TWO DISSOLVE WRITERS KEEP THE GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS CONVERSATION GOING…
Scott: “Harriet and blah blah Nyborg.” Of the many quotable lines in Glengarry Glen Ross—several suitable for everyday use, like “Coffee is for closers” or “Will. You. Go. To. Lunch.”—that’s always the one that sticks with me the most, because it’s such a funny distillation of what the movie (and David Mamet’s play) is about. We know Harriet and blah blah Nyborg as the suckers who bought eight units of Mountain View from Shelley Levene (Jack Lemmon), putting him high on the board in a sales contest that seemed likely to cost him his job. (Looking on the board, which so nakedly displays the virility of the winners and the inadequacies of the losers, Shelley is a dead last with zippo in sales, fourth in a contest where third prize is “You’re fired.”) The Nyborg sale is the Hail Mary pass he desperately needs to mop up some of the flopsweat that’s accumulated on his forehead and handle a family crisis that hovers over him the whole film. But the Nyborgs’ $80,000 is almost certainly no good; among the dead leads Shelley and the other salesmen are whipped into pursuing (“Patel? Patel?!”), they’re the most dangerous of the deadbeats, a couple that has no money, but “likes to talk to salesmen.” When Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) utters the phrase “Harriet and blah blah Nyborg,” it’s tinged with the contempt all the film’s salesmen have for their customers, who are chum for them, the lowest form of life on the capitalist food chain. But the Nyborgs are the lowest of the low: Their money is no good.
There are many themes bandied about in Glengarry Glen Ross, but the one that resonates most forcefully for me is value. Who gives something value? What gives something value? How much is piece of a property worth? How much are human beings worth? For the salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross, Alec Baldwin’s motivational speaker at the beginning of the film—an add-on to the play that has turned into maybe the most frequently quoted monologue in modern cinema—makes it painfully clear how much value they have to “Mitch and Murray,” the men responsible for this sketchy real-estate operation. They are only worth as much as the sales they make today—first prize is a Cadillac, second prize is a set of steak knives, coffee is for closers. Meanwhile, their value is perched on a sinkhole of bad real estate and tired leads. This is a bottom-of-the-barrel sales job that’s now become so tenuous that they’re all in danger of losing it, and falling that much further into the abyss. So desperate measures are required.
So much to talk about here, Genevieve, so let’s throw it to you. What themes resonate the most with you here?
Genevieve: Well, obviously the theme of masculinity, what with the brass balls and the jovial slurs and whatnot! No, while there is certainly a lot to say about how Mamet depicts different strains and displays of masculine power and weakness, that’s always been one of the least interesting elements of Glengarry Glen Ross to me, for reasons that are perhaps obvious. No, what interests me more about the film, and by extension the play, is what it has to say about capitalism and individualism, and the intersection thereof.
One of the most frequently uttered phrases in Mamet’s script is “the leads are weak,” which we’re meant to take at face value: These are the same leads these guys have been getting and failing with for months, and by presenting them with these leads once again, their superiors are clearly setting them up to fail. If only the leads were better, Shelley and Moss (Ed Harris) and George (Alan Arkin) insist, they’d be closing deals left and right. But… is that the case? There’s no real way for us to know if these guys are speaking the truth or deluding themselves, using these “bad leads” to excuse their own bad luck, or bad selling. Alec Baldwin’s Blake insists he could take any one of those leads, go out there and make $15,000 in a night, which could certainly be nothing more than arrogant puffery. But then again, he is driving that hot little BMW out front. Presumably he didn’t get that by whining about weak leads. There are two ways to process this: Either he’s the beneficiary of a career’s worth of good leads—the “rich get richer” interpretation—or he’s managed to claw his way up through skill and gumption, by making the most of what he’s given—the “American Dream” interpretation.
