Laird Cregar did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying detective Ed Cornell in I Wake Up Screaming.
Well I'm reviewing a supporting performance in a mystery, that's played by Laird Cregar who usually played rather unsavory figures in his tragically brief career, so I guess you know who did it right? Well just wait moment. Laird Cregar makes his initial appearance being a voice in darkness as the prime suspect for the murder, a promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature), is being interrogated by several detectives. The outline of Cregar as well as his voice certainly makes for an ominous presence in these early scenes. The build up of his character only continues as the first time we are able to see him more fully is still as a shadowy figure in the flashbacks watching Vicky and her sister Jill Lynn (Betty Grable). He makes his dramatic announced entrance as he is told to be detective Ed Cornell the head of the investigation and Jill fingers him as a stalker that must be the murderer. Cornell though has an airtight alibi, and I'm not talking Agatha Christie airtight. So if Cregar is not there to be the murderer what is he there for? Well to steal the show obviously.
Cregar has such a presence that is truly remarkable. Here he even gets to stretch past the psychopath as he plays the detective who will follow our 'hero' no matter the obstacle. These characters usually are portrayed as particularly foolish but that's not the case with Ed thanks in large part due to Cregar's performance. Cregar has such a powerful innate confidence about himself as he actually bothers to realize the method of Ed who is touted as a great detective. Well Cregar earns this in his performance as there is something so incisive about the way he quietly watches Frankie or any other potential subject. There is one particularly striking scene where he forces a couple of the suspects to watch footage of the dead girl and the way he so calmly glances at the men it only seems inevitable that one of them will break down. Cregar, even though he is indeed not the murderer, does carry such a considerable menace here as he makes Cornell almost an unstoppable force. The often calm manner that Cregar brings in Cornell interrogation manner is surprisingly off-putting as he actually shows how it was that Cornell likely solved his other cases.
Every scene he shares with Victor Mature is brilliant for Cregar. Cornell is assured that Frankie is the murderer, and Cregar presents this as he has him in his grip during every scene they share together. There is one especially fantastic scene where they share a car ride together and Cornell talks with Frankie over the case lining out his objective. Cregar is terribly chilling in the scene as we see him almost envisioning the death of Frankie in his eyes. As he states so gently how he will basically achieve his death by hanging while simply playing with a piece of string. Cregar brings such a quietly grim element that creates a palatable sense of dread as Cornell hands off the finished string to Frankie which has formed a noose. The noir I think easily could have fallen into a mediocrity if left purely to the leads and the story but Cregar never lets that happen. In the scenes where he does appear he makes such a threatening atmosphere needed for the film, and when he is not onscreen he is never forgotten. Honestly I think I definitely would have preferred the film if it simply had been a character study focused on Cregar's Cornell, since Cregar is so fascinating in creating the tenebrous detective.
Well as great as Cregar is as the villain who's not the murderer in a murder mystery the film in its final scene does explain why Cornell is so determined to see Frankie hanged. That being because this was not merely just another case for Cornell but rather Cornell dated Vicky when she was a waitress before Frankie discovered her. Cregar is outstanding in the final scene because brings such a genuine loss in Cornell as he speaks. In his voice Cregar conveys the loneliness of the man as well as those past glimpses of happiness of memory that Frankie did in fact take away from him. Cregar is rather heartbreaking because he portrays Cornell as the man who was the most broken by her death. Cregar's is able to realize this final revelation in such a convincing and sympathetic way, even though he was fine with sending Frankie to death row even though he did not actually kill her, that the film feels rather cruel when it still seems to treat the character with disdain. Cregar's performance earns more than that though as he wholly earns the surprisingly moving end note to his character, when he has been such compelling terror beforehand. This is an excellent performance from an actor who deserves to be remembered.