This post was written by my good friend Richard Bouchard. I asked him to write it, as it is his favorite movie. Rich is the assistant publisher for Boston Band Crush.
Glengarry Glen Ross
Quote: Put. That. Coffee. Down. [pause] Coffee’s for closers only.
Glengarry Glen Ross is one of the most compelling movies I’ve ever seen. Focusing on the lives of four salesmen in New York, the story draws you in and refuses to let go without ever showing a single act of violence or even a hint of sex, relying only on the conversations of the characters. At the beginning of the film, we see the men meeting in a shabby office after hours; Alec Baldwin’s towering Blake appears from another room and launches into what is easily the best monologue of the actor’s career. He calmly and firmly lays out the terms for our haggard group: close sales or get fired. Chances are that even if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve seen this scene. Probably an awful finance major you went to college with or one of your Republican friends who takes it way too seriously showed it to you. Blake delivers his message and leaves the men to their own devices, and drama unfolds for the rest of the story as they all vie for position at the top of the sales board.
Instead of a list of different things I like about the movie, I’m just going to talk about the characters:
Sheldon Levene – The oldest of the four, he’s long past his prime and seems to be stuck reliving his glory days. His approach to the sale is either to trick his customers into thinking that they’ve won a prize, getting them confused and excited enough to sign some paperwork that will lock them into a mortgage or to pretend he’s a high powered executive in town for a short while with the investment opportunity of a lifetime (only if you act now). It’s my favorite Jack Lemmon role, he says more with an eyebrow twitch and a “huh?!” than most actors could do with a 2 minute monologue. If you’ve seen The Simpsons, the recurring character Gil the Salesman is based on Lemmon’s portrayal of Levene.
Dave Moss – Ed Harris’ tough guy salesman. He’s brash and arrogant, we barely see him do any selling at all in the movie, but when he does, he’s brusque with his intended mark, as if his plan is to bully them into buying what he’s offering. He spends most of the time resenting the way he’s treated by his superiors and scheming to steal the precious sales leads.
George Aaronow – Very ably played by Alan Arkin, George is a weak man. Definitely easily manipulated, he lacks any ambition or hope for life. The only time we see him attempt to make a sale is over the phone, and he’s so caught up in other events and stressed about the competition that he completely fumbles his pitch in the first few seconds.
Richard Roma – The current top-dog salesman of the group. Smooth as silk and razor sharp, his approach is to befriend his mark before offering the hard sell. He uses his conversational skills to earn the trust of an unsuspecting new friend – he talks politics, old girlfriends, tales of youthful glory until even as the viewer, you want to be his friend, you want to let him lead you because you know there’s no way he’d steer you wrong… and by then it’s too late. It’s a powerhouse performance by Al Pacino, albeit a slow burn. He’s not visible for most of the film, but by the final act he just takes over the screen.
The story that ends up being told is an edge of your seat tale of suspense that has absolutely no action of any kind. At it’s heart, it is about the interactions between the four main characters: the first scene with their individual reactions to Blake’s ultimatum, office manager John Williamson (Kevin Spacey) butting heads with Levene, Aaronow being bullied into helping Moss with a plan to get one over on the bosses, Roma and Levene working to throw a suspicious client off their trail, and on and on. It’s a story that shows the power good writing can have in a film. The acting is top notch to be sure, but we’ve seen all of these actors in bad roles or phoned in performances. Visually, the directing is only mediocre at best, there are no interesting angles or difficult shots, so why is it so compelling? The answer, as best as I can come up with, is the writing of David Mamet and his subsequent involvement in the production. He is very hands-on with his stories, often demanding that actors do another take if they don’t quite follow his words precisely, and by that I don’t mean changing words, I mean even using the correct word but not emphasizing the correct syllable or saying it with the wrong intonation. Beyond words even, he’s a perfectionist, calling for extra takes of a certain pause was missed or a “…um” in the dialogue skipped over (the “Go to lunch” interaction between Kevin Spacey and Alan Arkin is one that definitely stands out as particularly Mamet-esque). I’d liken the words he types into a screenplay to the notes chosen by Mozart or Beethoven; it would be ludicrous for a musician to think that they could improve one of these masters’ symphonies by changing a note, and the same holds true for Mamet’s dialogue. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, start with this one; then move on to The Spanish Prisoner (Steve Martin in a dramatic role!), The Winslow Boy and Heist to get a good picture of what he does.