Glengarry Glen Ross [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #42]

Mid-last year, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #42.  Spoilers ahead.  

Glengarry Glen Ross

Directed by James Foley

Release Date:  October 2, 1992
My age then:  22 years old

What it is about:  The salesman at a struggling real estate branch are told that at the end of the week, only the top two performers will still have their jobs. Stresses run high, leading somebody in the office to stage an office burglary in order to steal valuable leads for potential sales.

Starring Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris and Alan Arkin as the four salesman, Kevin Spacey as their office manager, Alec Baldwin as the executive who delivers the threatening message to the salesman, and Jonathan Pryce as a client of Pacino’s who is having second thoughts.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I had heard of this movie but it wasn’t really on my radar. Before this past year, I don’t think I knew at all what it was about. Maybe I had a vague sense it had something to do with business or sales.

Reality: David Mamet wrote the script for this film, which is based on his own play, and is characterized by fast-paced snappy dialogue, (largely) morally-bankrupt men, and an awful lot of swearing. With all that in mind, it’s an immensely engrossing study of character and environment, with a strong story hook: the office of Premiere Properties is struggling and management is not interested in holding anybody’s hand–Alec Baldwin’s Blake makes this abundantly clear in his ten minute fireball of a speech, where he blasts through all the employees’ complacencies and shows them that regardless of how much they think they have to complain about their jobs, they will either do or die if they want to keep working as salesmen.

The screenplay is the scaffolding here but standing upon it are a whole bevy of strong performances. Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin and the rest make one of the best ensembles I’ve seen in a film–not just a bunch of great actors scattered throughout a story, but a powerful cast of extreme characters all shoved more-or-less into one room to react and respond to each other. The clash of these men’s passions, desperation and anger is fully captivating. Alec Baldwin obviously stands out in his small role, but so much of the movie belongs to Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon.

Lemmon’s character, Sheldon Levene (a guy whose name is almost the same as my high school principal), has got the most emotionally complex story of the lot–certainly the one that challenges us the most.

He’s an older salesman whose most successful days are behind him, and who also has a daughter in hospital. The backstory makes him a character that we want to like and want to feel sorry for. But we also see the smarmy, deceptive quality that he has as a salesman, and there’s a streak of bitter vindictiveness that comes through when he thinks he’s come out on top. When it all falls apart for him at the end–hes revealed as a thief, and his confidence-boosting sale is likely going to add up to nothing–we do pity him, but we also know that he’s brought it on himself.

Thus, his story and the film end with a heavy sense of regret–maybe things could have been better, but they aren’t, and there’s no mercy coming. It’s a little depressing, but fully compelling.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? James Foley, David Mamet and the cast and crew all come together in a bit of a perfect storm to create one of the most engrossing dramas I’ve seen–quite a feat when you consider the thing is almost entirely talk, with very little action in a limited range of locations.

See here for the Master List.

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