Sleep, My Love

There are a couple of options open should you come across anyone who tries to sell you the idea that the impact movies have on culture is negligible. You could think to yourself that this person is mistaken or misguided, and leave it at that. Alternatively, you can attempt to set them straight. Now language and culture are inseparable, their relationship being essentially symbiotic. So, when the movies give us words that become part of everyday language, that ought to bolster the idea of cinema’s cultural significance. Every classic movie fan, and film noir aficionados in particular, will be aware of Gaslight. The story, derived originally from a play, was filmed twice  and the concept underpinning it has become a staple of countless psychological thrillers. In a broader cultural sense, the term gaslighting has entered the language and refers to manipulating others to the point where they start to question to their own judgement, perception and ultimately their sanity. All of which brings me to Sleep, My Love (1948), an undeniably stylish entry in this sub-genre.

Alison Courtland (Claudette Colbert) is a wealthy woman from an elegant, patrician background. She’s not the type of person one would normally think of as likely to awaken in the dead of night aboard a train speeding towards an unknown destination. Nevertheless, that’s the first view we get of her, panicked, frantic and screaming blue murder in confusion. Her husband (Don Ameche), concerned to find her missing and nursing an apparent gunshot wound to his arm, has called in the police. It seems that this isn’t the first time the lady in question has disappeared but no harm has been done and she’s soon on a flight back home to New York. On the way she makes the acquaintance of another well-to-do type, Bruce Elcott (Robert Cummings) who is just home from China. I don’t believe I’m revealing too much here if I get right to the point and say that Alison is being maneuvered into an increasingly vulnerable position by her smooth but calculating husband. This becomes clear quite early on, and I feel  it constitutes maybe the biggest weakness of the picture. To my mind, the writing gives away too much too soon. It’s not merely a question of the viewer being deprived of surprises, but rather the fact that this “lay it all before you” approach robs the movie of much of its suspense and accompanying tension. While these are not the only elements in movies of this type, they are important and effectively negating them at an early stage means that viewers are left with little more than a sense of curiosity over how the hero will eventually triumph.

That’s not to say there is no tension or suspense in the movie; individual sequences such as the drug-induced suicide attempt are very well executed. This is where the skill of the director comes into play. Douglas Sirk, along with cinematographer Joseph Valentine, draws full value from the interior of the Courtland home, the staircase featuring prominently. As seen above, it’s essentially pinning Claudette Colbert in place with the shadows cast by the balustrade creating bars to imprison her in her own home, the weight of her own noble heritage bearing down on her and precluding, as though it were an affront to good taste, any consideration that her husband might be plotting against her. This noir imagery is sprinkled throughout the movie, Venetian blinds often replacing the vertical lines with horizontal ones but the impression of individuals trapped by circumstance remains.

The visuals, as one might expect, are among the greatest strengths of the picture. Sirk’s films are always good to look at, and of course mise en scene  is a term often used whenever his name comes up; he goes in for a lot of sharply tilted angles here, from those vulnerable shots from below to the more remote ones gazing down with a cynical detachment. These altered perspectives are very much to the fore in the studio of Vernay (George Coulouris). Overlooking the sidewalk and street,  here the crooked photographer makes his plans for his partnership with Courtland and his model Daphne (Hazel Brooks) perches higher still on her pedestal and mulls an entirely different partnership. This is all nicely set up to highlight her disdainful superiority, and she quite literally spends the whole movie looking down on everyone.

Claudette Colbert got top billing and she was still a major star at the time. It’s her show really, and she is fine as the increasingly rattled woman who can’t seem to convince anyone she’s not hallucinating. There’s a little sequence around the halfway point where she attends a wedding of a Chinese couple in the company of Cummings and she comes across well here – unaffected and openly appreciative of the opportunity to mingle among a different crowd to her usual acquaintances. It’s beautifully played as she rambles on about how different we all are and her simple take on what makes some people happy and others unhappy, a common feature of Sirk’s films. She gets across the sweetness of her character naturally and even her slight tipsiness by the end of the evening is quite credible – I’ve lost count of the number of actors who overcook it when asked to portray drunkenness on screen.

Robert Cummings is an actor who divides opinion and I’ve heard more than a few people say they find him a poor lead in general. However, I’ve never had any issues with him – I liked him in his movies for Hitchcock (Saboteur & Dial M for Murder) and I think Anthony Mann coaxed a solid performance from him in The Black Book. Frankly, I think his charm is a neat contrast to the polished insincerity and moral weakness of Ameche. Hazel Brooks is a striking presence – physically stunning, sexy and insolent, she is visibly contemptuous or everybody and everything around her. Yet her performance has an odd feel to it, her delivery of her lines sounding stiff and forced to me. Coulouris is an engaging villain, a strange combination of suave and clumsy, menacing and simultaneously the butt of Brooks’ barbs. In minor roles Keye Luke is entertaining as Cummings’ pal and Raymond Burr is welcome but underused as a skeptical detective.

Olive Films in the US released a very attractive edition of Sleep, My Love some years ago on both Blu-ray and DVD. The movie looks clean and sharp and Sirk’s visual style is highlighted most effectively. The script, on the other hand, is just OK. The gaslighting theme will be a familiar one to many viewers and I would have preferred it if a little more ambiguity had been injected, or at least a little more information had been held back, in order to build some added suspense. As it stands,  the audience is forever a step or two ahead of the characters, which I’m not convinced is the best approach to take. On the whole, however, I have a positive feeling about the movie. It’s not perhaps full-on Sirk but there is  plenty of greed and thwarted desire, with characters living out lives that barely hint at the reality simmering below the surface. This alongside the visuals and a handful of attractive performances are enough to overcome other deficiencies in the script for this viewer.

