When I moved to Denver in 1968 and was enrolled in Denver Public Schools a weird thing happened one day when our class was interrupted and a tall man with oily black hair, large pores and a strong southern accent came into our classroom and gave us a pitch about selling his line of plastic combs to our families and neighbors. He told us we could win prizes and that the experience would build character. I might be wrong, but I don’t think it was ever made clear to us kids what the ostensible school-related or charitable reason was that this frightening scumbag was allowed into our school day. We were pretty much forced to participate and I remember not doing that well and my Dad being pissed that he had to buy these crappy red combs. That experience stuck with me for the rest of my life. I have met many salesmen over the years and some have been very nice people, but that “type,” that brand of peculiarly American snake-oil salesman remains a reality in modern life and is still to be regularly encountered. No movie has ever quite gotten this phenomenon as perfectly as Glengarry Glen Ross. Combining the greatest ensemble cast since Twelve Angry Men with David Mamet’s precise, biting, insightful and torturous dialogue and director James Foley’s claustrophobic filming, Glengarry Glen Ross is a modern masterpiece of existential angst.
Are you familiar with Gil Gunderson, the character on The Simpsons who is perpetually at the end of line at another dead end job? Gil is a caricature of Jack Lemmon’s character in Glengarry. Lemmon is Shelly “The Machine” Levine the most pitiful, washed-up, sad excuse for a salesman since Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman, whose plight, along with three other losers (Alan Arkin, Ed Harris and Al Pacino) are trying to complete high pressure sales of bad real-estate developments to confused old people and cold call victims. They exist in a high-pressure office environment run by a lizard of a man brilliantly played by Kevin Spacey, where they are subjected to threats, abuse and a competitive system that threatens their job at all times. The movie begins with one of the greatest scenes ever as Alec Baldwin comes to the office to give a “motivational” speech. He lays out the incentive package thusly; “first prize is a Cadillac, second prize is a set of steak knives, third prize is you’re fired.” It is with this pressure that we crawl under a rock with these men and see how bad a job can be. Pacino is riveting as the egotistical Rickie Roma, a man with the ability to figure out people’s particular weaknesses and then exploit that information to sell them something they don’t want. He’s despicable but it is impossible to take your eyes off him. It is one of his great performances on screen. In fact, each actor offers a once-in-a-lifetime performance. The movie lives with the men as they inhabit this office, trying to arrange what they call “sits” where they actually get with their prospective client and wear them down until they sign a contract to buy one of their housing developments which carry names like Glengarry Estates. The outside world is treated like just another nasty character, bringing either pouring rain or blinding light. Their life is a pitiful string of lies, exaggerations and affronts on the bottom of the investment chain.
To give away the specifics of the plot would spoil the film as it unwinds into a bleak void of bad intentions and even worse results. It is a cautionary tale about how greed and the drive to gain money can put people on a slippery slope to reprehensible behavior. There are no good guys and everyone involved gets covered in monkey stink by the end. Glengarry Glen Ross achieves greatness through the pressure cooker environment it creates as these sad men try to claw their way to the top of a very small hill. David Mamet is perhaps the greatest practitioner of biting, tough language filled with soliloquy, which gets straight to the underbelly of the American dream. I find watching this movie to be a devastating experience. I can only take it about once a decade, but I find it must be seen repeatedly. Whenever I question my career decisions or the path my life has taken, Glengarry Glen Ross becomes a useful point of reference.
- Paul Epstein