; Frankie can’t see him, and calls him only “wise guy.”

wake-07The viewer does not get to meet Cornell, or at least one of Cornell’s characters – matching the voice behind the drapery of shadows as the inspector – until after Jill’s flashback. He is only given audibly as the interrogative and accusatory voice, and visually through Jill’s flashback as the unnerving peeping tom obsessed with Vicky. It is Jill who puts them together for us after a sequence of complementing flashbacks by Frankie and Jill. No longer willing to take the insults, Jill demands to see someone in authority. Evocative of a raptor who just caught his meal, the voice [Cornell] yields: “Alright boys, keep him [Frankie] warm; I’ll be right back,” as he moves to the next room to hear the complaint.

On the one hand, there is a vision of a man, Cornell, who has a stellar fifteen-year career-winning streak of having never lost a conviction as police inspector. There is a vision of a man committed to the pursuit of justice, defender of the weak. He emphasizes that all of this is “simply a matter of justice” and insists on the universality and eternal nature of justice: “justice is justice.”

This latter appeal to justice, however, dissonantly follows his intrusion into Jill’s apartment! What is not clear yet is that justice and truth for him are not universal ideals, but highly idiosyncratic manipulators. He uses the fact that he has “never been wrong yet,” coupled with the definition of justice as the same justice for all and for all time, to carry out a one-time personal vendetta. He moves from an (ungrounded) assertion about reality for everyone else based on his reputation: “That man’s guilty” – to the confession of intent to break the law that he pledged to uphold: “I’ve got a good mind to kill you myself right now” – to an implicit self-condemnation: “If that isn’t the look of a guilty man, I will take the rap myself.”[13]

Cornell may not have lost a conviction during his tenure as inspector, but he did lose something more important to him, his obsession, Vicky. By the end of the film, it is confirmed that Harry Williams, the switchboard operator, actually killed Vicky; Cornell discovered this, but instructed the switchboard operator to return to work and say nothing. Discovering this himself, Frankie asked for five minutes of retribution, and precedes Cornell in Cornell’s apartment. When he steps into the room and first turns on one set of lights, he pulls back the curtain on the Wizard.[14]

Like Frankie, the viewer is startled with a shrine of framed photographs, and below them, an altar of flower offerings to Vicky. All the lights illuminated, the second look reveals two walls fixatedly covered with a dozen model poses of Vicky, advertisements, and glamour shots. It is now Frankie hidden from Cornell. Cornell unsuspectingly walks in the room with fresh flower tributes. The surprised Cornell, desperately clinging to his former persona, utters these words to Frankie: “Have you come to give yourself up?”

Frankie had already sensed a strange compulsiveness in Cornell’s action, action that had nothing to do with the pursuit of truth and the execution of justice. Portending his current discovery Frankie charges: “You’re not a cop looking for a murderer. You’re crazy Cornell.” With the disclosure that Frankie knows Williams is the murder, Cornell immediately reaches for his medicine and poisons himself. Cornell confirms to his nemesis: “I’m a sick man, Frankie.” Frankie: “At your soul, Cornell.” Cornell: “Maybe.” This points to a moral sickness, and not merely a medical condition (as in the book).

An almost tragic confession now retreats all of the dissembling curtains and shadows hiding Cornell, and exposes his inner being. He describes how he had stalked Vicky for months before mustering the courage to speak to her. He felt that she took him on his own ground, and hoped that they would start to know each other better, and that he would get up courage to ask her marry him one day. So, he presumptuously took the present apartment, started to furnish it and even stocked the perfume she liked in order to surprise her with it all.

He knew that Williams was guilty, but wanted Frankie to fry. Why? For him, and him alone, Vicky was gone (“I lost Vicky”) long before “Williams killed her.” He lost her individually before she was taken universally from everyone. Therefore, universal order, right and wrong do not matter, but only his singular need for revenge. There are perversions and inversions of “right and wrong” on many levels here, but one of the most egregious is that Cornell uses his position as enforcer of truth to advance his peculiar individual ends.

Cornell is no longer the hunter, the panther, the slaughter, the trapper, but is reduced in stature to a “worm looking up to a woman like that.” He snaps at Frankie: “I could have killed you then, Christopher.” Implicitly keeping the self-analogy of the worm, he explains why he did not kill him then: “Because I had the hook in your mouth and wanted to see you suffer.”

It is not crucial at this point to try to identify all of the “Dorothy” parallels. In the first case, while there are many parallels between the Oz film and this one, there are no simple one-to-one correspondences between all the characters. That is not the point. Their functions play a much more evocative role. It is clear, however, that both Vicky and Jill do exhibit Dorothy-like characters (as I will see below, especially in the next two sections).[15]

4.Visual, Staging, and Musical Clues. Let me now call attention to a few striking clues that suggest this overall interpretation of the film, clues that help to show the novelty and significance of this original film noir.

