Sleep, My Love (1948)

Sleep, My Love (1948) is a mid-period amnesia husband wife-murder noir based on a story by the great Leo Rosten.

As the story of a paranoid woman being drugged, hypnotised and gaslit into madness, Sleep, My Love features a host of film noir tropes that were hot in the 1940s.

The star of the show and the subject of the drama is Alison Courtland, a wealthy New Yorker, who hasn't a clue how she ended up waking up screaming on a train bound for Boston. When she phones her husband, Richard, the police listen in and overhear that she had threatened him with a gun.

On a flight home, fellow passenger Bruce Elcott is attracted to Alison — but as moral actors this remains a friendship. Elcott, played by Robert Cummings, does however become the detective who is going to solve the matter of her madness, and foil her murder.

Raymond Burr makes a sturdy entrance as the passive cop in Sleep, My Love (1948)

The heads-up villain of the piece is Alison's husband, Richard played by Don Ameche. 

Back home, Richard makes Alison agree to start seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Rhinehart. However, the doctor who shows up at the house for their first appointment is not Rhinehart, but Charles Vernay, a photographer hired by Richard, who is having an affair with another woman, Daphne, and hopes to get rid of Alison for good.

Don Ameche in Sleep, My Love (1948)

This Vernay is a great minor monster of noir, and his trademark is his thick horn-rimmed glasses, which magnify his scary eyes, whenever he pops up. And it is his job to pop up, because the plan is to make Alsion feel like this shrink is a figment of her imagination.

As a tale of gaslighting Sleep, My Love (1948) is not quite as subtle as Gaslight itself, but does make up for it in intrigue and madness, as well as many scenes of high society Manhattanite life. It also brushes into other film noir psychological territory, dabbling in hypnotism and psychoanalysis, bother of which are employed as murder weapons.

The idea that hypnotism might be as valid or even as respectable as psychoanalysis offers an interesting glance into  the novelty of psychoanalysis and the public knowledge around it, probably thanks in fact to film noir itself.

The beauty of noir is that hypnotism and psychology are mixed together as mental tools. As the US became interested in psychoanalysis, so did Hollywood and mental illness became a common plotline. Generally, a woman is being crazy — as in Rebecca, Gaslight and My Name Is Julia Ross — or sometimes the women is implicated in a crime enough to make her feel like she is going mad — as in Whirlpool, Cause for Alarm! and Dial M for Murder.

Director Douglas Sirk is not a name that features much in the dark alleys and diners of film noir, and his name is more normally associated with the marvellous Universal melodramas of the 1950s.

Earlier however Douglas Sirk made many fine films, including Summer Storm (1944), A Scandal in Paris (1946), Lured (1947), and this small gem — Sleep, My Love. Such a movie as this in the hands of another director might have darkened some aspects and offered psychological whirlpools and other diversions. Because it is Douglas Sirk however, there is a sense of socialite romantic melodrama usually lurking, even in the more amoral and 

Sleep suggestion to murder! in Sleep, My Love (1948)

There is an entire Chinese wedding sequence during which Claudette Colbert appears to become quite drunk, and as she speechifies and rambles at the Chinese families present — and it seems like something terrible is going to happen, such as a collapse or a humiliation.

Hypnotism in film noir unbound in Sleep, My Love (1948)

But it does not happen. Instead Claudette as Alison travels home from the wedding with a more sober Bruce Elcott, played by Robert Cummings. There on the steps of her Sutton Place mansion, there is a farcical, whimsical amount of toing and froing with a door key. The noir expectation is again that something is going to happen, something bad or something dark, or a clue is going to be found, or a psychological trait is going to be revealed.

Rescue by flashlight in Sleep, My Love (1948)

In the noirish mode of murder and deception, a fella schemes to shuffle off his dame, leaving his paramour lingering on the edge of anticipation. The narrative dances on the fringes of familiarity, a riff on the classic Gaslight (1944) tactics. 

Yet, it's a rollicking joyride, propelled by a top-notch ensemble, a breakneck rhythm, and a script that's as sharp as a stiletto. Colbert and Ameche, sharing the stage for the third act, with Midnight (1939) as their previous standout, weave a noir tapestry, while Cummings steps into a role reminiscent of his later turn in Dial M for Murder. The plot thickens, the tension simmers, and the game of shadows plays on.

