STEVE FISHER – I Wake Up Screaming. Dodd Mead & Co., hardcover, 1941. Paperback reprints: Handi-Book #27, 1944. Popular Library #129, no date stated [1947-48]. Bestseller Mystery B204, digest-sized, 1957. Bantam Books A2145, 1960. Black Lizard, 1988. Vintage, 1991.

    ? Film: 20th Century-Fox, 1941. Working title: Hot Spot. Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Carole Landis, Laird Cregar, William Gargan, Alan Mowbray. Director: H. Bruce Humberstone.

    ? Film: 20th Century-Fox, 1953, as Vicki. Jeanne Crain, Jean Peters, Elliott Reid, Richard Boone. Director: Harry Horner.

   Steve Fisher’s 1941 novel I Wake Up Screaming is undoubtedly the greatest title ever written in the English language. The novel itself ain’t bad, either, with a clever puzzle wrapped in a pleasingly corrosive portrait of the Hollywood Studio system in the 1940s.

   Fisher’s take on studio politics and personalities is as fascinating as the mystery itself, centered around a newly-arrived writer at a major studio and the murder of a would-be starlet poised to hit the big time.

   For mystery fans, Screaming also features a verbal portrait of Cornell Woolrich: “Ed Cornell” a frail, consumptive cop who haunts the story like some wispy wraith or a damn pest and solves the case in a very unexpected fashion.

   The dying detective makes a fine counterpoint to the hustling denizens of the rest of the book, strangely menacing, yet oddly poignant, and for author Steve Fisher, who finished out his career writing bad western movies, it’s a surprising achievement.


   When Fox filmed this the same year, they moved the locale from Hollywood to Broadway, changed the hack to a flack, and cast big, beefy Laird Cregar who looks about as wispy as a charging bull as the detective.

   Aside from that, though, the film sticks pretty close to the book, fleshed out with some fine players. Betty Grable and Carole Landis are merely adequate, and this early in his career, Victor Mature’s tough guy act seems faintly effeminate, but Alan Mowbray is delightful as a hammy thespian, and Laird Cregar well, it’s not the character as Fisher wrote it, but his Ed Cornell is a hulking, haunting presence that lingers in the mind.

   Screaming duly came up for a remake in 1953, as Vicki, and Fox cut the budget back to the bone, with skimpy sets, sparse extras, and a general air of penurious haste.


   Harry Horner, who created the sets on ambitious films like The Heiress and The Hustler got the directorial reins here and did a competent if unmemorable job; the film has a blunt look, forceful at times, but mostly rather bland, with a cast less charming than Screaming‘s but more interesting:

   Jeanne Crain and Jean Peters are better actresses in the same roles as Grable and Landis, but Horner doesn’t realize their potential. Elliott Reid wears the Victor Mature part like a wet raincoat, and Alex D’Arcy pretty much just stands there showing off his veneer as the hammy actor, with none of the charm Alan Mowbray showed us.

   As the detective, Richard Boone looks a bit more like Woolrich, and he manages to project a hint of the twisted, obsessive character, but again, Horner doesn’t exploit his potential. What we get is a film that shows some promise but never keeps it.

   An interesting side-light: Both Vicki and Fiend Who Walked the West (reviewed here ) feature off-beat turns by actors who later became major Hollywood producers: Aaron Spelling turns up in Vicki, and his name is probably familiar to anyone who watched TV in the 1970s. Robert Evans, who got the Richard Widmark role in Fiend, later produced films like Chinatown and Urban Cowboy.

   As actors, they’re not really very good, but strangely watchable.

Note:   I Wake Up Screaming, the novel, was previously reviewed on this blog by Marv Lachman. Look for it here.