Doc Films: “The Sleeping Tiger”

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If you were held at gunpoint in the middle of the night, would you turn your assailant in to the police, or invite him to come live in your home for a couple weeks? In the 1954 film noir The Sleeping Tiger, showing in 16mm at Doc Films on Wednesday, July 31, a psychiatrist is faced with this exact situation and unbelievably chooses the latter.

The film stars Dirk Borgade as Frank Clemmons, a wild young man who spends his evenings breaking into jewelry stores and robbing strangers on the street. When he attempts to rob psychiatrist Dr. Clive Esmond (Alexander Knox), the doctor offers to take him in for therapy rather than send him off to jail, but while in Dr. Esmond’s home, Frank begins to have an affair with the doctor’s wife, Glenda (Alexis Smith), causing problems for everyone in the house.

The relationships that develop between these three characters are what drive the film forward and are easily the most fascinating parts. Dr. Esmond discovers the affair happening almost immediately, making the focus of the film not Frank and Glenda against Dr. Esmond, but rather Dr. Esmond against Glenda, as both try to gain Frank’s attention for different reasons, one as a therapist, the other as a lover.

When Dr. Esmond does succeed in becoming a surrogate father figure to Frank, their relationship brings to mind that of Lancaster Dodd and Freddie Quell in last year’s The Master. Like Dodd’s fascination with Freddie, Dr. Esmond is interested in the baser animal elements of the human brain, which he refers to as the titular “sleeping tiger,” that seem to come out in full force in Frank’s nature. Thus, he protects Frank from the police even when Frank continues his robberies while living with Dr. Esmond, lying about Frank’s whereabouts in order to allow further examination his psyche.

Due to his Communist sympathies, director Joseph Losey was blacklisted from Hollywood during the scare of the post-war 1950s and was forced to move to London in order to continue making films. The Sleeping Tiger was actually directed under a pseudonym, Victory Hanbury, because the stars of the film were worried about an association with Losey ruining their careers. Losey’s career, however, was far from ruined by the Hollywood ban, and he continued making films in Europe for the following thirty years.

Today, The Sleeping Tiger stands as a solid example of mid-50s film noir, complete with high contrast lighting and moody jazz music. Tension inhabits every frame of the film, never letting the characters or the viewer relax much while watching. The more intense conversations occur in the dead of the night, lit from the side, so great shadows cross the characters’ faces and are thrown on the walls behind them. Film noir borrowed this style from the German Expressionist movement during the silent era, and Losey continues this pedigree, having previously directed a remake of famed Expressionist Fritz Lang’s M.

However, the film suffers at points when it falls to its overly melodramatic tendencies. Although this heightened emotion was common in films of the time, dramatic films have softened a bit over the last 50 years to the point where it would seem completely unnatural and a little crazy to have such strong exclamations throughout the film. When Glenda cries out “I wish I were a man!” after walking in on Frank harassing a maid and immediately before embracing him in a passionate kiss, the whole scene seems laughably ridiculous to a modern viewer.

Although it does not feature the classic “hardboiled” detective and femme fatale of the more famous film noirs, The Sleeping Tiger holds its own as a lesser-known, but still very much deserving, entry into the genre.