The first clue of note is a visual clue, a rather playful one, and it greets us in the very opening of the film. It is intriguing that the opening credits to the film seem already to announce its relation to The Wizard of Oz. Appearing in alternating angles of the cast’s names and credits, but especially in the overlapping of the producer’s, and director’s names, there is an outline and suggestion of a “crossroads.” They are the street signs pointing us in conflicting directions (like the famous scene of The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy meets the scarecrow at the crossroads, pondering directions to Oz on The Yellow Brick Road: Dorothy: “Now which way do we go?” … Scarecrow: “Of course people do go both ways”).

wake-08It is also a rather ingenious device to place the evocation of the crossroads in these opening credits. For the opening credits do not merely forecast the film. Because of their indicative structure, they are now associated with the film. They are themselves a signpost or way to read the film, and thus are already part of narrative (the same holds for continuing the musical theme in the ending credits as they are displayed).

The second and certainly more significant clue is musical: the refrain of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. For anyone who has seen this film, signaling this song will come as no surprise – the only surprise perhaps being that it has taken so long to come to something so obvious! Indeed, almost every critic who has commented on this film has noted the omnipresence of “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” It is cited either as an unexplainable curiosity or as a distracting annoyance.[16] Others, more acutely like Muller, have recognized the patterned association of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with the appearance of Jill, the “good,” “garden variety” sister, and the score of Alfred Newman’s “Street Scene” with Vicky, the “glamour girl.” Both instances tend to be associated, further, in terms of their relation with Frankie. This is especially evident when the themes oscillate from one to the other when Jill discusses Frankie’s cryptic note to Vicky.

But more than this, I suggest, the sheer repetition of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” is just begging the viewer to go beyond the mere association of the song with the character, and to become one main needles of the compass to orienting us through the whole film, namely, as a distinctive elaboration of The Wizard of Oz, and more precisely, as anti-Oz (anti-Modern). The repetition was probably necessary to drive home the point. Let us recall that The Wizard of Oz appeared in 1939, only two years before this film, and had an underwhelming reception at the box office. It was re-released in its theatrical version a decade later, and began to receive widespread popularity with its television broadcasts beginning in 1956.

The anti-Modern, anti-Oz, anti-home vision is also reflected in the staging and related visual clues. One of the most “Dorothy”-like scenes puts Jill in the kitchen of her new place, domestically bedecked at the sink with apron, dish towel in hand, drying dishes. Visually, the shot is classically edged – Jill appears through the stable, evenly proportioned and vertically balanced portico of the doorframe.

wake-09But for the viewer, the “home” was never really secure in the first place, because this “cozy” moment was shattered before it began when Cornell started to enter the locked door with his passkey. This stability is subsequently upset and almost violently disturbed by the re-intrusion of Cornell. Jill is doubly-confronted, by Cornell’s person and his imposing shadow (not to mention verbal assaults), and this gets represented through angular, unstable, unbalanced, skewed close-ups of unease, possibly panic, and fear.

5. Conclusion: Anti-Modern Film, Anti-Modern Challenge. I Wake Up Screaming is classically noir in at least two important ways. It conveys an anti-Modern worldview, and it presents an anti-Modern challenge to this disposition that resorts neither to traditionally (masculine) Modern nor classical themes.

wake-10a. An Anti-Modern Noir. I Wake Up Screaming cites and evokes The Wizard of Oz not to repeat its meanings, but to show that they are questioned in the new world scene. For better or ill, there is a new worldview based on a set of new experiences that have come to the fore. There is a perturbing sense of anxiety that something has changed, and there is no guarantee at all that human beings, at least in the Western world, are going to be able to get back to familiar zones of comfort after it is all over. Indeed, whatever is in store for humanity now, it will not be the same as it was; it will not be like the clever Odysseus returning full circle to his bed, or like Dorothy waking up from a dreadful nightmare to “home.” Lost is the feeling of security, permanency, and familiarity.

wake-11Furthermore, the perversions of truth, justice, and social life, are no longer somewhere “out there” that could be managed through rational technique or heroics. They are forces beyond our control. But worse, these forces beyond our control are within all of us, and there are no external powers that will miraculously stave the advance of corruption, unhappiness, the loss of truth, and the perversion of justice. The message is that human beings are separated from one another and juxtaposed as if in cages, alone. I do not wake up back at home in Kansas; I wake up in an uncanny new world, screaming.

