Saturday, 16 September 2017

I Wake Up Screaming & The Chase

It has been a minute since I covered some film noir. Here are a pair of gems from the classic period.

I Wake Up Screaming (1941)
Following the murder of his beautiful protege Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis), hotshot promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) is the prime suspect. Hounded by an imposing detective, Cornell (Laird Cregar), Frankie has to go on the run to find the murderer before he goes to the chair.

    One of the earliest noir, I Wake Up Screaming represents an interesting intersection point between a couple of different genres and what we now know as film noir. Framed as flashback heavy mystery, I Wake Up Screaming features many of the tropes one would come to associate with the genre: a wrongly accused man as the protagonist; use of chiaroscuro; a sense of fatalism as the protagonist falls deeper and deeper into danger. More abstractly, it also provides an early example of the genre's fixation with femininity, here reflected in the deranged obsession the film's antagonists have with the beautiful murder victim.

    The character of Cornell is the most fascinating (and disturbing) element of the film. His creepy obsession with the dead woman makes for a nice contrast with his public facade as a hard--nosed detective. In many respects he is a spiritual forebear to Laura's Waldo Lydecker, only he covers up his infatuation with bellicosity and machismo. His desire is closer to romance than Lydecker, although it feels strangely infantile and impotent.     

    While he is not the culprit, he does get the film's stand-out suspense sequence - appearing at the foot of Frankie's bed, appearing like a ghost out of nowhere.  


    Despite these elements, the film is not a fully-formed noir. Much of the action is played as a comedy thriller, with an emphasis on the burgeoning romance between Betty Grable and Victor Mature. The film's multifaceted tone is actually one of the film's selling points. The mix of (relatively) light romance and dark psychological drama complement each other, giving the story's dramatic shifts more punch.

    Once Frankie goes on the run, the movie begins to resemble The 39 Steps, mixing the suspense of the police manhunt with the romantic atttraction between Mature and Grable. The film's recurring motif of using 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow' as a romantic refrain gains an ironic edge, as Frankie gets deeper into his predicament.

    In terms of acting, the cast are all on good form. Mature has a good time as the flashy Christopher while Grable is surprisingly effective as the 'plain jane' sister (although that is a stretch). The real standout is Laird Cregar as the deranged Cornell. Simmering with rage, he underplays his mania just enough that the reveal of his real motives comes off as a genuine surprise.

    The movie's 82 minute runtime ensures that it moves at a clip but this is one case where it could have used a little breathing room - Frankie's peril never feels that real, in spite of Cregar's imposing presence.

    Overall, a solid chunk of old-school entertainment and an intriguing look at the development of the genre we now know as film noir.

    The Chase (Arthur Ripley, 1946)
    When you watch a lot of film noir, you are going to notice the name Cornell Woolrich (or his pen name William Irish) pop up a lot in the credits. Woolrich wrote many novels and short stories which were later adapted for film, including the classic noir Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmack, 1944), boy-cried-wolf thriller The Window (Ted Tetzlaff, 1949), and most famously, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954).

    Based on a story by Woolrich, The Chase is based on a familiar Woolrich scenario: a protagonist caught in a nightmarish scenario.

    Chuck (Robert Cummings) is a WWII vet-turned-Miami drifter who, thanks to an act of kindness, becomes the chauffeur for a vicious gangster, Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran). While working for Roman, Chuck falls under the spell of his tortured wife, Lorna (Michele Morgan).

    He quickly comes up with a plan for both of them to escape to Havana. They manage to get away, but it is not long before Roman has Chuck framed for Lorna's murder. Back on his own, he is murdered by Roman's sociopathic stooge (Gino).

    At this point, Chuck wakes up. It is the day he and Lorna are supposed to take the boat to Havana. His attempted escape was all a dream. At this point we learn that Chuck suffers from PTSD and has completely forgotten about Roman and Lorna. He goes back to the only place he remembers: the military hospital.

    Meanwhile, Roman has discovered Lorna is in love with Scotty and is not too happy. Will Chuck remember what happened in time to save her?

    The Chase is a pretty solid thriller for its first half, growing increasingly more bleak as it progresses. And just when it could not get worse, it pulls the rug out. But while it could be an easy cop-out, it is just a springboard to a different kind of thriller: a race against time in which the hero is completely helpless... or so it seems.

    While it is not the most well known noir, The Chase has gained notice for its unique structure: the entire second act is Chuck's nightmare of their escape going wrong, with both characters ending up dead.

    While Cummings and Morgan are fine, it is the villains who really make this movie stand out. Steve Cochran is an actor I am not that familiar with, but on this evidence I need to check out more of his stuff. With Lorre as his second, I was expecting him to steal the spotlight, but it is the more clean-cut, 'all-American' Cochran who stands out. He balances an excruciating level of politeness with sudden bursts of violence - the scene where he socks a hairdresser for a minor mistake is genuinely shocking.
    Lorre is also great as Gino. He plays the role as a sadist who cannot be bothered disguising his disgust for other human beings. Between his apathy and Cochran's sadism, they give the movie a malicious sense of humour that adds to the sense of events escalating out of control.

    The ending is a bit too neat and tidy, but The Chase is still one of the best noirs I have seen in a long time.

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