'To Sleep With Anger'
Starring Danny Glover.
Released by Goldwyn.
Beware Harry Mention. Charming, sweet-talking, gulling, the old rogue will have your soul in his pocket in a second if you just let him into your life.
What Harry offers is all the old pleasures of the hardest kind of masculinity: the pleasures of hard liquor and soft women, the pleasures of having it all now, the pleasures of vanquishing a foe in the helter-skelter of a knife fight, the pleasures of forgetting loyalties in favor of feeding only the hungry self. It's the song that's doomed many a poor boy.
Harry, then, is an all too familiar figure in our times: a sly seducer who comes saucing his way into a nice home in working class Los Angeles and proceeds, in his beguiling way, to blow the family apart. He's Mephistopheles, Beelzebub, Old Scratch, Mr. D, Der Teufel Selbst, the Trickster, the man who gets there Faustus with the mostest.
It's a great role for Danny Glover. This actor has abundancharm, which he's used to lubricate his way to a healthy and lucrative career in mainstream Hollywood pictures, but he's never used it before to show the darkness of the gift of likability: His Harry is the man you want to believe, even as you know he's trouble right here in River City. Glover fills him with guile and bonhomie -- and let's us know just a bit ahead of his victims his true agenda.
If I haven't mentioned the title of the movie yet, that's because the title is the worst thing about it. "To Sleep With Anger"? -- it sounds generic, like some mid-'50s potboiler set in a back-lot Hollywood New England mill town where everybody's sleeping with everybody. The stars would be Richard Egan, Dorothy Malone and the young Angie Dickinson as "Liz." But no. The movie's great strength is its specificity: It roots us in good, decent, solid black middle-class culture, among people who are God-fearing, hard-working and full of belief in self and culture.
Gideon (Paul Butler), now retired, has built a life to be proud of. He owns his own home and has his pension; his wife Suzie (Mary Alice) is still a beauty; his two sons are married and seemingly hard-working; and his pleasures are manageable -- with an echo of the old South still in the wells of his memory, he raises chickens and tends a garden. The writer-director Charles Burnett never condescends to this accomplishment; he portrays it as the considerable achievement it is. Dignity, grace and wisdom -- what more could a man want?
Then along comes Harry, with his grin and his sassy ways, as an old friend who's been on the road. Gideon is oblivious to Harry's mischief, and in any event, mysteriously falls ill quickly enough. This leaves Harry full room to maneuver, and quickly enough he's snared a sucker, Gideon's youngest son, Babe (Richard Brooks), called Baby Brother, a boy-man embittered by his wife's more successful career and by his low spot in the family hierarchy.
It is not going too far to point out the sense of racial self-criticism at play in the story. No one could deny that what Harry offers Baby Brother may be temptations to all young men in all cultures, but they've impacted on black culture with a special vengeance. This is the tragedy of the inner city in microcosm -- a young father who no longer values his wife and child or his extended family, who is taken entirely with instantaneous gratifications and comes to believe that work and responsibility degrade his sense of manhood.
As Baby Brother himself observes bitterly, "If you only let a fellow be half a man, you better watch out for what the other half becomes!" What the other half becomes is ugly, turning on his own, to the point where the two brothers face each other over a knife.
Burnett, turning to features after a distinguished career in documentaries and non-fiction features, maintains an astonishing control all the way through. He never quite pokes the movie into the realm of fantasy, but the movie still magically conjures up just the faintest whiff of that old Southern culture, with its folk cures and agrarian rhythms and smoky seductions, right there in Los Angeles. You feel the old South in the bones of the story. Moreover, Burnett's actors never falter -- the movie has the bright feel of life.
I think perhaps the last joke -- getting rid of Harry -- is played out too long, until it seems quite stiff with repetition, but tTC nevertheless, "To Sleep With Anger," dumb title and all, is a wonderful little movie.