Friday, March 19, 2010

Fiction: I Wake Up Screaming

I Wake Up Screaming
(Stephan Fisher, Black Lizard Press)
Amongst the numerous classics
both forgotten and not of the hardboiled school of detective and crime fiction of the 40s, 50s and 60s that Black Lizard Press re-released in the 1980s is this thin little volume, a book whose influence goes much beyond its mostly forgotten status. Originally written in the early 1940s, Black Lizard obviously reprinted a revamped version — Frank Loose states "the […] version starts with the Bantam book in 1960" — as the copyright date is not only 1960, but Marilyn Monroe, Gina Lollabrigida and Rock Hudson are referred to in passing within the book, though none of them were all that active when the book was first released (in 1941). Despite these small changes the basic story itself remains the same, as does the influence of both the author himself and the original film version of the novel, H. Bruce Humberstone's excellent I Wake Up Screaming from 1941, starring (amongst others) Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Carole Landis and Laird Cregar.
Humberstone's film, almost titled Hot Spot upon its original release and, in fact, released for a time in the UK under the alternative title is, according to Bruce Eder of All Movie Guide, "generally regarded as Hollywood's first film noir." An arguable statement, but whether or not it is the first is irrelevant; what is relevant is that stylistically the film is probably one of the most influential of all the film noirs. Its startling, highly original and still amazing use of lighting, shadows, angles, depth and music (seen previously in the Expressionist silent films of UFA Germany but seldom in English-language productions) has been copied and imitated by virtually every director who has ever dabbled in the genre of film noir, if only due to the influence of the stylistic delineations (and expectations) the film created. Strange that both the film and its director are virtually forgotten today by all but the most hardcore fans of noir. (Although Humberstone does have a star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1750 Vine Street, his is one of the stars which no one ever stops to look at—or, if so, then only to ask "Who the fuck is he?")
Actually, while it is arguable that there is no reason to remember Humberstone, since he never again made another movie half as influential — as mentioned in imdb, "[he had] no distinct directing style of his own" — it remains hard to understand why this film of his lacks its rightful fame amongst the coach-potato and retro-house masses. (More people seem to be familiar with Harry Horner's movie Vicki, an equally watchable but nonetheless inferior remake from 1953, which has the added attraction of featuring a young and unknown Aaron Spelling as the murderer.)
The book's author, Stephan Fisher, also has suffered unjustly to the hands of time, his name likewise relatively unknown despite being, during his heyday, a scriptwriter of similarly wide influence. Born Stephan Gould Fisher on 29th of August 1912, he died in Canoga Park, California on March 27th, 1980, paying off his mortgage by writing scripts for television shows such as Barnaby Jones, McMillan and Wife, Starsky and Hutch, Cannon, S.W.A.T. and Fantasy Island. He began his career, however, while serving in the U.S. Navy from 1928 to 1932 and soon had short stories in magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Liberty. In 1935 he even created a since-forgotten but at the time popular "Pulp Hero" named Sheridan Doome, who appeared regularly in the magazine The Shadow and eventually found his way into 15 novels, some of which were written under the pseudonyms Grant Lane and Stephan Gould.
By 1940, however, Fisher was in Hollywood, eventually writing for such companies as Monogram, Paramount and Universal — he was even nominated for an Oscar in 1943 for his script to Destination Tokyo (trailer), which he didn't get. When I Wake Up Screaming was optioned by 20th Century Fox, Dwight Taylor wrote the script for the movie (amongst other things, Taylor moved the action from Hollywood to New York City), but it is Fisher himself who is seen as being as influential on the stylistic development of film noir scripts as the movie is to the cinematic style. His plots — rather unlike those of Chandler and Hammett and predating other masters such as Jim Thompson and Cornell Woolrich — feature characters moving through worlds and forces in which they cannot control, populated by people driven by twisted psychologies and self-centredness — the best example being the sexually obsessed (and, in the book, impotent) Inspector Ed Cornell of I Wake Up Screaming (a characterisation reportedly modelled after Fisher's friend, Cornell Woolrich).
During the 1940s, Fisher supplied the film scripts to many of the best and/or most interesting film noirs as well as other genre films of varying budgets, including Johnny Angel (1945 / trailer), Dead Reckoning (1947 / trailer), The Hunted (1947), the gimmicky Lady in the Lake (1947 / trailer), Song of the Thin Man (1947 / trailer), the swansong of the series, Tokyo Joe (1949) and Road Block (1951). The style of psychologically driven plotting that he and Thompson and Woolrich innovated could by then be found in dozens of films he had never touched — today it is a given — but by 1953, when he wrote the script for the low-budget western The Woman They Almost Lynched (the catfight scene), his star was beginning to fade as the style of crime movies he wrote best had begun to go out of fashion. In 1958 he could be found writing the movie adaptation of Joseph Hilton Smyth's novel for the Roger Corman quickie I Mobster, and by the 1960s he was writing for A. C. Lyles, a producer who at the time specialized in C-budget westerns starring has-been veterans of the genre deemed unemployable by then-contemporary Hollywood. In his twilight years, aside from the work he did for television, he also (for some strange reason) found the time to supply a couple of scripts and/or stories for Paul Hunt (a.k.a. H. P. Edwards), a one-time underground filmmaker and eternal surfer who went on to make a trash such as Machismo: 40 Graves for 40 Guns (1971 / trailer), The Harem Bunch (1968), and the abominable Twisted Nightmare (1987 / review). Of the three-odd projects Fisher was involved in with Hunt, the most interesting is the oddly schizophrenic The Clones (1974 / trailer), which could arguably be an inspiration for the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The 6th Day (2000 / trailer).
Contrary to what the book's back flap says, the novel I Wake Up Screaming is not about "a down-o-his-luck sports promoter accused of murdering a young film starlet." In the novel itself, the man in trouble is a writer who, like Fisher in real life, has finally made it to a cushy Hollywood screenwriting job for the big studios. As he says on the first page, "Those first hard years were over. This was it…. this is the works." But his experiences as a screenwriter seem to be as surreally boring as those of Nathaniel West — a great novelist in real life whom you really should read — and, after falling in lust with and having some premarital sex with a beautiful, young secretary named Vicki Lynn, inspired by a mixture of boredom and guilt, he conspires with various industry colleagues to manufacture Vicki into a star. They are exactly as successful as they imagine they would be, but the final result of their endeavour is that Vicki is found strangled and dead in her apartment. Though there seems to be no lack of suspects, the sickly Inspector Ed Cornell seems convinced that our hero is to blame and sets out to prove it. As the book makes plainly clear, guilt lies less in who done it than what the evidence can prove – and Cornell finds more than enough evidence to send our man to the gas chamber. Assisted by Vicki's sister Jill, our hero escapes, and the two even manage to stay on the lam for some weeks before the net finally closes in and Jill is arrested. Feeling Cornell's breath on his neck, our guy finally follows up the leads by himself and not only discovers the real murderer, but finds out that someone else is out to use the law to murder him…
Needless to say, the overt sexual aspects of the novel were toned down for the film due to the ever present influence of the Hays Office.

1 comment:

Chris O'Grady said...

Good to see some attention is being paid to writers like Stephan Fisher and his I WAKE UP SCREAMING and also Jonathan Latimer's THE LADY IN THE MORGUE. Particularly Fisher's SCREAMING: I remember seeing the movie when it first came out and then reading the book and being mightily impressed by it. I also vaguely recall wondering why writers like that weren't remembered and mentioned the way Hammett and Chandler always seemed to be. I guess the establishment people have to pick a select few and ignore other aces like Latimer and Fisher and Carter Brown under his many incarnations.

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