Tough guys rule at "I Wake Up Dreaming 2013" noir film fest
FILM While frequently spiced by dames alluring and sometimes deadly, film noir has always been intrinsically a manly-man's world. Elliot Lavine's latest Roxie noir retrospective, offering 30 features over two weeks, seems particularly heavy on vintage male charisma. Whether showcasing the seldom-noted comic chops of Humphrey Bogart, the seldom-appreciated star swagger of Victor Mature, or Cliff Robertson having an unusually credible (for the era) mental breakdown, the range of familiar and ultra-rare titles in "I Wake Up Dreaming 2013" offers a compendium of variably tough guys in tougher situations.
If you're wondering where the series' title comes from, the answer kicks things off: 1941's I Wake Up Screaming is a most enjoyable murder mystery in which Manhattan sports promoter and all-around hustler Frankie Christopher (Mature) decides on a whim to play Pygmalion and make a pretty but coarse waitress (Carole Landis) his Galatea. Once she's successfully launched as a "glamour girl," however, she proves quite the little ingrate — "Why should I go on slinging hash when I can sling other things?" she leers, preparing to bolt for Hollywood. There's no lack of suspects (including reliable sleazeballs Elisha Cook, Jr. and Laird Cregar) once she's found knocked off.
The publicity at the time focused on 20th Century Fox's big wartime pin-up and musical star Betty Grable making her dramatic debut as Landis' "sourpuss sister" (meaning she's a nice girl who disapproves of her trampy sib). But the movie belongs to Mature, a big strapping lunk who became a punch line about looks-but-no-brains Hollywood he-men. (Later career highlights include playing opposite Hedy Lamarr in Cecil B. DeMille's vapid 1949 megahit Samson and Delilah, then getting mocked two decades later in the Monkees' 1968 Head.) But he's charming, confident, and surprisingly nuanced here. Oddly, Screaming's orchestral score heavily features unaccredited lifts from "Over the Rainbow" — a standard now, but then just a song from a two-year-old movie that everybody had already forgotten.
Similarly playing a semi-respectable Big Apple man-about-town, Bogart gives a master course in magnetizing viewer attention while seeming to do very little in the next year's All Through the Night. "Gloves" Donahue is a gambler — surrounded by memorable flunkies including Jackie Gleason, Phil Silvers, and William Demerest — reluctantly sucked by his busybody mom (Jane Darwell from 1940's The Grapes of Wrath) into investigating the death of her beloved local immigrant baker-neighbor. This being 1942, the path leads directly to Nazis — Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, and Judith "Mrs. Danvers" Anderson chief among them. Packed with priceless snappy patter, this comedy action hybrid may lack the "classic" cache of the star's other '40s vehicles. But it's enormous fun, even if it goes off the rails a bit toward the end.
Another revelation in the program is Screaming's co-feature Blues in the Night, a strikingly ambitious sort of jazz musical melodrama written by Robert Rossen (director and co-writer of 1961's The Hustler) and directed by another intriguing, now-neglected talent, Anatole Litvak. Following the very rocky road traveled by a combo of white musicians seriously dedicated to "real low-down New Orleans blues," this starless effort is one of those rare B movies that packs an incredible amount of incident and depth into a relatively short runtime without ever feeling cluttered.