In the special-edition DVD commentary for 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross, director James Foley talks about a subject that may have largely evaded the audiences mesmerized by the film’s airtight David Mamet dialogue, hyper-efficient plotting, and stunning performances. He talks about desk direction. In the film, four salesmen at a bottom-feeding real-estate company work out of a seedy little office, scamming clients with a barrage of lies. Two of them, Dave Moss (Ed Harris) and George Aaronow (Alan Arkin), are struggling to close deals and make their quotas. They’re stuck with the thinnest of worked-over leads—cards filled out by prospective buyers who once, seemingly a long time ago, indicated a vague interest in hearing more about available properties, not realizing they were signing on for endless harassment by desperate salesmen.
But while Dave and George are barely treading water, their co-worker Shelley Levene (Jack Lemmon) is going under. Supporting a sick, hospitalized daughter, getting undermined by pitiless office manager John Williamson (Kevin Spacey), and riding a streak of bad luck, Shelley hasn’t landed a single buy for the current sales period. Meanwhile, the office’s closest thing to a superstar, Ricky Roma (Al Pacino), has more than triple the sales of his next highest competitor. He’s such a casual high roller that while his compatriots are endlessly griping over their weak leads and hard luck, Ricky gloms onto an easily swayed stranger in a bar, seduces him with con-man patter for an evening, and walks away with another huge sale, which his mark, James Lingk (Brazil star Jonathan Pryce), can’t begin to afford.
And here’s where the desk position comes in. Foley points out that three of the four desks in the sales office are facing forward: Shelley, Dave, and George are lined up in obedient ranks, pointed toward the private office from which John gives them their marching orders and presides over their daily failures. Ricky’s desk is off to the side—and facing the door. In his mind, and in the world of Glengarry Glen Ross, he’s already halfway to moving out and up to someplace better. He isn’t beholden to the rest of them. He’s headed in his own direction.
It’s such a subtle detail, particularly in a film that so thoroughly embraces claustrophobia, with Foley’s camera rarely moving back far enough to take in the whole office and catch this comparison onscreen. But it’s a telling bit of business, perfect in its precision. And it’s par for the course for a film that’s so much about those tiny, important details: the inflection of each single word, the flicker of sightlines as the actors express themselves via where they look and how they focus, the blazing neon light that spills into the office from outside. This is a phenomenally thought-through film. It’s remarkably simple and basic in its execution. It was scripted, designed, and acted to feel, as Foley puts it, “primal.” And yet it’s immaculately controlled, with each line, and each line delivery, adding to the story in tiny but measurable ways.
Mamet’s script began as a 1983 stage play that went on to Broadway, a Tony nomination, and a Pulitzer win. Even for a play, it’s unusually dependent on a limited set. It takes place in two settings—a Chinese restaurant where the salesmen confer with each other in the first act, and the office in the second act—with a small cast and a lot of big speeches and rat-a-tat banter. None of the action is actually action: The biggest event in the story happens between acts, with the first act as a talky lead-up, and the second as a talky aftermath.
There are plenty of guidelines for turning this kind of story into a film, and Foley’s 1992 adaptation version of Glengarry Glen Ross casually breaks them all. None of these are hard and fast rules, assuming cinema even has those to begin with. But based on countless stage-to-screen transfers, and the critiques that typically follow them, there are a few pieces of conventional wisdom that filmmakers normally respect—or suffer criticism and second-guessing. For starters:
Foley has plenty of options in terms of pulling the story into a larger world: The many conversations could take place in more widely diverse locales, or during the day, or even outside. Foley could use bigger camera movements and wider shots, to establish a sense of space. (One beautiful case of that: When Shelley is recounting a victory to Ricky, and the camera drifts slowly backward to open up the shot, as Shelley’s one success seems to widen the world into a slightly bigger, freer place.) When the characters are traveling in cars, Foley could pull back for a sense of the city around them. (New York City, as it happens, standing in for Chicago.) Instead, he largely keeps his camera close and the action tight. For the first half of the film, pouring rain limits the characters’ mobility, keeps them indoors, and turns car and office windows opaque, shutting out the outside world.