The salesmen themselves bear out these different interpretations. Upon finding out his job is on the line, Shelley all but chains himself to a telephone, determined to reverse his streak of bad luck through sheer force of will—for a little while, at least. He talks repeatedly and passionately about his past, when he made deals on cold calls, without the benefit of leads. Shelley’s initial mindset is that of the American Dreamer, believing that a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck is all that’s needed to succeed. Moss and George, on the other hand, spend the majority of their time whining and conniving, Moss especially, rather than actually trying. They’re looking for a handout, and it’s debatable—and probably a function of one’s political leanings—whether that mentality is the result of being actively discriminated against by those who keep the good leads, and the good sales, for themselves, or simple laziness on their parts. In giving up on the “weak leads” and throwing in with Moss, Shelley proves to be his own undoing—but he was driven there by desperation, born of being the low man on the totem pole. There was never any way for Shelley to get ahead, above-board or not.
And then there’s Roma, gliding to the front of the pack on what seems like a combination of skill and good luck, but what are eventually revealed to be some pretty shady techniques that actively victimize his marks. Roma’s individualist bent is only admirable to the extent that it’s made him financially successful. When he praises Shelley and his old-guard skills, it comes with the unspoken caveat that that approach only works if you’re willing to screw the little guy in the process. That’s a pretty cynical view of both the American Dream and capitalism, but it’s also a realistic one, which is pretty chilling.
What do you think, Scott? Are the leads weak, or are the salesmen weak?
Scott: Maybe a little of both? There’s widespread agreement in the office that the leads are weak—even Roma, tops on the Cadillac board, grouses about how bad they are. The distinction is made visually, too: The old leads looks as picked over as the card catalog at a library; the new leads are crisply stacked and wrapped with a bow, like a Christmas present. But we also get a good look at these men on the job, particularly Shelley and Roma, who are shown going on sits and hustling their potential clients as best they can. They’re a fascinating study in contrasts, but it should be said that, yes, what they’re selling is of dubious value, and they’re as predatory toward their customers as their bosses are toward them. They’re all part of that “capitalist food chain,” and we can see it in microcosm here: Blake at the top, the salesmen in the middle, poor, overwhelmed James Lingk (Jonathan Pryce) on the bottom, each leveraging their advantage over the other to make more money for himself. Mamet is presenting capitalism as a harsh abstraction: These men are not selling tangible goods and services, but property we can only imagine is not the smartest investment. If it were a good investment, they wouldn’t have to be lying about who they are and where they are and what imaginary secretaries they’re talking to, and they wouldn’t be working in a nondescript storefront so shabby that they’re better off doing business at the Chinese restaurant across the street.
But the salesmen are weak, Genevieve. Blake is correct in that assessment. Moss and George have given up—or if they haven’t, we don’t see much evidence of their skill (or lack thereof) in this movie. But there’s a dramatic difference between Roma and Shelley’s sales strategies, and it’s plain the former is more successful. Shelley is a guy who’s been around long enough to know all the old salesman tricks—the executive with the fake secretary who’s in town just for a night, the ingratiating buddy who admires the ol’ fishing rod, the dealmaker who’s chosen you out of the many others for this incredible opportunity—but can’t make them play anymore, either because he’s lost his touch or because people see through his shtick. That house call Shelley makes to the single-family house in the middle of the film is exquisitely painful, because we know immediately that Shelley has no chance to make a sale, but he keeps pressing anyway, until the spectacle becomes so embarrassing that the would-be client cannot even look him in the eye. I think we can take Roma’s word that Shelley was once the best, but those days are long gone. His desperation is plain.
Roma’s shell game is infinitely subtler, in that isn’t apparent that he’s trying to make a sale at all until he’s thoroughly groomed the client for it first. Mamet writes some wonderfully funny bits of nonsense for Roma, who holds court about what you remember about food and sex, and non sequiturs like “All train compartments smell vaguely of shit.” But Roma has a way of linking this business into a boozy philosophy about life itself and what it means, and how maybe a little something for you, like a piece of land, might or might not be an enticing idea. With Shelley, you know you’re getting the sales pitch; with Roma, it’s a seduction that’s only later consummated by signing on the line that is dotted.
