Last week, on Out of Theaters, we focused on “Fight Club.” The week before, “Seven.” And this week, it’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.”
And you could argue that, of the three movies, “Glengarry Glen Ross” is the most violent of them all.
It’s not physical violence, like in “Fight Club” or “Seven.” There are no punches thrown, and no one’s body is left bloody and shattered on the floor of the sales office. But on an emotional level? It’s one of the most brutal movies ever made.
Taking place over an evening and the following morning in a shabby real estate office in an unnamed city, “Glengarry Glen Ross” introduces us to a handful of men who make their living (or at least try to) selling worthless land to hopeless suckers, and then dares us to identify with them. We can’t help but feel sorry for them during the film’s iconic opening scene: A slick, successful representative from the corporate office (Alec Baldwin) threatens, berates and humiliates them, revealing that first prize in the new “contest” is a Cadillac. (Anybody want to see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives.) Third prize is they’re fired.
This news drives the salesmen to desperation, each one wanting to win the Cadillac and keep his job. And they know the key to selling is getting their hands on the new leads, the Glengarry leads, that just arrived. As Baldwin says, holding the stack of cards like a tantalizing Christmas gift, “To you they’re gold, and you don’t get them. Why? Because to give them to you is just throwing them away. They’re for closers.”
Closers. That’s what our heroes want to be. They want to get those poor, pathetic, suckers to sign on the line which is dotted. And so, after the office closes for the night, someone breaks in and steals those leads. The Glengarry leads.
But who? Was it Shelley “The Machine” Levine (Jack Lemmon), a once great salesman reduced to a miserable wreck, bragging about his glory days instead of acting making any sales? Was it Dave Moss (Ed Harris), who talks endlessly about stealing the leads before the crime takes place, browbeating shy, shaky George Aaronow (Alan Arkin), who just seems to be trying to keep his head above water? (Maybe it was Aaronow.) Or was it the star of the firm, smooth talker Ricky Roma (Al Pacino), whose technique is more seduction than hard sell, winning hearts and minds long before he breaks out the brochure.
Lemmon. Harris. Arkin. Pacino. Plus Baldwin in one of the greatest single-scene performances of all time, and a young Kevin Spacey, just starting out but holding his own against these powerhouses. Based on the play by David Mamet, “Glengarry Glen Ross,” is driven by dialogue, and these actors make the most of it. It’s a bleak, depressing movie about sad, desperate men, but watching it is an invigorating experience. You can tell the actors have been energized by the script they’ve been given, and watching them sink their teeth into Mamet’s words is downright thrilling.
And it’s brutal. Because though these guys pretend to be on the same side, they’re not. Not at all. That Cadillac and those steak knives are only going to be earned by two. The are out the door. So when the robbery is discovered and the pressure really builds, these guys turn — on each other, on themselves and on officer manager Spacey, who at first seems like a weak sister among all those pairs of brass balls. Turns out though, when he gets the chance, he’s nastier than any of them. That’s the sort of violence — emotional and delivered with relish — that this sort of environment breeds. And depends on. And thrives on.
Sales. It’s a tough racket.