The Coen Brothers film Fargo has a misleading title - the film is actually set in Minnesota for the most part. Midnight Run is also kind of misnamed because very little of it's action takes place at night, much less during the witching hour. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is another debatably accurate title, since all three of the main trio are kind of selfish assholes and their relative handsomeness is in the eye of the beholder. But you know what? Those are fine. I get what those titles are going for and I don’t see any reason to treat them overly literally.
But if your movie is named “I Wake Up Screaming” then I’d better see people arising and yelling. Period. That title is writing a check that the movie’s ass better be able to cash.
It’s time for some bad news: no one wakes up screaming in I Woke Up Screaming. There is a scene where our protagonist Frankie Christopher wakes up to find a find a shadowy figure hiding in the corner of his bedroom - but this surprise does not cause him to scream. Christopher merely startles, and then he settles back into the too-cool-for-school patter of a classic noir.
Which brings me to my next problem: a title like “I Wake Up Screaming” makes it sound like it is going to be full of horrific gore, and while there are a few acts of violence in this movie they are handled demurely. No, this isn’t a scary story about nightmare inducing monsters - I Wake Up Screaming is actually a noir tinged crime story that plays out like a game of Clue. As the film starts we discover that a young starlet has been murdered, and as the movie unrolls we meet a lot of men who might have had cause to want her dead. Was the terrible deed done by the reporter, or the local fight promoter, or the desk attendant she walked past every night on the way to her swanky apartment? It might not be the movie’s fault that it’s title conjures up images from the wrong genre – after all, it’s from 1941 and thus predates most of the films like I Spit On Your Grave that have similarly exploitative titles – but still, whoever titled this movie had to be aware that the shocking title “I Wake Up Screaming” didn’t really match the calm, cool and collected movie this actually is.
Fortunately, once you get past the truth-in-advertising problem the film itself is quite good. It excels in all the ways that you would want a noir to excel: the dialogue is funny in a smart-ass way, the plot is intricately structured but ultimately understandable, and the cinematography makes the most of it’s black and white palette. It rides the line between cynicism and optimism in the exact way that these stories are supposed to – it admits that this is a dark world where violence and moral corruption are always right around the corner, while also implying that the right culprit will eventually be caught and then promptly executed by the state.
I Wake Up Screaming’s strongest point is actually it’s casting. A film like this needs a main character that you can slowly discover, someone who might seem like a patsy at first but who slowly reveals that they are smarter than you think, and Victor Mature's depiction of Frankie Christopher definitely fills that part. Mature is just smarmy enough in the role that you can’t quite believe his protestations of innocence nor can you quite see him being a murderer, a duality that makes the proceedings particularly engaging. Furthermore, movies like this also need alternative suspects who are imminently suspectable, and I Wake Up Screaming stocks the cast with people who have untrustworthy faces; everyone seemed so shifty that I really didn't know who did it till the big reveal at the end.
Even though I Wake Up Screaming isn’t exactly the scary thrill-ride it promises to be it’s still a solid film, one that shows off the strengths of the old Hollywood system which favored actors who could competently execute stock characters time and time again. It might sound like faint praise to say that the instant you see the big dumb lug policeman’s weary face you know everything you need to know about him, but realistically, that's the best compliment you can give a film like this, which knows what it is and goes about it's business without a lot of fuss... Which is why this film's misleading and fussy title really kind of sticks in my craw. But what the hell, I have to admit it's eye grabbing. After all, "This Lady Was Strangled By One of These Four or Five Dudes, Probably?" is a more accurate title - but it's also a film I'm less likely to see.