“Only one thing counts in this life: Get them to sign on the line which is dotted.” —Alec Baldwin, Glengarry Glen Ross
For the film adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross—playfully dubbed Death Of A Fucking Salesman by the cast, for its colorful profanity—David Mamet added a scene specifically for Alec Baldwin, who appears early on as a real-estate-company slickster sent to deliver the details of a new sales contest. First prize: a Cadillac Eldorado. Second prize: a set of steak knives. Third prize: You’re fired. (A friend of mine created an ingenious Glengarry-derived movie-ratings system that naturally allowed for some nuance, e.g. “rusty knives,” “fired with a generous severance package.”) Is there a more famous and widely quoted monologue in recent movie history? There’s no doubt that the scene feels like an add-on. It’s detached and self-contained even in a movie that’s rife with larger-than-life performances, electrifying soliloquies, and yes, those famed staccato bursts of Mamet dialogue. Yet for those of us who know only the screen version of Glengarry, it’s almost unthinkable without this scene, which lays out the themes, sets a tone of panicked urgency, and gives the entire ensemble a shove down a very steep hill.
Out of the many memorable lines and phrases in Baldwin’s speech (“Put. That. Coffee. Down.” “You see this watch? That watch costs more than your car.” “‘Fuck you,’ that’s my name!”), the one that stands out for me is quoted above: “Only one thing counts in this life: Get them to sign on the line which is dotted.”
All four of the sad-sack salesmen Baldwin addresses in that scene—a fifth, the closer of the bunch, played by Al Pacino, is conspicuously absent—have been around long enough to feel that cardinal law in their bones. In fact, everything he tells them (“Always Be Closing,” “A-I-D-A: Attention, Interest, Decision, Action,” et al.) is something they already know. The truly pertinent information is that they’re about to lose their jobs if those basic lessons don’t translate into plots sold. It doesn’t matter whether the leads are dead or the properties are sinkholes, and it doesn’t matter how the sale ultimately gets made. This is raw capitalism: Check your morality and dignity at the door (“Nice guy? I don't give a shit. Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids.”), and do whatever it takes to get “Harriet and Blah-blah Niborg” to cut you a check.
The genius of Mamet’s play is that it’s about honor without honor. It follows beleaguered salesmen who by trade have to manipulate people and lie to them in order to get through the day. And it’s a credit to Mamet that they have our sympathy from the start, so much so that we’re rooting for them to pull one over on their innocent clients just to get their names on the sales board. In fact, I’m guessing it may not be until the play or movie is over that viewers become conscious of how much time their heroes spend lying in the name of business. That’s because we know the rules of capitalism, too: Get them to sign on the line which is dotted. Whatever small measure of honor can be extracted from this life—and the men in Glengarry Glen Ross do have codes, and are essentially decent, thieves though they may be—is precious but transcendent, because it’s all that separates them from the executive despots and their sadistic sales contests.
Insofar as what they’re selling is concerned, the film shows us only a pamphlet of green grass and palm trees, supported by made-up stories about astounding investment appreciation and a nondescript storefront that screams “fly-by-night operation.” Whatever the case, the salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross clearly don’t believe in the value of what they’re selling; their pitch is a con job, bolstered by whatever fictions inflate their importance (invisible secretaries, bullshit job titles) or flatter their customers (special prizes, drop-ins from out of town). Lacking assets of real concrete value—or at least respectable value—makes the sales job tougher (purer, even), so it follows that the best salesmen are the most abstract, framing the product less as an investment than an existential prerogative. Enter Ricky Roma:
The scene above is merely the end of Roma’s bravura performance, the follow-through on a whiskey-soaked evening of philosophizing with a weak mark. As Roma, Al Pacino channels the quiet confidence of Michael Corleone at the height of his power; he nails the volcanic bursts of anger and profanity that come later in the film, but it’s nice to see Pacino working the lower registers, too. Roma’s self-assurance is borne out in the sales numbers—the other three men in the office are essentially duking it out for steak knives from the beginning—and it stands in especially sharp contrast to Jack Lemmon’s Shelley Levene, whose desperation wafts off him like body odor. Unraveling under pressure from work and home—some dire situation involving his daughter is suggested, but never made explicit—the man once known as Shelley “The Machine” Levene can’t close a deal. And the harder he tries, the filmier the flopsweat coagulating on his forehead.
Lemmon’s turn in Glengarry Glen Ross arrives near the end of a career devoted to playing loveable, put-upon Everymen, Here, Lemmon may sink too far into simpering loserdom, but he’s the soul of the movie, a wheezing casualty of the field. Again, it goes back to confidence: Whether Shelley’s on a sit with a reluctant customer or promising the office manager (a wonderfully oily Kevin Spacey) a cut of his take for access to the “good leads,” the underlying message isn’t “This is a good opportunity for you,” but “I’m on the bottom rung here.” Frustration and failure breeds more of the same for Shelley, who once knew his business well enough to mentor Roma, but now needs a sale so badly that he can’t do the essential work of hiding that neediness. He’s not just a pitiable husk of his former self, but a living reminder that yesterday’s triumphs are meaningless, your job is always at risk, and you’ll be deposited cruelly at the end of the line, sans gold watch.
The prevailing mood of desperation drives Glengarry Glen Ross to its one bit of intrigue: an office robbery where the new leads (among other items of less-than-negligible value) have gone missing, clearly suggesting an inside job. The notion of stealing the leads and selling them off to a rival is first bandied about by Dave Moss (Ed Harris) and George Aaronow (Alan Arkin) in casual conversation, but in a classic piece of Mamet dialogue, they mostly dance around the subject, parsing out whether they’re just “speaking about it” or actually “talking about it.” The robbery gives the narrative some shape—and a great reveal to the whodunit at the end—but the act itself isn’t as important as the necessity of doing it. Under the circumstances, it’s not only reasonable for any one of these salesmen to steal the leads as a matter of self-preservation, it’s also in keeping with the anything-goes ethos of the trade.
Director James Foley, whose spotty track record includes a couple of strong, moody early efforts like At Close Range and After Dark, My Sweet, but also some recent embarrassments like Perfect Stranger, does the smart thing by not stepping on his actors and Mamet’s script, and not “opening up” the play too much. Yet he does make some crucial decisions, large and small, that enhance the film tremendously, starting with a rich nocturnal mood that at times is right out of an Edward Hopper painting, with seductive images of lonely men in diners and bars while the rest of the city sleeps. The office, too, is both a wonderful relic of decades-old metal desks and sunken file cabinets, and a flexible space for cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía to move his camera around. In contrast to later visually drab Mamet adaptations like Oleanna and American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross dodges “filmed play” status by using the camera for subtle emphasis, not unlike the dialogue inflections in Mamet’s script. Just take that Baldwin scene, for example: the “steak knives” line is funnier for the way he lifts the set into the frame; ditto the tracking shot of his midsection as he pulls the brass balls out of his briefcase.
Like its fellow New Cult Canon entry In The Company Of Men—which owes an obvious debt to Mamet, in spite of Neil LaBute’s assertion that he was influenced by everyone but—Glengarry Glen Ross endures mainly as a spectacular display of verbal warfare and alpha-male gamesmanship. There’s a musical quality to it, with a great composer and a great chorus hitting the complicated runs of broken dialogue and solos that weave into profane poetry and nuggets of philosophical wisdom. Perhaps the greatest sign of the movie’s success, owed equally to Mamet’s script and this cast, is that it does a great sales job in itself, convincing us that there’s nobility to men who lie for a living—a bill of goods we’re all too happy to buy.
April 1: Hard-Boiled
April 15: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
April 29: Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans