Glengarry Glen Ross (United States, 1992)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Is Glengarry Glen Ross really about salesmen, or is it about a bankrupt culture that produces and nurtures them? Certainly, it stands alongside Wall Street as one of the most unflinching views of a mindset that informed a generation of salesmen and stockbrokers during the 1980s and 1990s. Gordon Gecko might have said that "greed is good," but the men in Glengarry Glen Ross lived the mantra. The film focuses on a group of unpleasant characters, each more disreputable than the next, and uses them to provide compelling drama. As in Reservoir Dogs (which reached theaters the same year), it’s the complexity of the characters not their lack of virtue that commands our attention.

Al Pacino. Jack Lemmon. Ed Harris. Alan Arkin. Kevin Spacey. Alec Baldwin. Among them, they have amassed an astonishing 25 Oscar nominations and five victories, with each of them being nominated at least once (and Pacino and Lemmon both garnering eight apiece). No wonder Jack Lemmon considered this the most accomplished cast he ever worked with. It's hard to argue with him; I can't think of another movie so talent-heavy from top-to-bottom. Since Glengarry Glen Ross is a character/actor piece, it gives each of these performers an opportunity to shine, and they all take advantage of it.

What is it with plays about salesman that so capture the American interest? Arguably the two best American playwrights of the 20th century are Arthur Miller and David Mamet. Both have won Tony Awards and Pulitzer Prizes for their sad accounts about salesman. Millers' Death of a Salesman was one of the most often produced plays of the post-1949 period. (There has never been a definitive motion picture adaptation. The best known version is a 1985 made-for-TV edition starring Dustin Hoffman.) Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross has been a staple for local and national theater troupes since it premiered in 1984.

It took Mamet and director James Foley eight years to bring Glengarry Glen Ross to the screen. Considering the cast they accumulated, it was worth the wait. The two primary reasons for the delay were financing issues and the desire to have Al Pacino in the cast. Pacino wanted the part, but it was difficult finding an opening in his schedule. It was only when they decided to give up on him and cast Alec Baldwin in the part that Pacino became available. Baldwin was subsequently given a role that Mamet specifically wrote for the movie. And, as good as everyone is in this movie, Baldwin upstages them all - and he's only on screen for about ten minutes. (He should have but did not get an Oscar nomination for this performance).

There are four salesmen working in a New York City real estate office: hot-shot Ricky Roma (Al Pacino), who's raking in commissions by the fistful; old-timer Shelley Levine (Jack Lemmon), who has lost his touch; tough-talker Dave Moss (Ed Harris), who's looking for a way to screw management; and nervous George Aaronow (Alan Arkin), who's in almost as bad a shape as Shelly. Enter Blake (Alec Baldwin), a suit from uptown who's sent into the trenches to give a Patton-like pep talk. This month's sales contest, he informs them, will have new rules. First prize is a car. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize - you're fired. So two of the four salesmen in the office are about to get pink slips. The guy who runs the office, John Williamson (Kevin Spacey), couldn't be happier. He doesn't like any of them, least of all Levine, who constantly berates him. What follows is a perfect example of how people can turn on each other with their livelihood on the line. I'm reminded of the following line uttered by Sigourney Weaver in Aliens: "I don't know which species is worse. You don't see [the aliens] fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage!"

It strikes me as inexplicable and inexcusable that one of the best acted and best written films of 1992 received only one Oscar nomination: Al Pacino for Best Supporting Actor. The writing was ignored, even though Mamet's screenplay was arguably superior to his Tony winning/Pulitzer Prize winning script for the play. And, while Pacino's performance was the most fiery, it was not as deep or moving a portrayal as Lemmon's. Levine is a dislikeable rat, yet Lemmon humanizes him to the point where we feel pity, if not sympathy, for him. (Lemmon has stated in interviews that he did everything in his power not to soften the character. If that was his objective, it didn't work.)

Blake's profanity laced tirade near the beginning is one of Glengarry Glen Ross' highlights. Listening to it, I flashed back on George C. Scott's memorable opening monologue in Patton, so it came as no surprise to hear Alec Baldwin state that Scott's six-minute "pep talk" was his inspiration. To get a flavor of Blake's speech, here's a random line: "You can't close the leads you're given, you can't close shit, you are shit. Hit the bricks pal, and beat it, 'cause you are going out." Watching the verbal abuse he doles out will leave the average viewer a little stunned. Even today, with profanity in movies more common that it was 15 years ago, Blake's diatribe remains corrosive.

After Blake leaves the office, the salesmen turn on one another. The exception is Roma. He's far enough out in the lead in the sales contest that the only target of his contempt is Williamson, the clueless "secretary" who lords it over the salesman even though he's never walked a mile in their shoes. Moss makes a deal with another agency, then plays off Levine against Aaronow. There is a robbery of the office, and the presence of a police detective further sours an already pungent mood.

Since Mamet did not direct (only wrote) Glengarry Glen Ross, the dialogue is not delivered with the precise staccato style he has become known for, but it still snaps, crackles, and pops. The single greatest pleasure of watching this film is seeing great actors reciting Mamet's lines. It's rumored that members of the cast came to the set on days when they weren't scheduled to film so they could watch their fellow stars perform. For anyone who loves sharp dialogue, compelling characters, and a stinging social rebuke, Glengarry Glen Ross is not to be missed. It's as unique a motion picture today as it was in 1992, and it has lost none of its power or relevance.

Glengarry Glen Ross (United States, 1992)

Director: James Foley
Cast: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, Jonathan Pryce
Screenplay: David Mamet, based on his play
Cinematography: Juan Ruiz Anchía
Music: James Newton Howard
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema
Ranked #62 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 1992-10-02
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1