The film opens after the murder of Vicky Lynn (Landis), an aspiring actress. The prime suspect is Frankie Christopher (Mature), a promoter who discovered Vicky waiting tables, groomed her for stardom, but was disappointed when Vicky accepted a movie contract and told Christopher she was leaving him. Vicky's sister, plucky stenographer Jill (Grable) doesn't believe that Frankie killed her sister—but that may be because she's in love with him. With an intimidating detective, Inspector Cornell (Laird Cregar), determined to pin the murder on Christopher, Christopher and Jill have to find out who did it themselves.
I Wake Up Screaming was a Playing Against Type role for Grable, or at least a playing-against-genre role. This murder mystery film noir was unlike almost all of Grable's other films, which were light comedies where she sang and danced.
This work exhibits the following tropes:
- Bookcase Passage: Jill tricks a policemean by telling him that Frankie has escaped through the bedroom door. The cop is trying to force the bedroom door open when it spins around Bookcase Passage-style to reveal a Murphy bed.
- Call-Back: Frankie enlists two of his buddies in the media to arouse curiosity about gorgeous Vicki when Frankie takes her to a nightclub. It works, as some high society lady asks "who is that beautiful girl?", his buddies tell her, and Vicki's star ascends. In the last scene, Frankie and Jill are dancing and the same old lady asks "who is that beautiful girl?", only for Frankie's buddies to say that they have no idea.
- Chiaroscuro: Smoky mood lighting in several scenes, like Jill's encounter with Cornell in the apartment, or the smoke-filled room Frankie's being interrogated in.
- Dirty Cop: It turns out that Cornell knew Christopher was innocent but tried to pin the murder on him anyway. The ending reveals that Cornell was in love with Vicki, and hated Christopher for luring her into show business.
- Dutch Angle: The camera is skewed from the vertical several times, like in the opening interrogation scene, the scene where Cornell confronts Jill in her apartment, and the scene near the end where Frankie is waiting in an elevator to expose the murderer.
- Driving a Desk: Some really terrible examples, like when Frankie gives Cornell a lift.
- Extra! Extra! Read All About It!: Frankie is news after he goes on the lam.
- Fake-Out Make-Out: Jill and Frankie do this to hide from a cop. Subverted in that they actually were dating by this time.
- The Film of the Book: Based on a novel of the same name.
- Have a Gay Old Time: "I do remember a queer thing that happened."
- How We Got Here: The film opens after Vicki's murder, as Jill and Frankie are separately being questioned. The events that led up to that point are related in flashbacks.
- Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain: The mild-mannered, desk clerk at the apartment building, who was hopelessly infatuated with Vicki, killed her by accident. He's played by the king of ineffectual sympathetic villainy, Elisha Cook Jr.
- Non-Indicative Title: One would think a film like this would have to have a Catapult Nightmare, but nope, no one wakes up screaming. The film was originally titled Hot Spot, but after that led test audiences to think they were going to see a Betty Grable comedy, the studio changed the title.
- Oh, Crap!: Jill, when she finds out that the creepy guy she once caught staring at her sister is the detective in charge of the investigation.
- Posthumous Character: The film starts out with Vicki being dead. All of Carole Landis's scenes are flashbacks.
- Sibling Triangle: Vicki, Jill, and Frankie. Somewhat subverted when Vicki gets a big head after fame gets to her, and ditches Frankie.
- Stalker Shrine: When Frankie enters Cornell's apartment he turns on a light and finds a whole wall covered with pictures of Vicki. In fact, the whole apartment is.