But I’m not letting you off the hook on the masculinity theme yet, Genevieve, since we bear witness to specifically male forms of rivalry and savagery. But what interests me most here is the “honor among thieves” that asserts itself—or doesn’t—in a situation where these salesmen are deliberately pitted against each other. Witness those incredible scenes with Shelley and Roma after Shelley comes back with the job-saving Nyborg sale. Roma wants to hear Shelley’s war story in every last detail, even though Shelley has instantly made himself a contender for the Cadillac; Shelley, in turn, does some masterful play-acting to help Roma keep his latest sale from falling apart, despite the fact that it would benefit him personally for Roma to fail. And that’s where Glengarry Glen Ross both is and isn’t about capitalist savagery: Shelley and Roma are conspiring to bilk James Lingk out of money by staging this fabrication, but Shelley isn’t acting out of self-interest. He’s doing the honorable thing by running a scam.
Did you find anything redeemable about these men? Are there meaningful distinctions to be made? And what about Kevin Spacey’s Williamson? Is he the weasel everyone says he is, or just a middle manager stuck between hostile salesmen and pressure from downtown? I’m eager, too, to talk about the rhythms of Mamet’s dialogue and what James Foley does (and doesn’t) do to bring the play effectively to the screen.
Genevieve: I’ll answer your last question first, because it allows me to address something that stood out to me on this viewing, which is James Newton Howard’s score. Comparing dialogue to music is a cliché, and to jazz specifically even more so, but if any writer merits that comparison, it’s Mamet. The way his characters speak, either in spiraling monologues or rapid, staccato back-and-forths, mirrors the peaks, valleys, and twisty byways of Howard’s jazz-inflected score. But the music is purely complementary; outside of maybe the opening credits, there are no musical moments that are memorable on their own, which I think was absolutely intentional on Foley and Howard’s part. The dialogue is the star, and the score—or the pointed lack thereof, depending on the scene—is the spotlight that allows it to shine.
As to whether any of these guys are redeemable, well, that’s a little tougher, because redemption within the context of Glengarry Glen Ross looks a lot different than it does in our world. You mention the “honor among thieves” we see between Shelley and Roma in particular, but it also manifests itself in all of the salesmen constantly ganging up on Williamson, the personification of everything working against them. Despite being pitted against one another by Mitch and Murray—and, by extension, Williamson—they remain more or less a team. Within that context, Shelley and Roma supporting each other is perhaps admirable; hell, the case could even be made for Moss’ plot to steal and sell the Glengarry leads, and bring one of his fellow sufferers along with him, as a gesture of goodwill.
Of course, Moss, the snake, isn’t willing to take on the danger of actually doing the deed himself. He needs a patsy like George or Shelley to actually get the dirt on their hands. Within this band of not-so-honorable thieves, Moss is the least honorable, and the least redeemable. At least Roma and Shelley, and even George at the very end, actively try to make sales and work the system; Moss only complains, plots, and coerces the weakest among them to do his dirty work for him. Inasmuch as Glengarry Glen Ross can be said to have a villain, Moss wears the mantle most comfortably.
But the film’s ideas of masculine strength and weakness also play into your question of whether any of these men are redeemable. Despite his flop-sweat and underhanded sales techniques, Shelley is ostensibly a good guy, trying to provide for his chronically sick daughter, and before desperation drives him to throw in with Moss, he does so through above-board means, or at least this world’s version of “above-board.” But Glengarry paints him as a sap and a weakling—not for nothing did he inspire one of The Simpsons’ most pitiable recurring characters—and his pronounced inadequacy overshadows any of his redeemable qualities. Roma, on the other hand, is objectively a slimeball, but his confidence and sales ability turn that sliminess into a borderline-admirable trait. Roma’s screwing over Lingk, but he’s doing so with such command of his dubious craft that it starts to seem almost commendable that he can bilk a sucker out of his money without making him feel like a sucker—something Shelley can’t do, at least not anymore, as evidenced by that excruciating house call you mention.
Most of the themes we’re talking about here are hard-wired into Mamet’s script, but the actors’ performances also have a lot to do with bringing across these nuanced distinctions between a group of uniformly unpleasant men. Lemmon, Pacino, and Baldwin are the obvious standouts, and Tim Grierson will dig deeper into Spacey’s performance on Thursday, but this is a true ensemble drama, in that every member of the small cast gets multiple moments to shine. What performance moments, big or small, stick out most to you, Scott? And since I’m sure you have more to say on the subject, what do you think Foley does to both highlight these performances and make them, and the film as a whole, cinematic?