These themes, devices, and motives constituted Humberstone’s I Wake Up Screaming as thoroughly anti-Modern, but also as a pre-eminent and exemplary film noir. But, I suggest, there is intriguingly another anti-Modern move in this film that does not reduce it to what is referred to today as the relativism of the “post-modern.” It has to do with the role of the “heart.”

wake-12b. An Anti-Modern Riposte: The Order of the Heart. Frankie Christopher is all a matter of business and promotion, personally indifferent. Like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, the man has no heart. This is established early on and repeatedly. The mollification of this stone heart is signaled through the theme of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” As suggested, it is not just a cipher for Jill, but for the pair of Jill and Frankie. In fact, the musical theme appears 12 main times throughout the film. Through their relationship, the viewer gains new insight into Frankie, or Frankie becomes transformed in the viewers’ eyes (and in Jill’s eyes). He goes from a possible killer, a heartless indifferent promoter, to a sensitive man who generously supports a slaphappy ex-fighter, a man who walks the streets of his old neighborhood, greeting friends along the way, to a man who acts like a boy going for a swim at night, a man who likes to go dancing, a man who exhibits an almost porcelain vulnerability in handcuffs, to a sensitive “artist” revealed as a passionate Italian (Botticelli). Jill to Frankie: “The trouble with you is you pretend you don’t care about things, but you do.” Dorothy-like or “good witch,” she brings out his heart from the very first meeting.

On their date, Jill asks Frankie if he loved her sister, Vicky. Frankie responds: “No. Do you think if I had loved her, I would have tried to exploit her the way I did. … that’s my business. But when a man really loves a woman [and now plays “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”] he doesn’t wanna plaster her face all over the papers and magazines, he wants to keep her to himself, right in here [he gestures toward his heart].” It is only when he meets Jill, and through the repetitive softening of his calloused edges, signaled by the soundtrack of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” that Frankie is little by little revealed to have a heart.

What is so anti-Modern about this? After all, one could exasperatingly retort: “Look, it’s a romance, a melodrama; what do you expect?” Nevertheless, I propose this idea, even if only as a very implicit motif, because of its deviation from the events in The Wizard of Oz and its consistent challenge to a Modern (and Classical) world-view. Let us recall that in the film, The Wizard of Oz, the favorite character of Dorothy is the Scarecrow; but in I Wake Up Screaming, the only character that advances or develops is the “Tin Man” or Frankie. In the film, The Wizard of Oz, the Scarecrow gets a brain, intelligence, reason or rationality; the cowardly Lion gets courage. These latter two figures represent in fact traditional (Modern and Classical) male virtues, reason or rationality, and courage, respectively. But in I Wake Up Screaming, neither Larry (columnist/scarecrow) nor Robin (actor/lion) are changed; they remain dead ends and in fact seem to stay the same, back at the same café table where they began.

Put in the context of this film (and perhaps the larger social and political climate of portentous war in Europe and East Asia) it is not more Enlightenment rationality or more courageous warriors that will be able to redress successfully the new realities. These ideas of “home” have been and will have to be left behind. Nor is the consequence an atavistic reduction of all human emotions to mere instinct (another Modern presupposition that reduces human experience either to rationality or to instinct).

Instead, the suggestion is that if the Modern has been so disrupted by anti-Modern experiences, it cannot be a matter of ignoring the contemporary crises and anxieties by resurrecting a new Modern world-view of “home.” We can’t go back to “Kansas,” and it will never be the same. It is not a matter of resuscitating a predominately male Enlightenment rationality or of re-instilling the masculine virtues of war. Still less it is a matter of reducing human co-existence to uncontrollable drives and instinct, now in order to escape the “human condition.” Finally, it is not matter of abandoning ourselves to the indifferent relativism of what is known today as the “post-modern.” The suggestion is that if there is a way forward, it is by retrieving what was silently present in the Modern, but shunned in the Modern. In this way and only in this way is it an “anti-Modern” gesture (where Modern is taken in our usual sense); if there is a way forward, it is by rehabilitating those interpersonal emotions circumscribed by the order of the heart.

As expressive both of the anti-Modern disruption of “home” and the anxiety of a new uncanny experience of the world, and an anti-Modern redress of the heart (not the virtues of rationality or courage), Huberstone’s I Wake Up Screaming earns its place as original and exemplary in the classical canon of film noir.

Anthony Steinbock is a professor of philosophy at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where he also directs the Phenomenology Research Center. He is Editor-in-Chief of Continental Philosophy Review and General Editor of Northwestern University Press SPEP Series. Steinbock is the author of several books, most recently Moral Emotions: Reclaiming the Evidence of the Heart (Northwestern University Press, 2014; winner of the 2015 CSCP Symposium Book Award).

