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Films adapted from stage plays can be some of the most rewarding viewing experiences. From 12 Angry Men through to Carnage, the scale is refined, which draws the focus firmly on character, dialogue and performance. Glengarry Glen Ross is a prime example of this.
Adapted from David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer and Tony winning play, it tells the tale of a group of real estate salesmen – of varying skill and success levels – who find out they have one week to close as many deals as possible, with all but the two top selling salesmen losing their jobs.
On paper, that doesn’t seem like an engrossing plot, but David Mamet’s compelling dialogue, and the actor’s performances make it utterly engrossing. It’s one of those rare treats where you can feel that the actors are relishing the dialogue as they perform it, and it really makes the film pop. It’s an hour and forty minutes long, but it’s so compelling and fast-paced, that it genuinely feels like half that time.
The film has two distinct halves. The first is the ultimatum, memorably delivered by a baby-faced Alec Baldwin: there are new Glengarry leads, and the two top sellers will be rewarded, while the rest will be fired. Baldwin’s scene, his only appearance in the film, is rightly hailed as a classic. Baldwin delivers countless memorable and stinging one-liners, some of which have transcended the screen and become established mantras of salespeople in general (“coffee’s for closers”). The rest of the film’s first half deals with the fallout from the ultimatum, and introduces us to the characters. From Jack Lemmon’s down on his luck Shelly ‘The Machine’ Levene, to Al Pacino’s magnetic Ricky Roma.
In the second half of the film, the aforementioned real estate leads are stolen, which sends the office into uproar. This is when the film really catches fire, and the dialogue starts to get punctuated with a torrent of expletives. The film is infamous for its various heated arguments and crushing dressing downs. It has a climax that is a swirl of brain melting insults, as the salesmen all round on each other, with each character’s power within the office ebbing and shifting.
Aside from the famous dialogue, the film’s other great feature is its performances. You could make an argument for nearly any of the actors in the film being the standout. A young Kevin Spacey plays the office manager, the company man. He’s excellent as the detached and clinical Williamson, and he shares the screen with some established legends of the craft effortlessly. Alan Arkin and Ed Harris have great, fast-paced dialogue scenes in the early half of the film. Arkin gormless and submissive, Harris sneering and cynical, they’re the everyman foil to the films other, more explosive characters.
Speaking of explosive, Al Pacino delivers a typically intense performance. This film was released in 1992, and Pacino was still firmly in his prime. The subdued office setting is a great platform for his trademark scenery chewing. Either seducing prospective buyers effortlessly, or delivering some of the film’s most molten put-downs, Pacino really shines. It’s been established for so long that Pacino is one of the best to ever do it, that we sometimes take it for granted and forget just how good he is. This could definitely be in the conversation for one of his best performances.
But the film’s standout actor has to be Jack Lemmon. While Pacino’s Roma is the best salesman, charismatic and successful, Lemmon’s Levene is the opposite. Dubbed ‘The Machine’ in his heyday, he’s now on a cold streak, where all his leads are dead, and all his sales calls fall through. Lemmon captures this mounting desperation immaculately. There are scenes where he’ll shift from posturing bravado into mewling desperation within a sentence. With multiple viewings, you’ll still see fresh nuances in all of his scenes. It really shows the benefit of bringing a play to the screen. The camera brings the viewer closer to characters; the actors don’t have to project, so you can read their anxieties on a closer level. Fans of The Simpsons will note that Lemmon’s character was a clear influence of the show’s desperate salesman Gil Gunderson.
Each actor is perfectly cast, to the extent where their characters almost feel like an extension of the actor portraying them.
Each actor is perfectly cast, to the extent where their characters almost feel like an extension of the actor portraying them. Kevin Spacey is the fresh-faced upstart; Alec Baldwin is the young superstar, dropping in for a cameo; Al Pacino is established, in his prime, the MVP; and Jack Lemmon is the fading legend, trying to recapture his former glory. The actor’s real life image perfectly informs their character’s function.
The film is a great exploration of the role of work in our lives. In the eyes of these salesmen, your work is your life’s primary objective. You have to be closing to live. The other aspects of their lives – family, recreation – are superfluous details. You live in the office. All that matters is the next sale. Work is also seen as a hyper-masculine pursuit – the film is 25 years old, and the play over 30. “A man is his job,” Lemmon says towards the film’s end. While that’s clearly a dated concept, it’s still provides a fitting commentary on work’s prominence within all of our lives.
Some of the best movies are ones that you wouldn’t expect to like. A film about two days in the life of a group of real estate salesmen doesn’t exactly set pulses racing. But Glengarry Glen Ross defies your expectations. It’s actually exciting to watch. A group of seasoned actors, expertly delivering dialogue that is potty-mouthed and masterfully crafted makes for a wonderfully entertaining experience. Each scene is memorable and rewarding; and with each watch you’ll find a new moment, one-liner or insult to love.
It’s one of those films that you’ll always see swirling about on an obscure digital channel deep in the middle of the night. If it does cross your path, do yourself favour, put on a coffee (only if you’ve recently closed a deal, mind), and enjoy a true master-class of performance and dialogue.