BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: formative film noir.

ORSON WELLES famously threw out the script for Touch Of Evil, and didn’t bother reading the source novel when he made that masterpiece. However, he surely, surely, must have seen Fox B-movie I Wake Up Screaming (aka Hot Spot), made by the forgotten director H Bruce Humberstone. After all, it’s easy to see Welles’ corrupt Quinlan in the corpulent, creeping police detective Ed Cornell of this film. And as Quinlan wasn’t above framing the people he suspected of particular crimes (though to be fair, he was invariably right), Cornell acts mighty suspiciously throughout.

The film’s plot is a typical mystery fare – a potentially innocent man goes on the run with a girl, while facing investigations from a determined cop. In fact, I Wake Up Screaming has a lot of similarities to the Truffaut film Finally Sunday!, which the Film Society showed at the start of the year. However, the film is admirably dark, especially for a B-picture. The lead character, Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) is an annoying smarmy little creep (I must admit I sat throughout the movie hoping that he was indeed guilty) who is forced to go on the run after a model he had discovered was found murdered. However he finds an ally in the model’s sister – played by soon-to-be WWII icon Betty Grable (Humberstone manages to get a few shots of those famous legs in there too).

This is early noir, with a menacing tone, real-life urban environments and anti-heroes aplenty. The police can’t be trusted it seems, and the high-class world into which model Vicki Lynn (Carole Landis) wants to enter appears completely fake (which also includes the acting world of Hollywood). All the male characters also appear to be in love with a dead woman, much like the later 1944 film Laura.

Screaming’s star is Laird Cregar, as Cornell. His disconcertingly soft voice and his ample frame dominate the proceedings, so much so that the film misses him somewhat when he’s not there. A marvellous scene was the sudden bedside appearance. Apparently the film took a few liberties with the source novel (by Steve Fisher), where Cornell was dying of tuberculosis (which would have added an extra dimension to the story). Yet this is of course Production Code era Hollywood, so a number of the darker elements of noir novels had to be removed (as they were in many of the great noir films to come), though it was refreshing to see some rather overt sexual banter (which was hilarious) throughout the film, and it must have been pretty cold when Betty Grable shot the swimsuit scene... But this is Cregar’s film, representative of an all too brief career (he died when he was twenty-eight from an obesity related stomach disorder) that seems partially eulogised by this memorable role.