The title of David Mamet’s Pulitzer prize-winning play, Glengarry Glen Ross, refers to two of the real estate developments that salesmen in the drama have been pushing on investors: Glengarry Highlands and Glen Ross Farms. The names evoke verdancy and wealth, a precious swath of finite land – “they’re not making it any more”, to quote Mark Twain – and the salesmen have the glossy brochures to prove it. But it’s a swindle peddled by swindlers who themselves are being swindled. What they’re selling has no value and they have no value if they’re not selling. In the brilliant film adaptation, still electric 30 years later, a motivational speaker lays it out for them: “Only one things counts in this life: get them to sign on the line that is dotted.”
Glengarry Glen Ross is about many things – masculinity, morality, capitalism – but it’s fundamentally an “honor among thieves” story, following anguished men as they struggle to hang on to their integrity while acting as low-level rip-off artists. Mamet could have turned them all into antagonists, but he has too keen an appreciation for their circumstances and even a little admiration for their craft. Mamet’s 1987 debut feature, House of Games, was about the art of the con, and here it takes a lot of smoke and mirrors to turn clients into suckers, selling them on a sinkhole that looks like paradise. Even in a system of unending exploitation, the way they’re treated – and the way they treat one another – still matters.
The motivational speaker, played by Alec Baldwin, was added for the film version and now seems an indispensable part of the drama, both as a source of its most quotable lines (“Put. That. Coffee. Down.”) and the large shove that sends its four salesmen careening downhill. His purpose is to call attention to the month’s sales contest, where first prize is a Cadillac, second prize is a set of steak knives and third prize is the unemployment line. He also has possession of leads to precious new clients, which are dangled in front of them as they limp out on “sits” with warmed-over deadbeats and people who just like to talk to salesmen.
An office robbery makes suspects of them all, but before the leads, some of the contracts and the phones are boosted, Mamet takes time to sketch out the characters over a rainy, fateful evening in Chicago. Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) and Shelley “The Machine” Levene (Jack Lemmon) are a study in contrasts: Ricky holds court in the Chinese restaurant and bar across from the office, where he likes to philosophize with clients like James Lingk (Jonathan Pryce) before circling around, almost imperceptibly, to a sale. Shelley prefers the hard sell, affected with a folksy cadence that’s starting to slip into naked desperation. Meanwhile, the combustible Dave Moss (Ed Harris) and the meek George Aaron (Alan Arkin) drown their sorrows in a bar that resembles Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, where Dave pitches the idea of a robbery to get the leads and sell them to a competitor.
The pungent rhythms of Mamet’s dialogue, with their clipped sentences and bursts of profanity, give Glengarry Glen Ross its unmistakable verve, but it’s remarkable how carefully he delineates these characters. They’re all of a similar species, one with its own rapacious language and culture, but in this story of survival of the fittest, the strength and weaknesses in their temperaments tell the story. It’s an imperative that they live to see another miserable day at the office, so the drama becomes a test of how far they’re willing to go to get on the sales board and at what cost to their soul. But Mamet respects their esprit de corps, too, built on a shared sense of dignity as men.
Director James Foley, fresh from the first-rate Jim Thompson adaptation After Dark, My Sweet, doesn’t try to “open up” the play too much for the screen, but he does give the action a stripped-down neo-noir ambience that complements Mamet’s work. And his long takes and widescreen compositions give the actors the space to operate like animals in their natural habitat, prowling around and asserting their dominance over weaker members of a pack. As Williamson, the company man who runs the office, Kevin Spacey may be the rare case of off-screen behavior enhancing on-screen oiliness, which makes him the favorite target of everyone else in the room.
It isn’t often that a single film includes so many top-paragraph-in-the-obituary performances, but the cast of Glengarry Glen Ross seems to draw out the most from one another, as if they keep setting and resetting the high bar. There are shades of Michael Corleone’s calculating self-possession to Pacino’s Ricky Roma, but a whiff of cheap cologne, too, that suggests he can’t take his routine to a larger stage. Lemmon’s career as a put-upon everyman type makes him an ideal Levene, but on top of the pitiable flop sweat of a salesman who’s lost his touch, he adds a sinister edge to the character as he tries to claw his way out of the corner. Harris and Arkin develop their own specific syncopation, with Harris’s Dave treating Arkin’s nodding, mumbling George as a sounding board for grievances and conspiracy.
There’s a pleasing musicality to Glengarry Glen Ross that’s made it worth revisiting for 30 years, despite the bleak destinies of characters on the wrong end of the capitalist food chain. With virtuosos like Pacino and Lemmon playing the notes, even a 100-minute burning ulcer can seem like a night at the symphony.