Movie review: “Glengarry Glen Ross” (1992)

“I’ll cut you in on the $82,000 sale I just made!”

“Bruce and Harriet Nyborg? You want to see the memos? They’re nuts. They used to call in every week when I was with Webb and we were selling Arizona. Did you see how they were living? How can you delude yourself?”

“I got their check!”

“Yeah? Well, forget it. Frame it. It’s worthless.”

“The check is no good?”

“Yeah. If you want to wait around, I’ll pull the memo. I’m busy right now.”

“Wait a minute! The check is no good? They’re crazy?”

“You want to call the bank, Shelley? I called them. I called them four months ago when we first got the lead. The people are insane…they just like talking to salesmen.”

A salesman is, in practice if not by strict definition, an unwelcome stranger, a wraithlike apparition that materializes at inopportune moments in our lives to proffer offers we should refuse, then stubbornly loiters at front of both mind and eyeline until, by virtue of charm, pitch, and/or dogged tenacity, they wear our defenses to ribbons or finally slink away coated in disdain. The three weeks I spent as a telemarketer after graduating college 118 years ago began in confusion, ended in the closest thing I’ve had to a nervous breakdown, and instilled in me an understanding, however necessarily limited, of the inherent desperation that fuels and informs the salesman’s mindset. There must be positive aspects – assuming your talent and nerve properly align, the endorphin rush that accompanies success is arguably a high worth chasing – but they escaped me as I accumulated wins and ate dirt in dramatically diverging proportions. I have much the same perspective on the difficulties of selling for a living that someone who worked their way through school as an Applebee’s server does when they revisit the place years later. It’s just more difficult to afford a salesman the same level of courtesy when tweaked. Glengarry Glen Ross has a lot of useful insight to impart on the lives of salesmen – how they tick, what they fear, what motivates them and how they cope with the failure that looms around every corner – and is still held up two decades later as an example to apprentices of both what to do and not to do, but it always circles back to that core of desperation. 

Shame is a luxury neither these nor any salesman can afford, but the quartet of lifers at the center of Glengarry Glen Ross certainly seem blessed with long memories, and a healthy sense of grievance to nurture. Desperation saturates the air they breathe. We are introduced to them at a crossroads moment, as a mercenary shark dispatched from the home office (Alec Baldwin, in a highly quotable, instantly iconic ten-minute soliloquy grafted onto the original stage play to add sizzle to the stakes) browbeats and emasculates the assembly of shell-shocked real estate brokers, announcing that first place in their monthly sales contest, as previously announced, is a new car, that second place is now a nifty set of steak knives, and that third place (and the unspoken beyond) is instant unemployment. This sort of Gestapo motivational tactic is very much in keeping with the overarching sensibilities of David Mamet, the Chicago playwright whose hard-boiled, hardscrabble, torrential dialogue, which often manifested itself by way of incredibly creative, escalating pissing contests between seasoned professionals of exotic stripes, made him first a wunderkind and then a brand name in the mid-late 1980s, and it serves much the same purpose here that fuel injection does in a diesel engine. Baldwin’s character, never officially introduced and named only “Blake” in the credits, assumes immediate control of the room, flashes gold-plated contempt for its inhabitants, shoots down their meek protestations like the clay pigeons they are, and departs, his sermon delivered, never to be seen again, leaving only smoking rubble and bruised egos in his wake. 

This is no group of hot shot kids, by the way, getting dressed down by a clear superior; they are proud men of age and experience, who have devoted so much of who they are to a thankless, often brutal profession that it has long since become what they are, and now they’re trapped. This can’t be their first such humiliation, but it might be the most ignoble. Dave Moss (Ed Harris) teeters atop a mountain of multi-directional resentment and spends the remainder of his long night of the soul hammering that one note into colorful submission. George Aaronow (Alan Arkin) is timid, toothless, rudderless, and, worst of all, conscientious. Shelley Levene (a sublime Jack Lemmon), the proud old lion turned artifact, is still perhaps the purest salesman of the bunch even as he staves off obsolescence. Ricky Roma (Al Pacino), the consummate smooth operator, is conspicuous in his absence from Blake’s drive-by as the only person in the office actively engaged at that moment in selling, turning the glare of his raconteurial acumen on what is surely the latest in a procession of mild-mannered marks (Jonathan Pryce). All are united in their hatred of Williamson (Kevin Spacey), the officious company man who, hiding behind regulations and edicts from “downtown”, kneecaps their ability to effectively conduct business, locking away precious premium client leads while stringing his workforce along with lukewarm (and suspiciously familiar sounding) leftover scraps. “Survival of the fittest” is a time-tested Mamet conceit, and, in his hands, even the most innocuous exteriors can hide bloodsport.

