So the title doesn’t have a bearing on much of anything, but who cares? It sets the tone brilliantly for this wickedly twisted noir. The film opens like other films, after the death of a beautiful young woman. Two people are getting grilled in adjoining rooms. Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) is a promoter and the former love interest of the girl, so he also happens to be high on the suspect list. He lays out how he first met the pretty young waitress Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis). With the help of two conniving friends, he made her into the next big thing. The has-been actor Robin Ray (Alan Mowbray) helps her reach the higher echelon of society. Mustachioed gossip columnist Larry Evans (Allyn Joslyn) plasters her name and picture all over his paper until the world is bound to notice. They make quite the trifecta, all too happy to give this unassuming girl a break.
In the next room, Vicky’s sister Jill (Betty Grable) tells her side of the story: She saw how Vicky was beginning to change. She stopped working as a waitress, became entitled, and began to look down at all those around her. Now a real prima donna, she ditches her benefactors ready to head off to Hollywood for a screen test, and Christophers is understandably ticked. It doesn’t help that both Ray and Evans fell in love with Vicky. There’s also something going on between Jill and Frankie, because in the wake of the murder they turn to each other.
For a time the murder gets pinned on the switchboard operator — the always wide-eyed and nervous Elisha Cook Jr. But the menacing police officer Cornell (Laird Cregar), has an almost obsessive drive to find Frankie guilty of the murder. There’s something else going on here. Like so many films of this period, this story is full of men desiring women. Some of it is understandable, some of it is casual, and some of it is downright twisted.
Although she is out of the film early on, Carole Landis has the key role as the rising starlet and she is the closest thing to a femme fatale in this film. But there are a lot of characters of interest aside from our main couple of Betty Grable and Victor Mature. His two opportunistic friends are no-goods but thoroughly entertaining, and Laird Cregar is downright spooky. The film takes on another level of significance due to the tragic suicide of Carole Landis which occurred in 1948. There is most definitely an allure to her just like the women in prominent film-noir like The Woman in the Window or Laura (1944). Throughout some haunting refrains of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” can be heard, helping to make I Wake up Screaming disconcerting from beginning to end.