Tuesday, May 8, 2012

COOL FLICKS: Sleep, My Love (1948)

From the opening sequence with Claudette Colbert waking in horror to discover she is on a speeding train headed to who knows where Sleep, My Love immediately catches the viewer's attention and never lets go. The blend of familiar crime film gimmicks (amnesia, hypnosis, Cainesque scheming lovers) are never boring due to the grand slam combination of a witty and suspenseful script by St. Clair McKelway and Leo Rosten (from his novel), top notch performances by an extremely well cast group of actors and frequent artistic touches from director Douglas Sirk.

Anyone familiar with the classic Gaslight will catch on fairly quickly to the basic plot.  Alison Courtland (Colbert) is being victimized by her philandering husband (low key and monotoned Don Ameche) who wants her locked up in the loony bin so he can live happily ever after with his lover Daphne, (sultry Hazel Brooks in a text book femme fatale role) a wicked city woman who works in a photo studio and likes to parade around in flimsy negligees.  Joining in this conspiracy to drive poor Alison out of her mind are Daphne's sinister photographer boss (menacing George Coulouris) and his mousy ill-informed wife (ubiquitous character actress Queenie Smith turning in another sharp portrait). Raymond Burr also makes a brief appearance in two scenes as a police detective.

Grace Vernay (Smith) finds a gun in Alison's purse
Charles Vernay (Coulouris) insulted once again by his negligee clad employee Daphne (Brooks)
Alison wonders what happened to the butler in her shadow filled home
Dick and Daphne drink, dance and deceive (Daphne wears her only dress in this scene)
Alison compares her husband to Bruce (Cummings) in a moment of drunken candidness
Colbert makes a fine victim here appropriately terrified and confused throughout most of the film. Unlike similar roles of the plotted against wife Colbert never comes across as cloyingly self-pitying. Nor is the noir plot as amoral and claustrophobic as something like The Postman Always Rings Twice.  Ameche and Coulouris do great work as conspiring villains but the very nature of the scheme involving drugs and hypnosis teeters on the brink of absurdity. Sirk counters this with nighttime interiors drenched in shadows and directs Ameche, an actor better known for light-hearted and comic roles, to deliver his lines in a menacing monotone and keeps his performance restrained and low key.  It's a subtle touch and it allows Ameche to carry off his villainous part with panache even as we watch him daintily stirring a cup of doctored cocoa.

The addition of two comic characters - Barby and Bruce - provide the story with a welcome breezy humor. Barby (Rita Johnson) is a mile-a-minute talker typical of the screwball comedies of the 1940s. She is the daffy urbane socialite so often found on screen but never in real life. Her part exists purely for laughs and Johnson does it extremely well - much better than Billie Burke might have done. Robert Cummings as Bruce is the playboy we know will be Colbert's savior. He has an easy suave nature, a charming city wit, and the brains to see through the scheming husband's plot at the very last minute.

The strangest sequence in the film seems like it belongs in another movie. While Dick and Daphne are slumming and scheming in a local dive Alison and Bruce go on an adventure.  Bruce has come to New York to be best man in his business partner's wedding and asks Alison as his date. Turns out the wedding is in Chinatown and his business partner is played by Keye Luke (Number One Son in the Charlie Chan flicks). With music provided by a Chinese string ensemble squeaking and whining in the background Alison proceeds to get delightfully drunk on Asian wine. The wedding reception turns into a series of bits lifted from a romantic comedy with Colbert showing off her exceptional comic acting skills then slowly confessing her dissatisfaction in her troubled marriage. Later Bruce tries to chauffeur the new bride and groom to their hotel in a well known resort, but Alison's misadventures at the hands of her murderous husband interfere.  It's an odd sequence played for laughs that seems very out of place in a film that spends much of its time building up a brooding and menacing atmosphere.