The Black Book

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Recently, I’ve been watching a fair bit of film noir, and indeed mulling over and discussing exactly what does or does not constitute noir. And that brings me to a borderline case, a movie that flirts with the notion of film noir, has some of its recognizable characteristics, yet stops short of fully satisfying the criteria. The Black Book (1949) was among the handful of movies Anthony Mann made just before he embarked on his influential and complex cycle of westerns. The film is a historical piece, a mystery/espionage thriller whose visual style is pure noir but whose theme lacks the ambiguity to allow me to comfortably place it in that category.

1794 – France is gripped by revolutionary fervor and the Reign of Terror, presided over by Robespierre (Richard Basehart), is at its zenith. The series of bloody purges have led to an atmosphere of distrust, insecurity and instability. With Robespierre on the verge of absolute power, plans are afoot to overthrow him while there’s still time. But that time is short; within days Robespierre will have maneuvered himself into an unassailable position and the opportunity will have passed. Enter Charles D’Aubigny (Robert Cummings), an agent acting on behalf of the exiled and imprisoned Lafayette. D’Aubigny’s mission is to infiltrate Robespierre’s inner circle, by means of impersonation, and see that the voices of dissent are provided with the means to remove the would-be tyrant before he has them silenced forever. This task is both aided and complicated by two unexpected factors. Firstly, there’s the presence of Madelon (Arlene Dahl), D’Aubigny’s former lover and his principal contact with the anti-Robespierre faction. And then there’s the black book of the title: Robespierre’s death list, a sinister little volume containing the names of those marked down for execution as and when the whim strikes him. It’s this book which forms the basis of Robespierre’s power, it’s impossible to be sure whether one’s name is included and that uncertainty weakens any potential opposition. However, the book has gone missing and the hunt is on to retrieve it before a critical meeting of the ruling Convention. Whoever gains possession of the black book holds the balance of power – able to install Robespierre as absolute dictator or to destroy him completely.

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Personally, I feel The Black Book functions well as an allegory for the time it was made. WWII had ended a few short years before and the memory of the terror and slaughter was still fresh in the minds of everyone. It’s no great stretch to see the film as a warning against the dangers of dictatorship; even as the world had witnessed the end of one hateful regime another has risen up to take its place. The purges and sham trials depicted in the film bring to mind the repression and fear of the Stalinist eastern bloc. However, I think too that the critique of the cult of personality and the atmosphere of betrayal and backstabbing can also be viewed as a subtle reminder that even stable democracies can be manipulated by political opportunists under certain circumstances – the paranoia accompanying the red scare of the post-war years was already rearing its head in the US.

Anthony Mann built his reputation on his crime and noir pictures and that influence was carried through to a greater or lesser extent in most of his subsequent films. Thematically, his westerns continued to be psychologically complex even though the visuals (once he began to work in color) moved in a different direction. The Black Book, photographed by John Alton, is much more straightforward when it comes to theme and characterization. The hero is simply heroic; there’s no internal conflict struggling for dominance of the character and no sense that fate has the odds stacked against him. From the viewer’s perspective it’s always very clear who the good guys and the bad guys are, even if some of the motives aren’t quite so apparent. Still, the movie looks like a textbook example of film noir. Mann’s composition and Alton’s lighting create a dark and dangerous world for the characters to inhabit: high overhead shots suggestive of detachment, low angle ones bringing ceilings into focus and emphasizing a cramped, restrictive world, deep and impenetrable shadows slicing menacingly across faces or threatening to consume them totally.

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Robert Cummings is generally thought of as a lightweight lead and sometimes dismissed on those grounds. I’ve always liked his crime/mystery roles though  – The Chase, Sleep, My Love, Saboteur, Dial M for Murder – and have rarely found him disappointing. If anything, I feel his natural charm lends a touch of vulnerability to his characters. I have no complaints about Cummings’ performance in The Black Book, he handles the tense, suspenseful scenes well and is convincing enough when the need for action arises. Arlene Dahl is good too as the former lover who now has to work closely with the man she once abandoned. A rekindled romance does develop but it never has that tacked on feel that can make such plot devices tiresome. That this aspect works is largely down to Dahl, her coquettish insolence is both refreshing and attractive. Richard Basehart too is very effective as Robespierre; there’s a stillness and calm about him that becomes quite unnerving, only the glittering eyes hinting at the murderous zealot lurking within. As good as the leads are, Arnold Moss steals practically every scene he appears in as Fouché, the oily, Machiavellian politician who’s naked self-interest is a wonder to behold. In support, there are nice turns delivered by Charles McGraw, Beulah Bondi and Norman Lloyd.

For a long time the only way to see The Black Book was via ropey transfers of battered prints. However, Sony put out a MOD disc in the US that seemed to far surpass all previous releases. I never picked up that disc but when Koch in Germany announced their own pressed release of the title I decided to bite. I don’t know if the Koch disc is derived from the same source as the US edition but I can certainly say that I’ve never seen the movie looking better. There are isolated speckles but the print used is in pretty good shape and shows off Alton’s photography to very good effect. Additionally, this disc has the full, uncut version of the movie (as does the US MOD edition) restoring the censored scene that was absent from many of the earlier releases. There are no subtitles offered, just the original English soundtrack and a German dub. Having suffered through some appalling transfers of this film in the past, it’s a real pleasure to be able to see it looking crisp and clean. It may not be proper film noir, but any fan of that style of cinema should get a lot out of this movie – Mann and Alton present some stunning and memorable images. Bearing in mind there’s a satisfying and exciting story here too, I have no hesitation in recommending the film.