Sleep, My Love opens with a promising hint of irrational portent. A beautiful New York socialite, Alison Courtland (Claudette Colbert), awakens on a train headed to Boston with no context of the events leading to her apparently improvised travel arrangements. The last thing Alison remembers is going to bed in her posh home, and now she’s in alien terrain with her husband Richard’s (Don Ameche) pistol in her purse. She looks out of the car’s window and sees another train, which appears to be heading straight toward her due to the bend in the tracks. Alison screams, and is quickly returned to Richard, who’s just a little too glibly comforting and supportive of his sleepwalking spouse.
The remainder of this routine and impersonal noir mystery can’t compete with that wonderful first scene. Sleep, My Love is a self-conscious homage to a variety of its contemporary thriller brethren, most obviously Suspicion and Gaslight, and it’s often characterized by competent, derivative efficiency at the expense of true dread or spontaneity. The oddest and least satisfying touch may be partially intentional: We never feel connected to Alison’s plight because she’s rendered a dull MacGuffin who’s superfluous to her own story. Instead, we’re cued to respond to Richard’s rivalry with Bruce Elcott (Robert Cummings), a smoothie who grows suspicious of the contrivances surrounding Alison’s sleepwalking episodes, because the male actors are afforded room to imbue the film with a much-needed suggestion of perverse domestic parody. The men negotiate a woman’s potential demise the way they might fight over the affections of a romantic foil or bid on the auction of a very envious and well-priced new luxury property. Ameche is particularly amusing, and chilling, because he plays Richard in the same manner as one of his more lovable romantic leads; he just allows his character’s self-absorption to curdle a little further.
It’s tempting to read Alison’s marginalization in the narrative as intentional subtext because the director is Douglas Sirk, who’d soon establish himself as a master of melodramas that abounded in such humane and rigorously worked out signifiers. But, in this case, that’s probably a case of auteurist criticism missing the forest for the trees, as Alison’s essentially a damsel in distress who’s largely forgotten due to a tendency, which is still in vogue, to allow the fellas in a movie to get all the best scenes and all the best lines. Thankfully, one can see Sirk’s artistry in the images he fashioned with cinematographer Joseph A. Valentine, which often powerfully evoke social hypocrisy in a fashion that would reach full bloom in later films such as Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life. When Richard is first introduced to us, he disingenuously and condescendingly plays his version of the humble everyman until that affectation is laughably popped when the camera tilts up to reveal the several floors of mansion that tower above him. Later on, as Alison nearly sleepwalks off her balcony to her doom, we see her would-be killer among the curtains in the foreground in a composition that renders the interloper nearly spectral. In this film, these touches are just touches, but they inform this fun but forgettable thriller with retrospective glimmers of magnificence.
The image quality varies. Grain levels are natural and clarity and contrast are sturdy, though there are quite a few minor blemishes such as white specks and obvious inconsistencies between the film texture of staged sequences and the stock footage. No significant issues, but this transfer isn’t a Criterion-style reinvention, which is almost refreshing, as it’s occasionally nice to see an old movie look like an old movie. The English DTS-HD Master Audio Mono is crisp and clean, with notably little in the way of the white noise, such as hisses, that can characterize restorations of lesser known films.
This beautifully composed, workmanlike noir will be most enjoyed by cinephiles looking to trace the evolution of Douglas Sirk’s imaginative and socially complex mise-en-scène.