Guest post by Caleb Allison.
Douglas Sirk has become synonymous with lushly subversive melodrama wrapped in Technicolor brilliance, but before his nearly unbelievable string of melodramatic masterpieces in the 1950s, including Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), and Imitation of Life (1959), he conjured up a darker string of psychological thrillers, cloaked in low-key lighting and soaked in murder and betrayal. Sleep, My Love (1948), starring Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, and Robert Cummings, is one of these deliciously dark entries from the late 1940s that falls within the new-husband-plots-to-kill-wife subgenre of the thriller. Variations exist on the theme but nearly always involve a trusted man psychologically torturing a young woman. The premise may appear somewhat quaint now but this subgenre has, maybe somewhat surprisingly, produced some of the greatest Hollywood thrillers of all time.
Counted alongside Sirk’s Sleep, My Love are George Cukor’s exquisitely executed Gaslight (1944); My Name is Julia Ross (1945); several by Alfred Hitchcock, including Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), and Dial M for Murder (1954); as well as Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool (1950). The casts for these films read like an Oscars nominee list that includes Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Gene Tierney, and Richard Conte. Their performances are consistently extraordinary and the mounting tension and psychological isolation conveyed by Hollywood’s most prominent directors is first class, but the narrative structure necessitates a constant tide of vile sexism towards women. They are constantly discredited, silenced, betrayed, and ignored by the institutions and men they should trust most, and this can be a hard pill to swallow film after film. But if you can wade through the sexist muck there emerge exquisite moments of resistance, revenge, and unbridled humanity by the genre’s female leads that quickly tip the scales on the genre’s surplus of male chauvinism. Claudette Colbert is a supreme example of a character filled with love, humanity, and determination no amount of gaslighting could smother.
In Sleep, My Love, Colbert plays the tortured but effervescent Alison Courtland, a woman of considerable family wealth. Her husband, Robert Courtland, is played by Don Ameche with all the condescending sheen of a greased snake. Alison calls him Dick, no less. The film wastes no time revealing the unsavory plot by Robert to convince Alison she’s been sleepwalking, hallucinating, and becoming increasingly dangerous. In other words, she’s repeatedly characterized as hysterical, neurotic, and prone to “fits” by nearly all of the men around her. In the opening scene Alison wakes up on a train she has no memory of boarding. She’s understandably frightened and confused, only to be offered two pills by a doctor on board, which we assume are sedatives, who dryly notes, “It’ll quiet her nerves.” Moments later he’s asked by a train steward if she’ll be alright. He replies, “Maybe, it’s out of my line. I’m a skin man myself.” Even though Alison is repeatedly patronized and betrayed by the men she’s supposed to trust, her earnest positivity fervently resists her circumstances.
As the plot unfolds the bevy of sexist sequences are tempered by the comedic talents of Robert Cummings as Bruce Elcott, a family friend who escorts Alison home after the initial train incident. Cummings always reminds me of an uptown Jack Lemmon with a wry, rather than slapstick, sense of humor. Bruce immediately falls for Alison and even asks her out before realizing she’s married. It’s Bruce who first becomes suspicious of Robert and his plot against Alison and as his affection for her grows, so does his skepticism about her situation. One of the most delightful sequences showcases the undeniable spark between Alison and Bruce at a wedding where she ends up on the wrong side of tipsy, which she wears with bubbling optimism. Despite the psychological trauma Alison has endured she still has the humanity to proclaim, “I think the human race is very fine, very fine.” The scene concludes with Alison dropping her house key (or maybe the key to her heart) as she returns home. It’s up to Bruce to find it and guard it closely from then on. This moment also highlights the importance of particular objects in the film.
Much like the way Hitchcock famously relies on objects as symbols and plot motivators, the narrative for Sleep, My Love turns on several key objects. Without going into too much detail, these objects are hot chocolate, an emerald bracelet, and horn-rimmed glasses — each with their own double meanings. Though the most monstrous element of the film may be that hot chocolate, HOT CHOCOLATE!, arguably the most comforting hot beverage of all time, becomes the vehicle for Alison’s torture. Her nighttime routine consists of a glass before bed every night (this is the moment you reconsider your life choices and wonder, “Why the hell don’t I do that?”) and this is where Robert transforms from sleazy husband to flat-out Bond villain. He repeatedly drugs the hot chocolate and then hypnotizes her into following his whispered commands, a technique he’s gleaned from an appropriately titled book, The Use of Drugs in Hypnosis.