The stylistic features of film noir are motivated by a desire to show more and extremer psychological states. 

Flashbacks, voice-over commentary, both were excellent at expressing interior state, and then adding to this the many possible plays of light and sound, and such emotions will deepen. 

Probably the most fun of all in Sleep, My Love (1948) comes with the sexual begging that goes on between Don Ameche and Hazel Brooks.

Don Ameche and Hazel Brooks in Sleep, My Love (1948)

One of the most common noirish tales will always be a story of abnormal psychology in a middle class setting, there are too numerous noirs on this theme that it is not even wise to commence listing them.

In the dimly lit corridors of troubled dreams, Alison Courtland, a chronic sleepwalker, stumbles through the shadows of her own haunting existence. She's convinced a sinister figure, donned in horn-rimmed spectacles, is threading the edges of her nocturnal world with the cold intent of murder. 

Yet, in the smoke-filled haze of suspicion, her husband dismisses the chilling reality, attributing it to nothing more than the fatigue of her restless mind. In a noir dance between dreams and deceit, the thin line between imagination and impending danger fades into the murky depths of uncertainty.

Don Ameche in Sleep, My Love (1948)

In the gritty alleys of cinematic judgment, Sleep, My Love stands as a lone wanderer, practically brushed aside by a director indifferent to its fate. It's a tale pulled from pillar to post by the relentless enforcers of genre, labeled everything from a woman's melodrama to a psychological film noir. In the dim glow of misunderstood brilliance, this film, draped in shadows of uncertainty, becomes the victim of whispered doubts — dismissed as not very good, or at best, confusing. 

Yet, in the smoky haze of critical misconception, neither of these damning verdicts applies. For in the heart of this misunderstood masterpiece, a narrative unfolds, mysterious and compelling, defying the narrow confines of preconceived notions.

In the dimly lit corridors of noir intrigue, Sleep, My Love (1948) unfolds, a tale wrapped in shadows and deceit, courtesy of the maestro at United Artists. Courtland, played by the enigmatic Ameche, weaves a web of calculated malevolence—a plot to extinguish his wife, Alison, portrayed by the captivating Colbert, to inherit her fortune and find solace in the arms of the beguiling mistress Daphne, brought to life by the sultry Brooks.

Yet, the noir gods intervene, personified by the mysterious Bruce, embodied by the charismatic Cummings, whose covert romantic interest in Alison becomes the unexpected foil to Courtland's sinister machinations. The narrative, a beautifully noirishly derivative concoction, finds itself in the capable hands of Douglas Sirk, a maestro smoothing the rough edges, perhaps too skilfully for the taste of true suspense. Ameche's portrayal, though, lacks the needed menace, a bland canvas on which the shadows of suspense struggle to dance.

Drugged-up and vulnerable, Alison becomes a pawn in a serial sequence of unfortunate events, lacking the driving dark force behind each misfortune. Instead, Coulouris as Vernay becomes the vessel of what little evil presence there is. The narrative builds, yet the intensity remains elusive.

Yet, within the murk of mediocrity, glimmers of noir brilliance emerge — the train's sudden passage inducing chair-clutching, the shattering of the office door, and the descent through the corkscrew staircase. Amidst it all, a noir siren stands tall — Hazel Brooks.  An icy, majestic spider woman, her allure captures Courtland's desires, orchestrating the conspiracy to discard the ordinary Alison. 

A scene unfolds where she, bare-legged, perches in an elevated throne, while the commoner Courtland supplicates below. A fleeting star in the noir sky, I yearn for more glimpses into her all-too-brief career.
In the grand tapestry of noir, Sleep, My Love takes its place, a decent entry but perhaps lacking the razor-sharp character edges that etch it into the indelible memory of the genre's aficionados.

Robert Cummings in Sleep, My Love (1948)

But none of these occur. The entire campy and diverting key incident is simply for fun, and adds nothing to the moment, and less still to the overall plot.  It seems like moments like this, while they do catch the eye, are more the mark of the melodramatist Douglas Sirk, rather than the dark dealings of film noir.

The police as represented by Raymond Burr take a back seat, third or fourth dramatic billing, and while not critical to the story, he does maintain the ongoing reminder that murder is a crime, and that there is a law out there which may be waiting to punish any lousy husband who may be planning such a thing.

