‘Sleep My Love’ (1948)

Douglas Sirk goes for baroque

Sleep My Love (not to be confused with Arise My Love, also starring Claudette Colbert) is the middle of three woman-in-danger thrillers directed by Douglas Sirk in the late 1940s. From the first reel, the audience knows it’s what they used to call the Gaslight routine, the plot where the husband tries to convince the rich wife she’s losing her marbles so he can inherit her dough and trade her in on the younger model waiting in the wings. The attraction of this device is that it taps into women’s insecurities about being patronized, disbelieved, and manipulated by male-dominated society. The drawback is that it makes the heroines into the most frustratingly obtuse idiots in the world.

Since there’s nothing much to be done on the confused wife’s hand-wringing side of the plot, the script by St. Clair McElway and Leo Rosten from the latter’s novel (Rosten scripted Sirk’s previous thriller Lured ) wisely spends more time delving into the husband’s machinations with his supporting characters: George Coulouris as a grotesque phony shrink in soda-bottle spectacles, Queenie Smith as a dotty little lady, and Hazel Brooks as a convincing caricature of the hard-bitten femme fatale, complete with fetishized black lingerie and long falling hair. She’s introduced via her shapely gams as she ambles downstairs, smoking and shrugging and unimpressed by anything. She is, after all, a stronger presence than wifey.

While Colbert typically overplays every twitch and gasp, Don Ameche counters by underplaying as the cold hubby. Even Robert Cummings, as the irrepressible, pushy, horny stranger who rescues Colbert (because she can’t save herself), delivers his usual patter in a naturalistic manner. There’s a nice supporting role from Keye Luke as Cummings’ “brother”, complete with big Chinese wedding sequence that contrasts with the rest of Colbert’s life. Raymond Burr plays a cop who’s not too helpful, and Ralph Morgan is nearly unrecognizable in his downplayed scene as a psychiatrist.

As is often the case when Sirk’s plots leave something to be desired, he lavishes attention on the design, including the vertiginous staircase inside the gothic New York mansion (much attention is paid to the hand-shaped door-knocker), the meticulously decorated interiors, and the sleek camerawork, here provided by Joseph Valentine with lots of 90-degree swivels to draw us into the scenes of being drugged, drunk, hypnotized, or generally claustrophobic. An un-restored print of this elusive United Artists picture (produced by Mary Pickford and her husband Charles “Buddy” Rogers) has finally come to Blu-Ray and DVD from Olive Films; though imperfect, it’s mostly pretty sharp, and we’ll take it.

RATING 6 / 10