There is also a moment audiences might find oddly familiar: a carafe of hot chocolate is taken up the stairs with such prominence one can’t help but recall the glowing glass of “poisoned” milk Cary Grant carries in Suspicion. To top things off, so to speak, the carafe is branded with Alison’s initials, an “A” on one side and a “C” on the other, and served to her by Robert. The customized carafe may have been a thoughtful present once upon a time, but under the circumstances that “A” slips into another register, a more symbolic one. Those familiar with Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter will find the “A” a brand upon Robert and a sign of his betrayal and adultery.
Even though the drugged hot chocolate is escorted by different characters, namely Robert and the maid, Helen, its orientation reveals the truth about its handler. The “A” is always visible when Robert carries the carafe and hidden when Helen has it.
The outright barbarity of drugged hot chocolate is matched only by the single-minded greed enacted by the film’s criminally underdeveloped femme fatale, Daphne, played by Hazel Brooks. She is the driving force behind Robert and the plot against Alison and, more importantly, her wealth. With skin clinging to high cheekbones like a taught drum, a deep, commanding voice, and clothes that could only be worn after midnight, Hazel commands every scene she graces with an understated confidence that belies desperation. She has lines like, “I gave you the hurry call because I wanted to see you in a hurry,” and the smoke from her cigarette curls around her so tightly one might assume it’s a permanent fixture of her wardrobe. The scenes that showcase Robert and Daphne kissing have an air of violence rather than passion. His hands always seem to creep up around her neck as if killing her and loving her were one in the same. Together, they slither like a den of snakes. You wouldn’t want to be caught between them but you can’t look away either.
The lighting, set design, and cinematography can’t be ignored either, as they contribute to the film’s masterful use of symbolism, concealment, and revelation. Windows, fabrics, and light are all employed with artistic intent, and anyone familiar with the dazzling use of color and windows in All That Heaven Allows, for example, will be delighted to find an early example of Sirk’s signature compositional device in Alison’s conservatory — a massive indoor garden framed by floor-to-ceiling windows she calls “the jungle.” Another type of window takes the form of those horn-rimmed glasses, which belong to one Charles Vernay, played by George Coulouris, a photographer who employs Daphne as a model and an accomplice in the plot against Alison. Charles requires the glasses to see anything in detail and he loses them at a key moment, a visual and narrative element reinforcing vision as a major theme structuring the film. What characters are able to see, see through, and simply can’t see are creatively defined through the carefully constructed mise-en-scène, cinematography, and narrative. Formally and symbolically there is much more to appreciate and praise but I’ll leave that for you and Sirk to work out. The only snag for me, and it’s a small snag to be sure, rests with the narrative and the film’s conclusion, especially in comparison to some other examples in the genre.
Ultimately, if the film feels slightly less satisfying than its genre counterparts it’s because the climax leans on Robert Cummings to disrupt and liberate Alison from the clutches of Robert, Daphne, and Charles, denying her the revenge she deserves. Cukor’s Gaslight, on the other hand, stands apart because of Ingrid Bergman’s razor-sharp diatribe against the stiff-necked Charles Boyer that relishes her revenge and her husband’s demise. Sirk’s coda winds down all too abruptly with the appropriately measured but uninspired hope of a happy couple as Alison and Bruce embrace. Even the last line, which naturally holds more weight than others, quickly stagnates. It was the final dramatic harangue by Bergman that decisively shut the door on any doubt over her Oscar win for Best Actress. Even if Sleep, My Love concludes with a little less feminist zest than Gaslight, both Claudette Colbert and Ingrid Bergman break free from their hypnotic slumbers by persevering against masculine authority with intelligence, determination, and humanity.
One final piece of advice before you trudge through Hollywood’s psychological hall of thrillers: maybe give that comforting cup of hot chocolate another cautionary sniff before enjoying.
Caleb Allison loves going out to the movies, especially when they are menacing, cryptic, or horrific. A PhD candidate at Indiana University, he splits his time between scholarly research and filmmaking. He has a passion for the look and feel of super 8mm and 16mm film and uses them whenever the universe aligns, and will watch anything by Andrei Tarkovsky, Terrence Malick, or John Carpenter anytime, anywhere.