The 1948 thriller Sleep, My Love has a Chandler-esque title reminiscent of Farewell, My Lovely, and opens in strong Freudian style with a train in the night screaming towards the camera. It’s a solid piece of work directed by Douglas Sirk with style and pace but he can’t do much with Leo Rosten’s too-familiar story.
Also screaming is wealthy New Yorker Alison Courtland (Claudette Colbert), who wakes up on a train bound for Boston with no idea how she got there. In her bag is her husband’s gun. He (Don Ameche), meanwhile, is back in New York nursing a bullet wound and filling in Detective Strake (Raymond Burr) on details about his missing wife, who, it seems, has done this sort of thing before.
The fact that Mr and Mrs Courtland don’t share a bedroom interests the detective – “I see,” says Burr significantly – and is enough of a nudge to alert us to the fact that things might not be as they appear between the married couple. And when, a bit further down the line, we’re informed by one of the wife’s usefully chatty old school buddies that it’s Alison who comes from money, and that this fabulous New York townhouse is hers not his, well…
This happens once Alison is “safely” back in New York, where husband Richard has insisted on getting a shrink in. Unfortunately for him, en route back home, Alison has become friendly with Bruce (Robert Cummings), the handsome, charming and smart friend of her old school buddy. Bruce is going to single-handedly ruin Richard’s attempts to nudge his wife towards total breakdown or worse.
Given that audiences of the late 1940s all knew the plot of Gaslight, a big film from only four years earlier (or eight years if you prefer the original 1940 British version, also a big hit), it’s amazing how slowly Rosten plays out his story of a woman being… gaslit, we’d now say… by her husband, using dodgy psychiatry, drugged cocoa and suggestions whispered in the night to drive her insane. But everyone goes through the motions of this being the first time around with some dedication.
There are plenty of other familiar stops along with way, in particular Hazel Brooks as Daphne. Daphne is a proper femme fatale who sulks about in barely any clothes for most of the film. She has completely turned poor old Richard’s head – “I want what she has got. Her name, her house, her man. And I want them now,” she tantrums at one point. What can the silly man do except go along with it, a bad-to-the-bone woman being hard to resist.
Colbert had won the Best Actress Oscar 14 years before for It Happened One Night but by 1948 was winding towards the end of her movie career. Within six years she was in “TV only” territory, but here the star on the way down meets a director on the way up, Douglas Sirk having only arrived as a refugee from Hitler’s Germany five years earlier, having changed his name from Detlef to Douglas en route. Colbert is actually a lot better than the film needs her to be, and is particularly good in a funny scene where Bruce takes her off to the wedding of “his brother”, who turns out to be Chinese, and where she gets pretty drunk on some Chinese spirit made from melon skins. “Engappay”, they call it, repeatedly. No amount of Googling sheds any light.
Colbert would turn up in another Sirk film, 1951’s Bonaventure, and might have given him the idea to remake Imitation of Life. She’d starred in the 1934 version and Sirk would go on to have one of his biggest hits with his 1959 version starring the notorious Lana Turner.
But those are in the past and the future. Here we’re largely in the business of handing out plaudits to people for not banging into the furniture, though the dialogue is good and snappy and Sirk makes it look like a production that cost a lot more, thanks to sumptuously dressed sets and lighting (by Joseph Valentine) that delivers pools of suspicious shadows when the going gets psychological.
You might wonder why Burr is in it at all, especially given that Detective Strake does no real detecting, and you might lament that Rita Johnson as Alison’s perma-babbling blonde friend Barby (come on) isn’t used a bit more. And you might also wonder if Sleep, My Love is in any way connected to the 1940 romcom Arise, My Love, which also starred Colbert. It isn’t.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021