Scott: Glengarry Glen Ross is one of those movies so perfectly cast that I don’t want to even think about anyone else playing those roles, even though many have throughout the years, including Mamet favorite Joe Mantegna, who played Roma in its original U.S. run. What I admire about the acting cannot be separated from the writing, in a way, because the rhythms of the dialogue are not uniform, contrary to the assumption that Mamet always writes in that staccato style. Pacino speaks in beautiful monologues, needing a mark like James Lingk only to throw a few words once in a while like gasoline to his rhetorical fire. The scenes with Moss and George have that quality too—with Moss the profane talker, and George reduced to one-word grousings—but played to more comedic effect. Arkin gives the funniest performance in the film, for my money, and it’s all in flustered anxiety and repeated phrases. (“Criminals come and they take… they steal the phones!”) And if you’re looking for the smallest moments, my favorite may be that pivot Pacino does after Williamson has blown Roma’s ruse with Lingk, and he’s about to let him have it. In that pivot, this desperate game he’d been playing to keep the account ends sharply, and it’s time for the dressing down to start.
As for Foley’s aesthetic contributions to the film, I think they’re spare but really effective. You’ve already mentioned the score, so I’ll get to the look, which Foley imagines as a rain-drenched neo-noir that resembles an Edward Hopper painting when it follows Shelley and Roma into the Chinese place across the street or Moss and George to the restaurant where they decamp. This is a lonely, bleak, emptied-out section of city that perhaps you could complain is too underpopulated and stagey, but which to my mind complements the material and opens it up enough to keep it from seeming too much like a filmed play. The decision to shoot in a widescreen, 2:35-1 format accommodates the ensemble beautifully while still allowing some intimacy when the larger group splits off into pairs. Foley had to know that nothing he could do as a director was going to match up to Mamet’s script, so the best approach was to frame the writing with a simple, evocative atmosphere and find a shooting style that would serve the performances. He’s the unsung hero of the project, to my mind, especially if you compare Glengarry Glen Ross to the relatively pedestrian screen versions of American Buffalo and Oleanna.
So what are your thoughts on the performances here, Genevieve? Glengarry Glen Ross is one of the most quotable movies I know, and it’s had real cultural staying power, via things like Gil on The Simpsons. In fact, my friend used to rate movies on a scale inspired by the movie, e.g. “that movie is a Cadillac” or “set of steak knives” or something in between, like a dull set of knives or a “you’re fired,” where the movie is let down easy. For my money, Glengarry Glen Ross is a Cadillac souped up with leather seats and hydraulics, a kickass stereo system to boot. Not sure how you feel about it.
Genevieve: Well, I certainly wouldn’t deny it a cup of coffee, that’s for sure. But Glengarry Glen Ross is ultimately one of those films I admire more than I love. (It is sort of like a Cadillac in that sense; I was raised a Ford girl.) It’s entertaining and smart from top to bottom, but it only engages my brain, not my heart. That could just be the milieu, which doesn’t really speak to me, or possibly the dearth of female characters—or for that matter, any character I can sympathize with, regardless of gender. (Sorry, Coat Check Girl.) But it’s a powerful movie all the same, one that’s carried on a perfect marriage of material and performance. Foley certainly does his part—to your points about the visuals, I’d like to add that the sounds of the driving rain and constantly rumbling train cars lend a sense of background anxiety and stress to the proceedings—but this movie belongs to Mamet and the ensemble. I think we’ve at least mentioned every individual performance in this discussion, but it’s really the balance and flow of the ensemble, the way the individual performances speak to and about one another, that gives the film life. Jack Lemmon said it was the greatest acting ensemble he’d ever been a part of, and it’s hard to find any fault with that observation. To bring it all back around to your first observation about the theme of value, every one of these men, regardless of where they stand on the big board, brings value to the story and to the film. As individuals and as salesmen, they may be sniveling, they may be weak, hell, they may even be evil, but as a part of one of the greatest ensembles in film history, they’re all closers.
Don’t miss Tasha’s Keynote on the conventional film wisdom Glengarry Glen Ross blithely ignores. And come back on Thursday, when Tim Grierson looks at how the movie made Kevin Spacey a star.