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Back to the Feature: Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)


Adapting a story from stage to screen is different from adapting a book. Firstly, there are rules on stage that don’t apply to film, largely in the actors’ relation to the stage which effects how sets are designed. In a movie you can shoot from any angle yet the audience is only privy to a limited perspective in theatre. Many plays cater to this with limited environments and performance coming through more in dialogue than anything else. So the trick with adapting something like this to a much more visual medium is to keep the story faithful and interesting, while making appropriate changes that suit the new form and using the advantages film offers. Hollywood musicals often do this well, but with more character-based plays it doesn’t always work. 12 Angry Men is a great film, but it’s not visually interesting at all, relying entirely on its already compelling dialogue. This was also, I felt, the biggest problem with last years’ Fences -there was nothing cinematic to it.
Glengarry Glen Ross is arguably the most famous play from acclaimed playwright David Mamet. It was first performed in 1984 and has won numerous awards. Eight years after its debut, and following a long development process, it was made into a movie directed by James Foley (who’s since gone on to commit career suicide in the last couple years), written by Mamet himself, and featuring an ensemble of some of the greatest working actors of the time.
The film is about four real estate salesmen (Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, and Alan Arkin) desperately trying to close their assigned leads through whatever means necessary when their job security is put on the line. By the end of the week, only the two best salesmen will be kept on, and awarded a fancy car and set of steak knives respectively, as well as the extremely lucrative Glengarry leads. This story takes place over only two days -really just one considering it’s evening when the movie starts and no later than noon the next day when it ends.
As would be expected, the story is completely driven by the dialogue. Even most of the underhanded dealings are kept off-screen, with Ricky Roma’s sweet-talking of Jim Lingk being the only sale we actually see made. Conversations detailing exposition and how the real estate world works dominate numerous scenes; people talking about what they’re doing rather than actually doing them. And while this is a really unexciting avenue to take from a story perspective, thankfully this dialogue is both terrifically well-written and delivered. Environment naturally doesn’t play a big part, but the film medium is used to better engage the viewer, whether it’s situating a conversation between two characters in a bar or a car while its raining, it’s nice to see the characters going places. And the cinematography is never stale mostly due to some very clever lighting. James Newton Howard’s subtle musical score is also a great asset. However I have to say I prefer the first act to the second, as even though more of the drama obviously takes place in the latter, the former notably switched between various characters and locations, rather than restrict all the action to the office.
But what really keeps you invested in Glengarry Glen Ross are the performances. As good as Mamet’s writing is, it needs talented actors to pull it off, and everyone here does so in spades. We’re used to seeing Al Pacino have explosive confrontations, his temper has almost become a trademark. And while that makes up a part of Ricky Roma, it’s been a while since we’ve seen Pacino be truly scheming. His ingeniously persuasive pitching is probably what makes the character so interesting, and what no doubt draws actors like Joe Mantegna, Liev Schreiber, and Pacino himself to the part. It’s almost a kind of devilish seduction how he preys on Lingk’s mid-life crisis, knowing exactly how to exploit it to make a sale. He’s that shrewd manipulator we all fear real estate agents are. Seemingly the opposite of him is the late great Jack Lemmon as Shelley “the Machine” Levine, a formerly brilliant closer who’s been on a streak of failures as of late. This somewhat pathetic old salesman famously inspired Gil Gunderson on The Simpsons, and it shows in his attitude and clumsy habit of getting carried away. But despite being just as cold-hearted as his co-workers when it comes to how he sees buyers, Levine is the most sympathetic character. He’s the oldest guy still working there, the most likely due to his track record to get fired when the ultimatum is posed, and, to add injury to insult, he has a daughter sick in the hospital. Furthermore, Jack Lemmon’s natural sweetness shines through, making him endearing in spite of any efforts to characterize him as unlikable. The same can’t be said for Ed Harris’ David Moss, the office asshole. Moss doesn’t even try to close his leads, instead immediately plots to get back at the firm owners, Mitch and Murray by stealing the Glengarry leads -which Levine was simultaneously trying to bribe off of John Williamson, the office manager (Glen Ross by the way, was the name of a previous good lead the salesmen had vied over). Despite his general abrasiveness and readiness to resort to criminal activities, you do relate a little to Moss and his frustration at how poor their leads usually are. You have to have pretty phenomenal sales prowess to sell a crap property after all. And Harris plays the part exceptionally, holding his own in a shouting match against Pacino. Moss tries to coax a similarly frustrated George Aaronow into being his accomplice, and while Alan Arkin doesn’t play as significant a role as the others, he’s still very good, playing a guy who can be persuaded but not pushed over. In one of his earlier roles Kevin Spacey gives a great preview of his abilities as Williamson, demonstrating the same take-no-shit attitude seen in more recent roles like Baby Driver. Despite being the youngest cast member, he’s got great presence, and his interactions with Lemmon in particular (Spacey’s real-life acting mentor) may be the films’ best. Jonathan Pryce, who’d later play Levine in the West End, gives a good subtle performance as Lingk, the man easily pressured into buying one of the expensive Glengarry properties. And then there’s Alec Baldwin. If you’re looking for something in the film that doesn’t quite fit, this is it. His scene isn’t bad by any means, but it was clearly added to the movie; the character given no name other than the sarcastic “Fuck You” was written specifically for Baldwin, and he never reappears after the beginning. The representative of the ominous unseen Mitch and Murray, his role is to set up the plot and the ultimatum for the salesmen, which I guess is already set up at the start in the original play. Baldwin is very good as this profane motivational speaker, and of course he’s somewhat made a career for himself recently playing obscene businessmen. His now popular ABCs (Always Be Closing) and a pretty good speech don’t make him the breakout character for me though. If he were in it more, perhaps, but in a cast that without him is still full of fantastic talent playing interesting characters, he neither adds nor detracts anything.
The movie (and play) is also known for its profanity, apparently based off of how salesmen Mamet worked around really talked. The casts’ nickname of “Death of a Fucking Salesman” is both cheeky and appropriate, artistic and vulgar. Every character curses at least a few times, even Jack Lemmon, which is jarring. But it is certainly tame compared to films that have come since such as Casino, Layer Cake, and The Wolf of Wall Street.
Glengarry Glen Ross also has a satisfying, if somewhat predictable ending, tying up its second act, but being far from happy. There’s a strain of cynicism to this story, it’s theme based a lot around unscrupulous people in a job where they’re supposed to appear trustworthy. And given Mamet’s experience, it could certainly be read as a commentary. I think it works as a film the same way 12 Angry Men does, but with the advantage of being at least a little more visually versatile. It’s still a lot of talking -Williamson directly tells Levine at one point he talks too much, but really that argument could be made against most of these characters who aren’t Lingk or Aaronow. But the writing is more than good enough, and the performances all round are very engaging. And even going on just it’s story, it is a fascinating one, forcing the audience to examine these characters, their jobs, and morals. Glengarry Glen Ross is a great example of how to adapt an in-exorbitant stage production well. 

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