Hazel Brooks in film noir Sleep, My Love (1948)

Indeed, all of the detective work in Sleep, My Love is undertaken by Robert Cummings — who goes through even more whimsy as he pretends to be an insurance inspector in order to break into Richard Courtland's office. The farrago involved allows for some neat acting, but the effect is more screwball than it is noir. 

Robert Cummings straighten his tie at the sight of Hazel Brooks in film noir Sleep, My Love (1948)

Several steps ahead of the police however, Robert Cummings' character is able to unravel the evil, and saves Alison's life more than once. His detective work involves the recruitment of a Chinese sidekick and a further pretence as he visits the office of the accomplice, photographer Charles Vernay, played by George Couloris.

Cummings photographed in film noir Sleep, My Love (1948)

In this office is the other secondary star of the picture — super provocative slovenly sex bomb Daphne, played by Hazel Brooks. Both Hazel Brooks and  George Coulouris are perhaps the most entertaining actors in Sleep, My Love — given that for all the antics and the trying, that it might be argued that Robert Cummings gelastic fun and games do not quite work, and certainly don't automatically contribute to a film noir feel.

Having spent a huge amount of effort persuading his wife that she is criminally insane, socialite and lousy husband architect Richard Courtland, played by Don Ameche does succeed in making Sleep, My Love (1948) a solid variation on the paranoid woman genre of the film noir style.

Claudette Colbert in Sleep, My Love (1948)

The paranoid women of film noir are rarely paranoid for no good reason, Regularly, they are being driven towards madness by a controlling environment, and usually this is being masterminded by a husband. As here.

The argument that somehow the film noir style degrades or demotes women does not make full sense in light of this most common trope. The moral failings are with the husbands and the point of the stories is that the women are not paranoid at all and that their fears are justified. Of the many paranoid women of film noir, Claudette Colbert in Sleep, My Love (1946) is among the most robust.

Alison Courtland does not take to her bed, although as is normal for the style she is often pictured in bed, most often because she has been drugged. She is faithful to her husband, not just insofar as her romance and friendship developed with hard-sleuthing Robert Cummings is concerned, but faithful in that she believes him and continually gives him the benefit of the murderous doubt.

Don Ameche in Sleep, My Love (1948)

Utterly out of the ordinary in his mean and murderous methods to kill his wife, this evil architect played by Don Ameche comes beautifully close in his plans — which include hypnotising her into suicide. 

There's no mistaking a sense of self-conscious homage to a variety of contemporary thriller brethren in Sleep, My Love, most clearly Suspicion and Gaslight, as arch high gaslighting melodramas.

Since there’s nothing much to be done on the confused wife’s hand-wringing side of the plot, the script by St. Clair McElway and Leo Rosten from the latter’s novel (Rosten scripted Sirk’s previous thriller Lured ) wisely spends more time delving into the husband’s machinations with his supporting characters: George Coulouris as a grotesque phony shrink in soda-bottle spectacles, Queenie Smith as a dotty little lady, and Hazel Brooks as a convincing caricature of the hard-bitten femme fatale, complete with fetishized black lingerie and long falling hair. 

Michael Barrett in Pop Matters, 2014

Perhaps quite on the button regarding the entertainment value of paranoid women in the 1940s and the necessity of them being the vulnerable, bed-bound dreadfully startled wide-eyes fearlings of film noir, the paranoid women of film noir are not as annoying as all critics make them out to be, although they certainly are a type to be reckoned with through the 1940s, a gendered example of something that was without doubt a troubling question in the culture:

... it’s what they used to call the Gaslight routine, the plot where the husband tries to convince the rich wife she’s losing her marbles so he can inherit her dough and trade her in on the younger model waiting in the wings. The attraction of this device is that it taps into women’s insecurities about being patronized, disbelieved, and manipulated by male-dominated society. The drawback is that it makes the heroines into the most frustratingly obtuse idiots in the world. 

 Michael Barrett in Pop Matters, 2014

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree that the high points of the film involved the sexual attraction of Ameche for Brooks! I don’t recall another film of that time when a guy’s sexual lust for a woman was so convincingly portrayed. When he says “Daphne, you’re fantastic!” you know what he’s talking about!