German director Douglas Sirk is probably best known for his 1950s Technicolor melodramas that focused on female and domestic issues. Since their initial release, films like Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows have grown into critical and cult successes for their intelligent criticisms of American society. Bridging the gap between his early work and these celebrated melodramas is Sleep, My Love – a psychological noir that has a familiar plot, but sharp directing and top notch acting all around.
Claudette Colbert stars as Alison Courtland, a well-to-do New Yorker married to a shady guy named Richard (Don Ameche). The film begins with Alison waking up on a train without any recollection of how she got there. This ain’t no hangover though, it’s something much more heavy. She gets off at the next stop and alarms the police. Richard explains to the them that Alison has been recently suffering from terrible bouts of sleepwalking, which is how she must’ve gotten on the train with no memory of having done so. When Alison returns home, she’s haunted by a lanky-looking doctor in horn-rimmed glasses who’s lurking about their house, threatening her with evil “treatments.”
Richard insists that no such man exists because, as it’s quickly revealed, he’s gaslighting the hell out of Alison. He’s setting her up to be institutionalized so he can take her money and run off with his sultry mistress Daphne (Hazel Brooks). His wicked trick is a convincing one – even the man in charge of her case, Detective Strake (Raymond Burr – Please Murder Me, Crime of Passion) believes Alison has lost her marbles.
The only one that’s on Alison’s side is Bruce (Robert Cummings – The Chase), a pal she met on the plane back to New York following the train incident. He’s instantly smitten with her and their conversations wash away any doubt in his minds that she’s perfectly sane.
Their romance gradually becomes the weightier part of the story, with the suspenseful moments playing second fiddle. This is a pretty wise choice since early on it’s revealed what’s going on in the Courtland household. The early showing of cards drains much of the suspense out of an otherwise smart script. While it’s a plot we’ve seen before, Sleep, My Love is a strongly competent film that makes some clever decisions and sports damn fine acting across the board.
It is interesting to note that although Bruce is romancing another man’s wife, he never loses our sympathy. On the other hand, Richard is sleeping around on Alison and we hate his rotten guts for it. That’s how goddamn charismatic Robert Cummings is. That’s leading man charisma right there – go after a married woman and we cheer you on.
Ameche is a terrifically sinister heavy as he falsely sympathizes for Alison and Colbert displays some palpable range as she goes from sane to bonkers. Cummings is (like I mentioned) charming as all hell and Hazel Brooks practically melts the screen. There’s a clever moment when Richard goes to visit Daphne in a photography studio (that’s owned by the horn-rimmed doctor! Intrigue!) and there’s Daphne, sitting atop a pedestal like the femme fatale goddess she is – there to be worshiped as she burns your life to the ground.
There’s really nothing particularly fancy or expressionistic as far as the production goes. Sirk does have some fun with shadow and light, using them to reveal secrets or keep others in the dark. The climax is something really special though. Without spoiling anything, it concerns something established early on in the film regarding the Courtland’s home. It’s a gripping moment that’s clever and suspenseful while also acting as a nice visual metaphor for Richard’s deceit.
Olive Films released a DVD and Blu-ray of Sleep, My Love earlier his year and I highly recommend it. Sirk completists and fans of noir will definitely want it on their shelves.