The accidental film noir: I Wake Up Screaming

It’s Day 2 of For the Love of Film (Noir) — don’t forget to (or use the button on the right). Today I have a quickly scribbled, un-proofed, un-thought through look at the movie I watched last night. The studio considered calling it Hot Spot but, according to the DVD I have, the actors insisted on them using the original name, which is  …

I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone

As I watched I Wake Up Screaming last night I had two thoughts running concurrently. First, this should not be a good movie. Second, somehow it manages to be a good movie. How does that happen?

I’m not sure. I think it lies partly in Betty Grable, whose performance is a level above the other main actors in the movie.

It’s also in the characterization of Ed Cornell, played by Laird Cregar, who seems a cross between Vincent Price (in the slightly effeminate voice and its cadence) and possibly a low rent version of George Sand. (I mean vocally, nothing else, and not much there either. But there seems to be something vaguely Sand-ish in the voice.)

Cregar’s Cornell is creepy, to say the least, and that makes the movie compelling. Though the film’s mystery may be obvious, it doesn’t matter. The creepiness keeps us fascinated in a “slowing down to view the accident” kind of way. Cregar’s character isn’t the only one that gives us the willies.

Elisha Cook Jr.’s Harry is equally troubling. Soft-spoken and gentle, his focus and attentiveness to Grable’s Jill Lynn leaves us feeling something isn’t right about him. He’s stalker material.

Much of what makes the movie watchable is in the script. The bad guys in this movie – and there are a lot of them – are not villains so much in the commitment of crimes regard, as in their psychology. In fact, most of them have stalker-like personalities or variants of it.

They are all focused in some way on Vicky Lynn, played by Carole Landis. They want to either possess her, use her, or both. And she, being ambitious, is happy to permit it as she uses them. Thus, in a sense, she invites what follows from it.

Into this morass of twisted personalities come Victor Mature as Frankie, a kind of nice if goofy sports promoter (who find himself accused of murder) and Vicky’s sister, Grable’s Jill Lynn.

Frankie and Jill are the normal ones (for lack of a better word) and also the ones who suffer the consequences of a world populated by twisted personalities.

Visually, the movie delivers the noir goods but that may be less an aesthetic decision as a kneejerk response to making a crime movie in the forties. Crime equals scenes of darkness and shadow, ergo scenes of darkness and shadow. I get the sense director H. Bruce Humberstone was a paint-by-numbers kind of director, though that may be unfair to him. But that is how it strikes me.

Still, by accident or design, the movie looks good as a noir. It has a low budget feel and some very nice shots, especially near the end where we see Mature looking down at Harry snoozing at the front desk.

Overall, then, I Wake Up Screaming strikes me as an accidental noir. It discovers a noir world in the script it brings to the screen and in the kind of kneejerk response of how it visually portrays that script.

Much of what happens on screen is highly melodramatic and it would be too much were it not for the material driving it, Laird’s unsettling Cornell, and Grable’s much better anchored performance as Jill. Victor Mature looks great as a noir character, especially in the interrogation scenes, but he is often well over-the-top. Also, for about two thirds of the movie, once outside the interrogation room (and often within it) he plays a goofy kind of guy without a care in the world. It’s deliberate, in part, as it’s an aspect of the character. But it just seems too much.

And having gone on with all these negative comments about the movie, I still have to say I liked it quite a bit. However, it feels to me it’s a good movie through dumb luck; a film noir by accident.

Why we get the movies we do

Ignoring artistic merit for the moment, let’s look at movies strictly from the financial point of view. From what I can tell (and I’m no accountant), your best ROI (return on investment) is low budget. That seems to make intuitive sense and you have to wonder what thinking is behind the big budget movies.

I love going over the box office listings on this page (Box Office Mojo) not because I care about things like top ten movies but because I like looking at the estimated budgets and weeks on the chart relative to what they’ve made. On the current listing (which changes every week, of course) I can see three movies with budgets of $200 million or more. One of them, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, had a budget of $250 million and has earned $301,948,049 after 21 weeks. (This ignores ancillary products like books, toys etc., and also ignores DVDs etc. It is strictly the movie as it performs in theatres.)

Harry has made about $50 million more than its budget. Now let’s look at two other movies.

The Blind Side has currently earned $128,867,559 after 3 weeks. It had a budget of $29 million. So it has earned almost $100 million over its budget and after only 3 weeks. Then there is the other one we keep hearing about, The Twilight Saga: New Moon.  It has earned $255,363,052, also after 3 weeks. That’s more than $200 million more than its budget and again after only 3 weeks.

After 5 weeks the movie Precious has made $36,252,012 having been made with a budget of $10 million. After just 2 weeks the movie Old Dogs as made $33,924,385 from a budget of $35 million. Anything further it makes is essentially money beyond its budget cost.

Lastly, look at two of the most costly movies (both pegged at budgets of $200 million). After 5 weeks A Christmas Carol has earned $115,249,331, falling short of budget so far by roughly $85 million. After 4 weeks the movie 2012 has made $148,958,486, about $50 million less than its budget.

From an investor’s point of view, what movies would you want to have your money in? Which ones have the best ROI?

As mentioned, none of this includes all the ancillary material. You can be sure Harry Potter and 2012 are games, or will be, and there are DVDs and so on. But you would have to be sure you get a percent of those revenues before investing. Movies appear to have the best ROI when the budget is low (and that makes sense) but to repeat, why then would studios spend $200 million on something? Even when they make money the ROI ratio isn’t great by comparison. (It has to relate to the franchise aspect, meaning all the other products that spin off from it.)

To a large extent the movies that get made are based on numbers, at least as far as Hollywood goes. Did anyone need to see yet another inspiring sports story? You would not think so since they seem to get made with a regularity that makes my bowels envious. As it turns out, we did want to see another inspiring sports story. The numbers indicate that.

Yes, I know. There is a heck of a lot more to the financial end of movies and public taste and so on. Still, looking at earnings relative to box office and weeks in the market makes a fascinating study. However, what I would really like to see is the budgets relative to everything a movie makes in return – all in, as car dealers like to say.

The other thing that intrigues me is the marketing budget relative to overall budget for individual movies. Why do we hear so much about movie A before, and sometimes after, its release date and far less, if anything, about movie B? I’d like to see a kind of comparative chart on this.

Posted in: , Theatres | Tagged: ancillary products, blind side, , christmas carol, harry potter and the half blood prince, , , , , new moon, old dogs, roi return on investment, top ten, top ten movies | Leave a comment