More noise than signal

Glengarry Glen Ross

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com

Some actors are blessed with enough talent to carry a film regardless of script quality. Some scripts are good enough that mediocre acting performances cannot spoil them. Some scripts are handed down by God to prove he exists and populated with actors who have sold their souls to the Devil to be top of their field. This would be one of them. David Mamet adapts his own Pulitzer Prize winning stage production, and James Foley directs. The cast list for this movie is faintly ridiculous. Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Alec Baldwin and Jonathan Pryce, all fine to very fine actors.

The films follows an office of real estate salesmen, initially whining about the usual complaints likely to be familiar to anyone who has worked in sales, mostly poor quality leads from the company, Mitch and Murray. Abrasive superstar salesman, Blake (Baldwin) is sent from the company to add a little spice to the monthly sales competition – First place on the sales board gets a Cadillac Eldorado. Second place gets an attractive set of steak knives. Everyone else gets fired. Baldwin has a comparatively minor role, but is played to perfection, with the kind of fire and greed which wouldn’t be out of place in Wall Street. He spews an expletive ridden speech empathising that he is in fact very rich any they are in fact worthless due to their inability to close a deal. The mantra is not Greed Is Good, rather Always Be Closing.

This proves to be upsetting news for the salesmen, who initially take their frustrations out on their boss, John Williamson (Spacey). They know he has the new, fresh Glengarry leads in his office, rather than their current old, poor quality contacts. He has, however, been directed to only give these to proven closers, i.e. the month’s top two salesmen. The characters then have to find some way to deal with this.

The only main character not present for this pep talk / announcement of firing is Ricky Roma (Pacino), who wouldn’t be too worried about it anyway. Top of the board and on a sales roll, his job would seem to be secure. He is still in the bar over the road, having met James Lingk (Pryce) at the bar and commences on his unconventional sales pitch, delivering essentially a soliloquy on life and other randomness before segueing into a soliloquy on land in general, and then the land he’s selling in particular. Pacino oozes charisma, and would certainly make an incredible salesman were he not busy being one of the finest actors in the world. Pacino’s delivery is perfect throughout this film, from the bar scenes with Pryce as he spouts his theories on life to the anger shown with Dave for his rants against Sheldon and at Williamson for screwing up his sale later in the film. It’s a great performance from a lifetime of great performances.

Jack Lemmon plays Sheldon ‘The Machine’ Levene, a salesman who may have seen his best days. No sales on the board. Daughter in hospital. Levene tries his sales pitch on the older leads Williamson has given them, and has no success. Things are not looking good. Sheldon turns to bribery to try to get the good leads from Williamson. It doesn’t work. Lemmon gives one of his best performances from a lifetime full of great performances, a masterful portrayal of a man becoming progressively more beaten down and broken by the harshness of an uncaring life, a man for whom life is dissolving before his very eyes. It’s difficult not to be moved or at the very least feel some empathy for Sheldon as everything he tries fails, and he strikes out in anger, pain, frustration and eventually sorrow. It would take an incredible performance to stand out from this particular crowd, and Lemmon delivers in spades.

Spacey’s performance is a deceptive, playing a character written entirely for the film, and at the start of the film can seem superfluous. He can come across as weak and ineffective in the first act, but as the plots unfold and the tension in the office builds, the depth of the character does appear, and holds it’s own against the arguably stronger characters of the salesmen. His picking apart of a broken Levene at the films conclusion is a sight to behold. Again, a great performance in a lifetime of great performances. From this point on, can we just apply it to the entire cast so I don’t have to keep typing it? Yes? Thank you.

George Aaronow (Arkin) is also very worried. He seems to be mainly lacking in confidence, and unable to follow through and close the deal. His character is a strange one, often just repeating the last lines others say. The stress he is under shows through in everything he does, and again shows a harsh world battering a good man down into submission.

Ed Harris plays Dave Moss, who is probably the angriest of an angry bunch. After railing against the company, their selling tactics, the leads they are supplied and Roma, to George, he informs him of his plan to steal the new leads and sell them to a rival estate company, however he needs George to do the deed. Dave’s bluster hides his fear of failure, and Ed portrays it well. It is possibly the best performance I’ve seen from him.

The plot thickens the next morning as the office has indeed been robbed. Williamson and the police interview everyone to find out whodunit, but this is not a noir-ish thriller, it’s a masterwork in character study, office life, sales tactics and the human condition. The script is so well observed, the interactions between the characters so wonderfully realised that while the culprit is revealed it is not really the focus of the final act. The banter between Levene and Roma shows great warmth, the hostility between Roma and Moss is believable, as is the hostility between Williamson and, well, everyone.

Foley’s direction cannot be faulted, as stage adaptations can be difficult due to the usual lack of different locations. This could make the film seem dull, as by far the majority of the film takes place in the office, which is realistic, and therefore dull. However, the cast provides the fireworks, with the Mamet’s sublime script being delivered to perfection by the entire cast. The jazz soundtrack, including Sax performances from Wayne Shorter, is subtle yet effective.

Ultimately, the film is about the work that we do, and the effect it has on us. As I mentioned, you can see the effect it has on the characters, as they are bludgeoned down by life throughout the course of the film. Look around any office and you’ll probably see the same effect. Look in any sales office or telesales centre and you’ll see the same characters. Long before The Office appeared on TV to show us what happens when you continue working jobs you hate, Glengarry Glen Ross made it all too clear.

This film ought to be compulsory viewing for anyone involved in sales. In fact, it ought to be compulsory viewing for everyone. It’s witty, well observed, blackly comic, touching, depressing, worrying study of life and work. In my opinion, it’s a contender for best film ever made.

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