31 March 2002 | bmacv
Intriguing remake of classic 40s obsession-murder thriller undeservedly obscure
Despite showing the makings of a superior potentially classic film noir, Vicki falls just short of that goal. For the second time in the noir cycle, it tells the story of Vicki (or Vicky) Lynn, whose swift rise from hash-slinger to model to toast of the town ends in murder a crime of passion. It first reached the screen in 1942 under the title I Wake Up Screaming, based on a serialized novel by Steve Fisher. Eleven years later, 20th Century Fox decided on a close remake, which obviously did not go back to the novel but simply freshened up the original script a little some of the lines remain the same, as do occasional pieces of blocking and shooting.
We first catch site of Vicki staring out languidly from a panorama of posters and billboards that display her face to push luxury items. But almost immediately the glamour turns to ashes as we watch her carried out of her brownstone apartment on a stretcher. Her central role the haunting linchpin of the drama is told in flashback (and substantially expanded from that of the previous film version). The role falls to Jean Peters, whose screen career was cut short by her marriage to Howard Hughes; but here, she fails to generate half the magnetism she did in Pickup on South Street, of the same year.
The expansion of Vicki's part is only one of the subtle shifts among the dynamics of the characters. Jeanne Crain, in the early twilight of her stardom, portrays the sensible-shoes sister who cautions Vicki against the false lures of the big town but helps track down her killer. As the publicist who first dangled those lures, making Vicki a shooting star, Elliott Reid can't work up much sympathy as the prime suspect (he's too weak and generic an actor). So the movie's impact rests principally on the homicide cop who carries a secret, smoldering torch for the dead girl in this version, Richard Boone. Again expanded from the first filming, the performance may be one of the hard-to-cast Boone's best. Not yet victim to the character-actor ugliness that was to befall him, he shoulders his obsession heavily, almost sadly (though he plays much nastier than Laird Cregar did in 1942). And in the small but pivotal role of the desk clerk in the sisters' digs, the earlier Elisha Cook, Jr. is supplanted by Aaron Spelling; Spelling, who would become one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Hollywood, can't dispel the spell Cook works on us (and excuse those irresistible puns).
The emphasis in Vicki ultimately falls differently from the way it did in I Wake Up Screaming. In 1942, it was offered as a stylish mystery, a Manhattan whodunit. By the early fifties, it had become a story of obsession a psychological thriller a la Laura, with the same skittishness about the fleeting nature of fame. Whether this change of tone was intentional remains moot, since the script underwent no major renovation. It seems largely the result of the change in cast, with the various roles filled by performers with different strengths and possibly of directorial nuance. It's a shame this movie stays in obscurity, overshadowed by its forerunner; while neither version achieves the status of Laura, Vicki is by a small margin the more interesting of the two recensions.