Here’s a film from the period when Douglas Sirk was beginning to establish himself in American cinema to the extent that he was working consistently on independent productions which would lead him eventually into a contract at Universal. Sleep, My Love follows Lured (1947) as a noirish thriller with a central female character. Sirk found himself working again with a script by Leo Rosten, this time from Rosten’s own novel (with help from co-writer St. Clair McKelway). But the production team was changed and the film was made for Triangle Productions which saw the return of Mary Pickford as a producer, though her involvement is acknowledged only via a ‘presented by’ credit onscreen. She had worked with the producers Ralph Cohn and Charles Rodgers before. Pickford was one of the founders of United Artists and was still a shareholder so the film was guaranteed distribution. Overall I think the film’s strong cast and Sirk’s sure visual sense gives the impression of a major studio film.
Claudette Colbert leads the cast as a wealthy woman in New York whose husband is plotting to organise her death and get his hands on her inherited money. The scheming husband is played by Don Ameche and the other conspirators are George Coulouris as a photographer and Hazel Brooks as the alluring young woman who hopes to spend some of the cash. The ‘knight errant’ who sets out to rescue Ms Colbert is played by Robert Cummings who says he runs an airline in China and is back visiting the US. There is also a small part for Raymond Burr, still in the early years of his career. His police sergeant is imposing but not of great importance in the plot.
Richard Courtland (Ameche) spikes his wife Alison’s bedtime drink and then uses hypnosis to push her into sleepwalking. This is familiar ‘gaslighting’ behaviour and also ties in with the ‘woman in peril’ angle in another 1948 picture, Sorry Wrong Number with a bed-bound invalid Barbara Stanwyck. I think the ‘noir’ label attached to Sleep, My Love is possibly used because of the drugs/sleepwalking angle as well as the noirish lighting of the New York townhouse. Otherwise, I’m not sure this is a typical film noir. IMDb tells me that although the film was mainly shot at the Hal Roach studios in California, the New York house scenes were actually shot on location in New York – I was convinced at least one shot had a matte painted background or some back projection. In visual terms, the most memorable scene for me was the Chinese wedding to which Bruce Elcott (Cummings) takes Mrs Courtland soon after they have met. Elcott’s friend, the groom, is played by Keye Luke, one of the few Chinese-American actors to work regularly in the 1940s. The wedding itself also gave work to several Chinese actors as extras.
Sirk directed Claudette Colbert a few years later in Thunder on the Hill (1951). The only thing he says about Sleep, My Love in his interview book with Jon Halliday (1971) is that it was Colbert’s part that interested him in the film, but that the plot was too constricting. This leaves us to wonder how conscious Sirk was of visualising the film in a particular style or directing his cast to give particular types of performance. Some commentators have suggested that there is a theme of looking/seeing running through the film. The conspirators are based in a photography shop, Alison in her drugged state sees through a haze and is unable to judge how to move. The central characters are quite distinctive. Don Ameche (who often played ‘Latin lovers’ is convincingly sleazy whereas Robert Cummings is bouncy, lively and seemingly prepared for action. George Coulouris is nervous and definitely rather disturbing behind his horn-rimmed glasses while Claudette Colbert moves from charming companion to anxiety-ridden persecuted woman with ease. Hazel Brooks spends much of the time languishing with a cigarette in a state of partial undress, exuding seduction.
The cinematographer on the film was Joseph Valentine. A look back at his credits shows a history of working with leading female stars of the period, in particular Deanna Durbin, Gingers Rogers and indeed several films with Claudette Colbert. He also worked with Don Ameche and Robert Cummings a couple of times (and with Colbert and Amiche together on a previous film). He had shot two Hitchcock films, one, Saboteur (1942) with Cummings as well as Shadow of a Doubt with Teresa Wright. He would go on to shoot a third, Rope a year later. He died aged only 48 shortly after winning an Oscar for his work with Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc (1948). He may have picked up some ideas from Hitchcock but there is little specifically noir in his credits. On the other hand, as a leading Hollywood cinematographer he would have been well aware of the 1940s trend for chiaroscuro lighting. The art director William Ferrari was not so experienced but he had been associate director with the great Cedric Gibbons on Gaslight (1944) with Ingrid Bergman.
Sleep My Love may be relatively minor Sirk, but is well-acted, visually interesting and has a lively pace. The plot does seem a little familiar and at the same time a little confused. But it is enjoyable along the way. There is a US Blu-ray version available from Olive films. The film is also freely available online. For me, this film demonstrates that Sirk could be a reliable studio director whatever the material.