Friday, August 3, 2007

Movies: Sorry, Wrong Number and I Wake Up Screaming (or Hot Spot)

It's getting to the point that these movies are starting to blur together a bit (mind you, my blog is three days behind my viewing, so by today I've actually seen ten cigarette-studded black and white movies over the past five days. That's a lot of fedoras, a lot of lipstick, a lot of gunshots, and a lot of wisecracks. Sorry, Wrong Number stands apart; I Wake Up Screaming doesn't.

Sorry Wrong Number, set to a sometimes thrilling, sometimes grating Franz Waxman score (oh, the scraping violin crescendo of impending doom!), opens with a display of Barbara Stanwyck, a neurotic, JAP-type daddy's girl, sitting up in bed in her Sutton Place apartment. With a white princess phone on one nightstand and a veritable drugstore of pills on the other, we quickly see that this is her command center; a quick pan to a Victorian-looking wheelchair in the corner of the room confirms it: she's an invalid. The bedroom's casement window is open out to a beautiful nighttime view of the river and the Queensborough bridge, and she's all alone; her husband was supposed to be home hours ago and her nurse has taken the night off. She calls the operator to connect her to her husband's office, but through what seems to be crossed wires, she overhears two thugs planning a murder for that very night. Little does she imagine that the murder they are planning is her own.

The movie progresses with mounting tension as we find out more about her past, her father's wealth (he's a self-made drugstore mogul), her husband's destitution (he was a nobody from the wrong side of the tracks when she fell in love with him for no apparent reason, other than the fact that her college roommate was in love with him as well), the state of their relationship (she has the money and she wears the pants; she keeps him on a short leash and he's been struggling against it since the wedding), and his illegal activities (he's made a partnership with one of the chemists at Daddy's company and the two of them are skimming a percentage of drugs and selling them to some unsavory business colleagues, who turn out to be the big trouble makers). We don't like little miss—her illness is psychosomatic, she wears lipstick in bed, and she's basically the most spoiled brat you've ever encountered—but as the plot unfolds and we see that her husband had a hand in planning her death (he had the squeeze put on him by the unsavories), we feel a good dose of shock and (delicious) horror when we see the killer's shadow approach her bed. As she crumples dead against the pillow, the phone rings, and the killer, with the best Brooklyn Noir Gangster voice ever, picks it up and says, "Sorry—Wrong numba."

I Wake Up Screaming has a less literal title; no one wakes up screaming in this movie and in fact, I don't think anyone actually screams either. It's a much more sneaky kind of scary, less frenetic than Sorry, Wrong Number, but more sick and eerie. This is largely thanks to the very disturbing Laird Cregar, a detective looking for the murderer of a sparkling (and again, bratty) wanna-be starlet (played to the nines by Carol Landis). The detective wants nothing better than to pin the rap on suave-as-silk sports promoter Frankie Christopher (what a name!), played, again to the nines, by Victor Mature (what a name!), who discovered the little celebrity when she was nothing but a "hash-slinger" (diner waitress). Now that she's dead, Christopher is free to pursue his real infatuation: the starlet's more subtle stenographer sister (Betty Grable, who, next to Carol Landis, looks dull as dishwater).

There are other suspects in the case, but the detective ignores them, hulking around in the dark, prowling the streets and sneaking into Christopher's apartment to watch him sleeping (hence the title, I guess, although Mature's too tough to play a man who screams). In a climax that renders all of Hitchcock's creepizoids completely impotent by comparison (I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Hitchcock learned much of his art from this movie), Christopher breaks into the detective's apartment, finding that the entire thing is a shrine dedicated to his dead starlet: there is an altar with fresh flowers and candles beneath her headshot, and the walls are lining with newspaper cuttings and all of the advertisements in which she had modeled. It turns out that our detective/stalker had been stalking our starlet back when she was just a mere hash-slinger, but since Christopher got it into her head that she could be a star, she would have nothing to do with him. He knows that the real murderer was the doorman of her building, but he let him off and willfully intended Christopher to get back at him. Before Christopher can bring him to justice, the detective has swallowed a draught of poison, leaving Christopher and Dull as Dishwater to live happily ever after. Hitchcock, on the other hand, would never have left his audience feeling so comfortable at the very end.

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