Sleep My Love directed by Douglas Sirk.
Today’s Film Noir is an example of the style encountering another genre: the Woman’s Picture. The plot has wealthy socialite Alison Courtland (Claudette Colbert) living out a nightmare-iage to Richard Courtland (a creepy Robert Cummings). Richard has been using a mixture of drugs, hypnosis, and a corrupt psychaitrist to both convince Alison she’s mad and drive her to commit suicide so he and his femme fatale can collect the inheritance. This is one of domestic Noir’s most disturbing murder plots, and it has a subtext straight out of the first season of Mad Men.
Of course, Douglas Sirk is known for his Technicolor Women’s Pictures from the 50s; Sleep, My Love is an earlier film, before his style had fully formed, so like most directors of the era he tried his hand at Noir, pretty successfully in my opinion. Noir was well suited to Sirk, in fact before the word Noir existed the films that would come to be known as Noir were called ‘Male Melodramas’ or ‘Male Weepies’, so Sirk’s interest in the material isn’t surprising at all.
Sleep, My Love is not a complete role reversal of the normal Noir dynamics (because the ‘good’ male love interest doesn’t die and drive the female protagonist into some crazy plot), but it is damn close. On top of simply focusing on a female protagonist, Sirk wears his heart on his sleeve when it comes to his opinion of the comfortable Hell built up around women in the prosperous postwar era. My favorite line was when the actual therapist asks (I’m paraphrasing), “Have you been generally happy all your life?” “Yes, monotonously so,” she says. This is The Feminine Mystique and Betty Draper being explained in the subtext without Sirk ever breaking face from the dominant ideology in the text. It’s pretty nimble direction actually. The active killer is a fake psychiatrist that the husband hires to drive Alison more and more crazy! This is hilarious and in light of how well we now know that shrinks from that illustrious time treated their female patient’s problems, not way off base. Very creepy stuff, with Alison going absolutely insane trying to figure out what is real, what is her paranoia, and why she is sleepwalking.
Visually the film is tasteful and clever but without inspiration or genius. There are several shots that did stand out, and Sirk’s mise-en-scene is lush, particularly in a sequence showing a Chinese wedding, but overall the movie’s photography merely props up the plot without ever showing us anything that isn’t on the page. It isn’t just adhering to the script either, because we often see certain directors take a more restrained approach to a dark script (like Robert Wise), but with their staging (as opposed to composition) and their editing (as opposed to the lighting), they still make interesting visual metaphors and symbols. Sirk has Valentine (the cinematographer) do none of that here. There is some deep chiaroscuro though, and the film’s visuals end up being at the least, adeqeuate.
Overall the film is a standout primarily because of Sirk’s take on the Noir tropes. With pure Noir elements (like a husband/wife murder drama, a pure femme fatale) and subversive play (like the focus on Alison’s pain, the portrayal of masculinity in crisis) Sirk is able to create a movie that could realistically live up to the title, ‘Feminist Noir’.