Outside the Dickensian office, night has already fallen and the cold Chicago rain falls in sheets. The real estate business at this level does not keep tidy hours, and Glengarry Glen Ross, which begins over sweaty cocktails toward the end of happy hour and stretches into cold calls in the dead of inhospitable night before morning dawns full of reckoning and further revelations, might as well take place in an underlit casino. This lack of a discernible clock conspires with the salesmen’s underlying desperation and Mamet’s overheated dialogue to edge the movie into Noir territory, that fabled land where flawed protagonists do things perhaps out of their character due to temptation or some other extenuating circumstance. Director James Foley’s main contribution to the proceedings is to lean into this path without overly insisting upon it, not necessarily overemphasizing the visual darkness that nevertheless threatens to swallow the salesmen at times, but still shooting conversations between principals in medium close-up, the better to emphasize interpersonal tension while shutting out distractions and background noise, and framing their discussions with outsiders from a supplicating upward angle or with a pronounced gulf of symbolic distance between the participants. Otherwise, Foley lets his spectacular cast and Mamet’s onyx prose do all the necessary work. Glengarry Glen Ross is a film that would work just splendidly in black and white, with Bogart and, say, Joseph Cotton verbally jousting instead of Harris and Pacino, or with Jack Lemmon’s tender phone calls, slicker house calls, and defiant requiem monologues replaced by those of, well, Jack Lemmon. 

Few adapted plays betray their theatrical origins as nakedly as does Glengarry Glen Ross. Any real problem, such as it is, comes in the translation between mediums. Freewheeling, powerhouse arguments delivered at top volume on stage – especially rapid fire screeds that pull up just short of stepping all over each other, as Mamet’s so often do – may be mesmerizing from the fourteenth row, but on film, spoken with a certain modulation and within comparatively confined spaces, they flirt with the suspension of disbelief. Nobody talks like this extemporaneously – seasoned battle rappers are more civil and dignified – and the very thing that makes this kind of dialogue sing on stage, its construction, can prove a liability on the big screen. Though he would go on to direct roughly as often as not, Mamet is notable first and foremost as one of the few true writer-auteurs*, a figurative name above the title on par for cineastes of a certain bent with the likes of Hitchcock, or Scorsese, or Tarantino. Whatever the venue, his presence and attendant dialogue make it almost like sharing the scene with an additional actor. Reputable actors flock for the privilege, of course – the great Joe Mantegna played Ricky Roma on stage for years but never even got a reading in favor of the admittedly excellent Pacino, who was attached to the filmed version like a Rolls Royce hood ornament from its inception – and all who try here fare quite well. But the split-second pauses for which Mamet is as justifiably famous as the words themselves sometimes betray more than he intends (on film) about just how manufactured these conversations are. 

*Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing”, “A Few Good Men”) and Steven Moffat (“Dr. Who”, “Coupling”) would be modern contemporaries, if not even then exactly comparable peers. Mamet was a big deal at his height.

It’s such an obscure yet nagging issue that I’m unwilling to assign much blame beyond the assertion that Glengarry Glen Ross really just belongs on the stage.** Even Blake’s assassination attempt reads like the standout Act I passage it didn’t originally get to be, though it plays on screen more like scorched earth audition pages. Foley’s overqualified cast members each bring established acting tendencies to the table – Harris’ staccato straightforwardness, Spacey’s smoldering precision, Arkin’s halting uncertainty, Pacino’s alternating externalized cool and epic bombast – which, by virtue of their sheer variety, tend to chafe against Mamet’s very specific prose even in those moments when the actors have really found their respective voice/rhythm. That shouldn’t suggest that Foley’s film doesn’t smoke once it finds its footing, because some spots are true showstoppers and I love the evolving, cascading “morning after” denouement. It’s more an occupational hazard of assembling all this talent in one place and setting it loose. Enough cannot be said about the quality of Jack Lemmon’s performance, as his Shelley Levene, facing personal trials and professional ruin – the only man among these men who I didn’t once mistake for the actor behind him – runs an emotional gauntlet that never rings false or comes up lacking. Mamet’s dialogue may grab the headlines while his clever plotting wins the race, but it is the careful consideration with which he shades in what could’ve been pure pencil drawing characters where his talent shines truly through. In the end, that talent is what helps set Glengarry Glen Ross apart, at least on par with the starpower that brought it to life.

**”The Producers”, for but one example, belongs on the screen. “Cats” arguably belongs on neither, but I digress.

“Glengarry Glen Ross” (1992) 3 stars

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