Endnotes

[1] However, many critics consider Stranger on the Third Floor (Ingster, August 16, 1940) to be not just a “proto-noir” – proto, due to its “happy ending” – but because of its visual style, the first noir of the American noir cycle. For the controversy on this issue see, for example, Paul Schrader who holds the view I cited above in the text. See his “Notes on Film Noir,” in Film Noir Reader, eds., Alain Silver and James Ursini (NY: Limelight Editions, 1999), 53-63. It is consistent, mutatis mutandis, with his ambiguous assessment of Carl Dreyer’s Ordet (1955) among the “transcendental style” that we find in Bresson and Ozu. See Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (New York: Da Capo Press, 1972). On the other hand, Michael Stephens maintains that Stranger on the Third Floor was the first true film noir, and film noir has had no real ending, but only permutations. See Michael Stephens, Film Noir: A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference to Movies, Terms, and Persons (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc, Publishers, 2006). And on the relation between the Stranger on the Third Floor and I Wake Up Screaming Wheeler Winston Dixon, Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), esp., Ch. 1.

[2] Eddie Muller, Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998). See the commentary in the “Fox Film Noir” Series of this film.

[3] Steve Fischer, I Wake Up Screaming (New York: Dodd Mead & Company, 1941). The film is loosely based on the novel – loosely, because of the ways in which the film makes its own points. Due to the latter there are many important deviations that have their own symbolic typologies. (Let me only cite these examples. The novel does not follow a flashback structure, there are four main characters surrounding Vicky, the protagonist is a writer, Ed Cornel is known to us in his sickness and obsessions from the outset; in this film, it is replete with flashbacks, there are three main characters, the protagonist is a businessman/promoter, and Ed Cornel remains a mystery until the end.)

A different title for this film, upon which some promotionals were based, was “Hot Spot” (in reference to an early scene in this film where it is said that Frankie is going to “fry for this”). Eventually, pressed by the cast, the title reverted to the original.

Finally, it is noteworthy, as Francis M. Nevins suggests in his biography, Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die (NY: Mysterious Press, 1988), Fischer’s “Cornell” was based on the writer, Cornell Woolrich. Tony Williams further suggests that Cornell’s idealization of Vicky may be based on the vulnerable man’s idolatry of the female, which appears in so many of his works. See Tony Williams, “Phantom Lady, Cornell Woolrich, and the Masochistic Aesthetic,” in Film Noir Reader, 129-43.

[4] These original dimensions peculiar to this film can be seen even more clearly when one views it alongside its 1953 remake, Vicki, directed by Harry Horner. In short, the “remake” is really just different film that follows a skeleton plot line.

[5]We do not have the empty streets and spaces suggesting loneliness and isolation, like we see, e.g., in Huston’s later film, Asphalt Jungle (1950) or Dmytryk’s 1947, Crossfire.

[6] Venetian blinds casting bars over the characters became a common feature in classical and neo-noir films. Regarding the latter, we need only think of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) in the scene with Janet Leigh and John Gavin.

[7] On other occasions, Cornell tells Frankie that he will have him tied up like a pig in a slaughterhouse, and little later, Cornell equates Frankie with a “rat in a box without a hole.”

[8] Jean-Henri Casimir Fabre (December 22, 1823 – October 11, 1915). In the captions of the film, it is misspelled (or mis-referenced) “Faber.” Fabre was an astounding observer, and though a contemporary of Darwin, he was not an evolutionist thinker. Of the 40 or so books in French, and nearly 20 in English I found, none appeared with such a title, although there are titles that suggest the social life of insects.

[9] Botticelli was born in Florence, Italy, 1445-1510. This reference is also absent from the 1953 remake.

[10] This allusion to Robin’s faintheartedness is also missing from the 1953 Vicki. In the latter, he goes to a brothel to prove his manhood.

[11] When Vicky is “introduced” to Larry, she remarks that she has read much about him. “Indeed. Flattering, I hope,” he responds, “Naturally” she retorts, “Most of it appeared in your own column.”

[12] Again, in the 1953 version, Vicki, we know the character of Cornell right away.

[13] But whereas Frankie went out to get drunk after he heard the news of Vicky leaving for Hollywood – Frankie asserting that Cornell would have done the same thing – Cornell has a different response. He tries to frame another person for murder.

[14] This also unfolds differently in the 1953 version. Cornell is already in his apartment with lights on when “Steve” Christopher arrives on the scene to confront him.

[15] One could even find analogies between the “wicked witch” and “good witch,” but I do not think that this takes us very far in terms of the main import of the film.

[16] For example, Keaney writes that this is “an entertaining film (if you can ignore the constant playing of Over the Rainbow)… .” See Michael F. Keaney, Film Noir Guide (London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003), 207.

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