Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Glengarry Glen Ross

An early detail in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), an adaptation of the play by David Mamet, never fails to get a smile from me. From the downtown offices of company owners Mitch and Murray arrives Blake (Alec Baldwin), a slick, high-powered salesman who unleashes a profane tirade against a group of employees (Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, and Alan Arkin) to humiliate and motivate them. Dave Moss (Harris) rolls his eyes and mouths off, so Blake gets in his face.

"You see this watch?" Blake asks. "That watch costs more than your car. I made $970,000 last year. How much you make?" I chuckle when I think of that amount: $970,000. Granted, that's a lot of money and probably more than I'll ever see in my life, but I would expect a wheeler and dealer like Blake to be making millions. It gets me thinking. Richard Fuld, the last chairman and CEO of Lehman Brothers, received $484 million in salary and bonuses between 2000 and 2008 when the financial giant went bankrupt. In testimony before Congress, he defended that compensation while saying he accepted "full responsibility" for the company's downfall. Say what you will about Blake, but at least he seems good at his job. It just goes to show that the corporate environment of greed and corruption depicted in Glengarry Glen Ross has not only survived the 20 years since the movie's release, it has flourished.

But greed and corruption are not the only traits on display in Glengarry Glen Ross. What's also tangible is the pathetic desperation of these salesmen. These are men who will do and say anything to make a sale, and that includes lying and stealing. There aren't any murders depicted in the story, but killing isn't really necessary here; these men's souls have already been destroyed by their jobs.

In a Chicago real estate office, the salesmen are down in the dumps. Only Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) is on a streak while the rest - Moss, Shelly Levine (Lemmon), and George Aaronow (Arkin) - are barely scraping by. Levine, in particular, is pitiful, a once great salesman now at his nadir. When Blake arrives for his pep talk, he announces the new month's sale prizes: first prize is a new car, and second prize is a set of steak knives. Everyone else will be fired. Blake also brings with him the new prime leads, which are then locked in the office of office manager John Williamson (Kevin Spacey) because Blake says giving them to these losers would be throwing them away. While Roma works a sale on a potential client (Jonathan Pryce) and Levine practically begs Williamson for some of the new leads, Moss tries to convince Aaronow to break into the office and steal the leads.

The title of Glengarry Glen Ross refers to two sets of properties for the salesmen sell, but another effective name for the movie could have been "The Weak and the Greedy." Of all the salesmen, only Aaronow comes close to being a decent human being, but he's a total puff ball and pushover. At times, we feel sorry for Levine; he often looks like a man ready to break down and cry, and he makes frequent references to his hospitalized daughter, but whenever he gets any sort of power or success, he rubs it in people's faces and becomes as big of a prick as Roma, whose success also allows him to be a conniving jerk. When his client comes to the office the day after closing the sale, Roma blatantly lies to his face and does his best to confuse the poor man. You also feel a bit bad for Williamson, a guy just trying to his job, and these salesmen treat him like crap, calling him a glorified "secretary," but he takes joy in watching this bunch being humiliated.

Since this is based on a play, the movie is limited in locations. Most of the action takes place in the same real estate office, although there a few scenes at a Chinese restaurant, a diner, a potential client's house, and inside some cars. Director James Foley uses a lot of crosscutting between closeups, allowing the actors the room and time to showcase Mamet's trademark vulgar, staccato dialogue. For a movie with no action, special effects, or even female characters (a few wives and daughters are mentioned but never seen in this place where Blake says it requires "brass balls" to sell), the tension, drama, and even some dark humor remain palpable.

Under the trivia section of the Internet Movie Database, it's listed that the actors in Glengarry Glen Ross referred to the movie as "Death of a Fucking Salesman," and that's a good way to look at it. Like the Arthur Miller play, it's about salesmen trying to get ahead in their profession, but instead of a sad tragedy about the failure of the American Dream, it's an in-your-face rage about its perversion.

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