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A House of Nightmares: Douglas Sirk’s Sleep, My Love

Sleep 1

By Jeremy Carr.

Sleep, My Love begins with a nightmarish state of panic as Alison Courtland (Claudette Colbert) wakes to find herself inexplicably on a Boston-bound train. She doesn’t remember boarding the train. In fact, the last thing she recalls is going to sleep in her New York City home. But here she is, and other passengers say they saw her at the station. In her purse, she finds a gun. As trains barrel down the tracks, blinding lights and piercing horns accentuate Alison’s sudden, bewildering, and terrifying situation. Back at her house, Detective Sgt. Strake (Raymond Burr) follows up on Richard W. Courtland’s call about his missing wife. Richard (Don Ameche) concurs that the last he saw his wife she was in her bed. He tells Strake he’s worried this time … This time? Alison calls to reassure Richard with her whereabouts, just after Strake notices that Richard is hurt. It’s only a superficial wound, he explains, an accident while cleaning his gun.

Sleep 2The above has all taken place in the first ten minutes of this 1948 film, directed by Douglas Sirk. It’s a gripping opening that dramatically sets the scene for what is a very solid film noir. As the picture progresses, it’s revealed that the woman who helped Alison in Boston, Grace Vernay (Queenie Smith), gave a false name. Back in New York, she joins Daphne (Hazel Brooks), who is introduced in slinky, black lingerie; the vampish beauty, clearly up to no good, is something else, and frankly, there’s not enough of her as the film goes on. She and Grace are also with Charles Vernay (George Coulouris), a photographer and co-conspirator who soon shows up at the Courtland house telling Alison he is Dr. Rhinehart, there to help her with whatever it is that ails her. Sleep walking? Some sort of mental illness? Something, perhaps, not so natural? We also meet Bruce Elcott (Robert Cummings). Far more than the others, he seems decent, maybe even one of the good guys.

One of Sleep, My Love’s strongest attributes is its initial ambiguity. So much has been brought up and left out in the open, unexplained and primed for imminent ramifications, that the possibility of everyone having an angle seems perfectly plausible. All we know for sure is that a scheming group of deceitful, fallacious individuals is manipulating poor Alison. The motive is unclear, until, that is, we discover that this group also includes Richard, who is romantically linked with Daphne. When Bruce takes Alison out for an evening, the film pulls back. The night of revelry gives her just what she needs. And we needed it to. A frivolous trip to a wedding provides Alison and the audience a brief respite, a chance to catch our breath and put everything together before jumping back into the plot.

Sleep 3It would be ideal if Sleep, My Love could sustain this level of breathless energy and suspense, but perhaps inevitably, as more is exposed the less creatively mysterious it all becomes. And once it’s clear that Bruce begins to suspect something and starts his own investigation, we realize Alison will be safe and some of the suspense diminishes, or at least it transfers to his inquiry rather than her wellbeing. To the credit of the screenwriters — St. Clair McKelway and Leo Rosten, working off his own novel — the film hits the ground running and even when it loses steam it’s still never anything less than interesting. Even when it establishes the relatively commonplace device of a husband slowly poisoning his wife, the film is original enough to throw hypnosis into the mix, resulting in an additional level of potential danger for the female protagonist. The drugging is bad enough, but with the psychological torment, Sleep, My Love surprisingly strays from a standard thriller and enters into a territory that borders on horror. This is particularly the case when Charles, in the guise of Dr. Rhinehart, repeatedly shows up to toy with Alison, appearing as a frightening vision to this unstable, fragile woman.

Most famously, and understandably, known for his extraordinary melodramas, these films nevertheless make up only a portion of Douglas Sirk’s output. But if one draws parallels between these films and a film like Sleep, My Love, there are some interesting connections. First and foremost is the use of a residence as the domestic arena against which the drama unfolds. The home here serves part of the same function as in these melodramas, insofar as it’s a realm of externally perceived stability but, behind those doors, as so many Sirk films have shown, lays a far more troubling reality. Working within the conventions of noir, Sirk simultaneously makes the interior of the house itself a vibrantly duplicitous setting, one that fluctuates as darkness falls. By day, all is typically bright and right; for the most part, it’s welcoming, well lit, and secure. By night, however, these same locations, crucially never fully lit once in the dark, bring out the hidden cruelty. (Even in the daytime, note how the atmosphere changes when Charles/Dr. Rhinehart closes the blinds, turning light into darkness in more ways than one.) During the wonderfully staged conclusion, illumination, or the lack thereof, plays a crucial role as lights are first out, then turned on, shot out, turned on, etc. As the tension mounts, the characters try to light the home as a way of ascertaining protection, but in this genre, that in itself is a key obstacle. And by the very end, one of the key characters declares, “In a little while, we’ll be out of this house forever,” as if the house itself were the catalyst for what had ensued. Sirk’s homes frequently play an integral role in his narratives and formal designs, but rarely do houses as dynamic structures take on the qualities this one does.

Sleep 4Again, Sirk’s stunning use of color in his later melodramas is probably what he is most lauded for, and, again, rightly so. But here with this black and white feature, his images need no such embellishment. A comparison with Hitchcock is to be expected with a film like this, so let it be said, as Hitchcock did so well, Sirk too utilizes an array of camera maneuvers and angles to provide a visual association with the frenzied, anxious tone of the film. (Having Joseph A. Valentine as his cinematographer certainly helped.) This works especially well in the interior sequences, not only because that’s where the tension mounts, but it breaks up the enclosed spaces and freshly presents the recurring ones, avoiding the potential outcome of bound, tedious familiarity.

Claudette Colbert, obviously a more than capable actress (with an Oscar and two nominations by this point), does not, unfortunately, get much to work with here. She essentially starts the picture in a state of fretful hysteria and pretty much remains that way, save for perhaps the night out with Cummings, where she’s then in a state of drunken hysteria. On the other hand, Ameche is delightfully sinister. He plays Richard as a competent, slick manipulator, sharply covering all his bases. He’s no von Stroheim, but he is fun to hate.

Sleep, My Love was distributed on Blu-ray by Olive Films in April. This Chicago-based company may not have the name recognition of, say, the Criterion Collection, but with recent releases such as Men in War, Caught, Stranger on the Prowl, and The Pawnbroker, to say nothing of its total output in the past year, it has established itself as a fine source for lesser-know but still exceptional works by major filmmakers. Sleep, My Love is one such film.

Jeremy Carr is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for the publications Bright Lights Film JournalCineActionSound on Sight, and Moving Pictures Magazine.

1 Comment for “A House of Nightmares: Douglas Sirk’s Sleep, My Love

  1. Wheeler Winston Dixon

    Yes, this is an excellent film, and like Sirk’s equally masterful SHOCKPROOF, pretty much ignored in overviews of the director’s work, which usually focus on his glossy Technicolor melodramas of the 1950s – which, of course, are also very much worthwhile.

    Olive Films is really a label to watch; perhaps they can even convince Paramount to release Roger Vadim’s superb BLOOD AND ROSES in full CinemaScope format and color – another “lost” film that deserves a much wider audience. Excellent article on this really slick, atmospheric noir!

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