And I have yet to deliver – in a team meeting, committee meeting, one-to-one or appraisal – the phrase “you fairy, you company man.” (Because it would doubtless cost me my job, I would probably tailor it to include an appropriately Cartman-like “screw you guys, I’m going home” on my way out.)
Like most people, there are moments where I dwell upon the fact that I don’t like my job. I ought to start taking comfort in the fact that what I do for a living doesn’t inspire the levels of desperation demonstrated by the protagonists of ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’. Based on the stage play by David Mamet (less a piece of a theatre than a stake through the heart, a nail in the coffin and a stream of urine on the tombstone of the American dream), James Foley’s black-hearted adaptation throws the viewer into the mercilessly cynical world of Mitch & Murray, a firm whose salesmen are expected to sell entire tracts of real estate to people who are either not interested or don’t have the money (or both); a world where more business is done at a seedy bar than at their desks (“if anybody calls, I’m over at the office”), cold calls are made from pay phones and over the hill salesmen in cheap suits lie through their teeth, pass themselves off as vice presidents of corporations and say or promise anything that might lead to a sale.
Let’s meet the team: we’ve got Ricky Roma (Al Pacino), on a roll and talking a line that’s even slicker than the suits he wears; we’ve got Shelley “The Machine” Levene (Jack Lemmon), old school but down on his luck; we’ve got George Aaronow (Alan Arkin), who’s even more down on his luck – to the point where he’s lost confidence in himself; we’ve got Dave Moss (Ed Harris), a man whose hatred of the job is eclipsed only by his jealousy towards Roma; and we’ve got jobsworth office manager John Williamson (Kevin Spacey), the object of their collective contempt.
Only when the film opens, they’ve got more on their plate than just a grudge against Williamson. Blake (Alec Baldwin) has just arrived from downtown to deliver a motivational seminar. This is how he motivates them:
Blake: I’m here from downtown. I’m here from Mitch and Murray. And I'm here on a mission of mercy … You call yourself a salesman you son of a bitch?
Moss: I don’t gotta sit here and listen to this shit.
Blake: You certainly don’t pal, coz the good news is: you’re fired. The bad news is, all of you’ve got just one week to regain your jobs starting with tonight … Have I got your attention now? Good. Coz we're adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. As you all know first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado … Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired. Get the picture? You laughing now? You got leads. Mitch & Murray paid good money, get their names to sell them. You can’t close the leads you’re given, you can’t close shit. You are shit. Hit the bricks pal, and beat it coz you are going OUT.
Levene: The leads are weak.
Blake: The leads are weak? ... You’re weak. I've been in this business fifteen years –
Moss: What’s your name?
Blake: Fuck you. That's my name. You know why, mister? You drove a Hyundai to get here, I drove an eighty-thousand dollar BMW. That’s my name. And your name is you’re wanting. You can’t play in the man’s game, you can’t close them - go home and tell your wife your troubles. Because only one thing counts in this life: Get them to sign on the line which is dotted. You hear me, you fucking faggots? A-B-C. A: always. B: be. C: closing. Always be closing. ALWAYS BE CLOSING. A-I-D-A. Attention, Interest, Decision, Action. Attention: do I have you attention? Interest: are you interested? I know you are, because it’s fuck or walk. You close or you hit the bricks. Decision: have you made your decision for Christ? Action. A-I-D-A. Get out there. You got the prospects coming in ... They’re sitting out there waiting to give you their money. Are you gonna take it? Are you man enough to take it?
Blake’s appearance (and in a film jam-packed with legendary acting talent, Alec fuckin’ Baldwin damn near steals the show!) is the cause of our boys’ desperation. After he departs, Levene wheedles with Williamson, trying to persuade him to break out some of the new leads, the Glengarry leads, that Blake has instructed Williamson are to be locked away in the safe and given only to closers. Aaronow and Moss hit a bar, bitch endlessly about the job, reminisce over the good old days when they were selling Glen Ross real estate, and gradually come round to discussing the possibility of ripping off the office. Stealing the Glengarry leads and taking them to a rival firm.
Only Roma seems unconcerned by the Blake imperative. And that’s mainly because he skipped the meeting. Roma was otherwise engaged at the bar, spieling a line of bullshit so amorally magnificent that Joseph Goebells might have been tempted to rise up from his grave and make with a round of applause. Roma was busy talking to poor dumb shmuck James Lingk (Jonathan Pryce), romancing him the way a player would bring a girl round to the idea of going back to his place and getting her knickers off.
Meanwhile, Levene – pressurized to pony up the money for his wife’s medical care – gets the brush off from Williamson and heads out into the night to try to cultivate a sale from leads he himself recognizes as “dreck”.
Thus does the first half of the film play out. Act two takes place the following morning. The office has been burgled, the Glengarry leads stolen, the police are all over the place and Williamson is pissed off. Nonetheless, Roma and Levene turn up in ebullient spirits, the former having closed a deal with Lingk and Levene having made an early start by selling $82,000 (this in the early 90s) of land. The jubilation is short lived. Roma is faced with the unexpected arrival of Lingk, suffering from a world-class case of buyer’s remorse, while Levene has a nasty surprise in store about his deal, and Williamson and the cops have some thorny questions for everyone.
‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ is almost a comedy. Mamet’s ear for the endless repetitions and petty evasions of the salesmen is acute. The dialogue between Aaronow and Moss in particular is like a verbal tennis match, the little black core of bitterness that is the ball flying back and forth between two players evenly matched in their irascibility. Levene, in his rumpled suit, trying to pass himself off as one of the senior executives of American Express is hilarious. The whole film would be laugh-out-loud funny if it weren’t so bitterly, horribly, unflinchingly true to life.
What makes it more effective is the baggage the cast bring with them. Levene, because he’s played by Jack Lemmon, conjures an old and almost defeated C.C. Baxter from ‘The Apartment’, passed over for every promotion, left behind, sat at the same desk for thirty years, a joke to the younger guys. It’s easy to imagine Pacino’s Roma as a Michael Corleone who never got into the family business, whose best days were in the army, who came out and took a middle-level job that he coasted by one by dint of his personality and the gift of the gab, a man who’s still doing the job because, really, what else is there? Ed Harris’s everyman persona is just below the surface of Moss’s bitterness, a remind of how easily a decent guy can be beaten down by the bullshit of everyday life. And Alan Arkin, who flew dazed through the horrors of war as Yossarian in ‘Catch-22’, finds himself a prisoner of peacetime and a casualty of the day job here.
“God, I hate this job,” Arkin moans near the end of the film. It’s sometimes misquoted as the last line. It’s a key line, but it’s not the last line. That would mean that one of Mitch & Murray’s beleaguered and desperate salesmen would at least get the last word. And Mamet and Foley know the world doesn’t work that way.