The framing and composition throughout the movie is hypnotic. You can't turn away for a minute lest you miss some artistic choices like those shown above. The way the teacup with the drugged hot chocolate can be seen so ominously in the foreground while Dick's soothing voice puts Alison's fears at ease.  Or how Daphne holds court (once again in a sexy nightie) in the photo studio while Dick in a passive position looks up at her completely under her seductive power.  The use of light and shadow in the nightmarish murder attempt scenes, the perfectly rendered sound effects like Coulouris running his fingernails creepily along the fabric of an upholstered chair, the brilliant use of the Queensboro Bridge as a backdrop for the nocturnal bedroom scenes, and the rousing finale complete with a shootout and pursuit up a staircase to the rooftop - they're all wonderful touches that show Douglas Sirk to be a true cinema artist.

Sleep, My Love is available via the Netflix streaming option or the entire film in a restored print (and not fragmented into parts) can be viewed for free at YouTube here.

Be sure to visit Todd Mason's Sweet Freedom and check out the rest of the insightful comments on unusual films, TV shows, video & audio creations for "Tuesday's Overlooked Films (and/or Other A/V)."


  1. A forgotten film that deserves be better known; I hope your excellent review will contribute to making that happen. Colbert does some great acting (although, as usual, most of her shots are from the left side because she thought she looked better that way). Doug Sirk is more familiar as the director of delirious 1950s technicolor soap operas (with subsersive subtexts) but this movie shows he could work his magic in black-and-white noirs too.

    And whatever became of Hazel Brooks? She could have been another Marie Windsor.

    1. The info at imdb.com on Hazel Brooks says she quit acting sometime in the early 1950s and became a successful still photographer. Interesting how she gets one of those INTRODUCING credits at the end of the cast list. She really does an excellent job. Loved her insults and her skill with a cigarette and matches to punctuate her lines.

      There were ZERO stills of this film on the interweb. I took all these pix from the film itself by pausing it and doing screen captures. Maybe now people will use my screen shots to illustrate more reviews on this excelelnt thriller. What a find this was for me! It puts Sirk's earlier crime movie LURED with Lucille Ball and Boris Karloff (there's an odd pair!) to shame. SLEEP, MY LOVE is far superior in every aspect.

  2. Well, Overlooked Films (and/or Other A/V). And this looks like an excellent candidate for wider rediscovery...Hazel Brooks rather more alluring than Windsor, as well (I approve of the wardrobe on display).

    1. Duly noted, Todd, and quickly amended above as you can see.

      Hazel is definitely more alluring than Windsor. She's one tough broad and a statuesque beauty. Her scenes are a true highlight. You can't stop looking at her.

      Even with all the familiar trappings this film is a marvel to watch. Snappy dialogue and excellent acting make it all the better. Had to share it with the world who may not know it exists AND can be easily viewed via the miracle of the interweb.

  3. Terrific choice John and a great companion piece with that other Rosten / Sirk collaboration, LURED, that unlikely pairing of Lucilel Ball and Boris Karloff. Never come across the novel - I've only ever read the Hyman Kaplan books by Rosten which I remember loving as a kid.

  4. Maybe when we get a new tv and learn to stream, we can catch this. It looks great. What a sexy woman. I don't remember her at all but Colbert is always good. Two weak leading men (IMHO) though.

    1. I think you'd be surprised, Patti, how nicely Ameche pulls off his villain role. And his "weakness" works in the scenes with Brooks who dominates the screen *and* Ameche in their three scenes together. Brooks has a speech where she rants about wanting everything Alison owns and wanting it now. I got chills. Truly. What a shame she never became a real screen vixen. She would've blown Marie Windsor out of the water. Cummings is good in his devil may care mode. He has all the witty lines in the movie and needs only be dashing and charming which he does well. His few heroic scenes all have to do with Sirk's amazing use of the camera and he comes off sort of macho in the finale.

  5. Never heard of this one, John. But I'm intrigued by your wonderful review. Netflix streaming is so handy dandy.

    I'm not a big Robert Cummings fan unless he's playing comedy, but I'll be big about it and give him the benefit of the doubt.

    I do love Claudette Colbert and the fiendish (and grim) George Coulouris.

    I'm also a fan of Douglas Sirk.