Glengarry Glen Ross
by Marc V. Calderaro
“It is not a world of men; it’s a world of clock watchers.”
James Foley, the director Glengarry Glen Ross, is a technician. He’s an actor’s director. His frames are brimming with zeal, but don’t beg for your attention. James Foley is a subtle David Fincher. It’s no surprise Foley was tapped to helm some House of Cards episodes after Fincher’s initial run.
Though Foley’s later films, like Confidence, take this style to the extreme, his work on Glengarry is masterful in exactly the way it should be — and remains a study in how to connect endless monologues and two-shots into a compelling movie; it’s a study in movement, color, and mood.
When you’re adapting a David Mamet play, and your least-credentialed cast member is four-time Academy Award nominee, Ed Harris, there’s only so much you should be doing. And Foley does just that.
In the first scenes, he barely peaks out from behind the curtain; but when he sets up the film’s most storied performance — Alec Baldwin’s bravado cameo — Foley tips his hand. Having previously established the dreary, rainy, mono-chromatic elevated-train-adjacent office, now there appears a gleaming red BMW which stands out from the frame like a cigarette burn.
We know that something is out of place here. Its repercussions will give the film its arc. Baldwin (the car’s owner) comes to the satellite sales office from “downtown” and threatens the salesmen — Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, and (kinda) Al Pacino — that the two with the lowest sales would be fired. His braggadocious “A-B-C-Always-Be-Closing” monologue even includes a set of literal brass balls.
This speech starts a chain of events that causes each salesman to grapple with his own ability to sell, and to reflect on what kind of a world he’s made for himself anyway.
Some blame others; some blame themselves; some step up to the plate; and some plot for a way to subvert the stupid system.
This is a movie that takes American capitalism head on, and studies who thrives on it and who flounders. The first couple times I watched the film, I thought everyone was an asshole. But now, I believe it’s only Al Pacino’s character who emerges relatively unscathed. He’s on a hot streak at the office, and doesn’t fear being fired in this latest threat. In fact, he skips the de-motivational speech because he’s too busy selling real estate to a dude he met at the local bar.
Sure he’s a slimeball, but he’s an “honest” slimeball, and is empathetic to his co-workers and “the working man” (a phrase uttered ad infinitum). This is drastically different from Baldwin’s character, who tells Ed Harris that his car cost less than Baldwin’s watch.
Additionally, Pacino mourns the passing of the one-to-one, man-to-man selling in an industry now reliant on the omnipresent “leads” — names, addresses, and phone numbers taken off mailing lists and sold to their company as potential marks. It’s no surprise that through the entire first half of the movie, while every other character is complaining about how bad the leads are, Pacino is patiently sitting in a bar booth, selling his ass off.
Jack Lemmon and Alan Arkin’s characters realize their best days are behind them, and struggle to weasel out of the situation. Lemmon’s casting is perfect, as it seems like he’s playing an aged version of his cut-throat, disconnected garment-business owner from Save the Tiger, who’s now fallen on harder times.
We watch them try to hold things together — Ed Harris is the first to consider crime.
As the first half of the film is the fallout from Baldwin’s dictate, the second half is the fallout from an overnight robbery of the office — someone has stolen the precious “good leads” that were being withheld for “closers,” rather than being squandered on “losers.”
We watch what the relentless “Sell, Sell, Sell” mentality of the industry does to these un-ironed-collar salesmen — unfolding through Mamet-famous, expletive-laden diatribes about the good ol’ days when men were men.
Everyone delivers a knockout performance, and the film is fun the whole way through. Though much of this is a credit to the actors and the screenplay, it’s James Foley who successfully transitions a play about a bunch of dudes talking, into a riveting motion picture.
Casting all bald men to play the losers and all full-haired men to play the winners is smart, and the lighting techniques add just the right amount of drama where it’s needed — emphasizing the constant shifting of power throughout the film.
I like this film a lot, but I used to love it. It was that type of movie that I thought “If you don’t love this, then you don’t love film.” That was a long time ago. Don’t get me wrong, Glengarry offers a great opportunity to watch technicians excel at their craft, but it fails to hold the same place in my heart.
Perhaps it’s the fact that I find its message dated. I’m not as interested in the changing structure of capitalism and how it affects the old guard. I feel for those who bought into the system which no longer represents them, and now has trapped them. But I no longer respect their ideals they hold for capitalism and salesmenship. The whole thing is cracked from the get-go, and I hate it, but that’s how it is. So if you want to participate, be a Pacino, hell, even a Baldwin, or GTFO.
Don’t preach to me about how it should be. Either understand how it is and work within it the most empathetic way you can (regardless of whether that empathy is manufactured), or don’t be a salesman at all.
I think Pacino’s monologue right before he sells the property in that bar sums up a lot of my evolving feelings towards this film. And it’s probably appropriate to leave you with at least one long-winded quote, from a film that’s basically a series of two-shots and monologues:
“All train compartments smell vaguely of shit; it gets so that you don’t mind it. That’s the worst thing I can confess. You know how long it took me to get there? A long time.
When you die, you’re going to regret the things you don’t do. You think you’re queer? I’m gonna tell you something — we’re all queer. You think you’re a thief, so what?
You get befuddled by a middle-class morality; get shut of it [sic]; shut it out. You cheat on your wife? You did it; live with it. Fuck little girls? So be it.
There’s an absolute morality? Eh, maybe. And then what? If you think there is, go ahead, be that thing. Bad people go to hell? I don’t think so. If you think that, act that way. Hell exists on earth? Yes. I won’t live in it; that’s me.
Did you ever take a dump made you feel like you just slept for 12 hours?”
An all-female remake of Glengarry Glen Ross will be very interesting. Hopefully Mamet won’t write it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of Mamet’s best is one where the only female presence is salesman trying to make a sale by talking husbands out of discussing things with their more-prudent wives.
I hope a new movie will have a subtler concept of women.