Foley pushes his camera in to catch every nuance of his cast’s faces, in a way that wouldn’t be possible onstage. But otherwise, he preserves that oppressive feeling of containment and limitation from the stage, pinning his characters inside cars, phone booths, that close little Chinese restaurant, and that poisonous office. By the time he ventures out on a sales call with Shelley, into the warmly lit house of a prospective buyer, it feels like a momentary escape into a brighter and more promising world. It’s a moment where Shelley could finally breathe, if he wasn’t so busy talking, trying to paralyze his mark with chatter.
But Foley gets a great deal of energy out of keeping his film choked and confined. When the four salesmen are forced into a competition—top man gets a Cadillac, second prize is a set of steak knives, third prize is “You’re fired,” fourth prize is to be so totally forgotten as to not even warrant mentioning—these tiny spaces become individual pressure cookers, filled with tension and no sense of escape. There is no comforting home or great sunny outdoors in Foley’s view of this world. There’s a desk, pointed meekly toward Spacey’s smirking tyrant of a manager, and the hint of sun coming in the windows during the latter half of the film, implying a second world outside, but a fairly mysterious and unreachable one. Foley’s take on the film as a series of small events happening in a small world ramps up the pressure and desperation, and makes the stakes higher.
But it also acknowledges the characters’ isolation from normal rules of society, where lying and manipulation are seen as antisocial skills rather than crucial ones. For anyone outside their circle, the film implies, it won’t be the end of the world if no fraudulent real-estate gets purchased today. Their world has different rules, where success is the only metric and morality has no place. Speaking of which…
The endless run of post-Sopranos TV series about amoral, opportunistic characters exploring the bottom rungs of the moral ladder has spawned a nigh-infinite number of thinkpieces on how unsympathetic a character—or every character on a show—can be before audiences turn away. For some viewers, a story entirely about criminals or killers or crazies is a deal-killer: There has to be some point of empathy, or some mote of hope, to make the story work.
Glengarry Glen Ross preceded that trend, and it perfectly encapsulates what makes shows like Breaking Bad so mesmerizing. None of these characters are good people, or sympathetic ones. Mamet makes sure to capture how even the hapless George falls into a series of comforting lies as soon as he gets on the phone with a mark. Shelley is desperate to help his daughter, but he can only do it by suckering people into buying things they don’t want, on a basis that isn’t true. Ricky lulls James Lingk with a long, practiced, polished line of bullshit that seems more like hypnosis than conversation. Dave is a resentful, scheming thug. John is a bully or a suck-up, depending on who’s talking. They’re all con artists and thieves, and every time Mamet’s script offers a mite of sympathy for one of them, it quickly turns back around and shows how they can only measure success by how well they victimize others.
Even the victims aren’t really sympathetic characters. James Lingk is a sucker, and a sheepish and squirmy one at that. Larry (Bruce Altman), the man Shelley tries so hard to sell to, is the film’s most relatable figure, and even he has to ruthlessly bully a desperate, near-broken man just to get him out of the house. Virtually nothing is known about Shelley’s offscreen daughter, so she becomes the film’s only innocent victim, the only reason to root for Shelley to succeed.
But as with so many stories about amoral and essentially irredeemable people, Glengarry gets plenty of queasy, fascinated thrills out of the question of how far these terrible characters might go, and what might happen to them as a result. By not having a real protagonist, Mamet and Foley let sympathies shift to whoever’s taking the most abuse in any given scene—but they layer on a feeling that the victim in each exchange might deserve this comeuppance as well. When John bullies Shelley at the beginning of the film over a series of fresh, promising sales leads, Shelley earns it just a bit, by alternately trying to beat John down and cozen him, pretending an entirely insincere and self-serving friendship if it’ll get him what he wants. When Ricky bullies John right back over the blown opportunity with James Lingk, it’s frightening, but with an illicit thrill of watching a hectoring dog face down a bigger, meaner one. The tables get turned over and over throughout the film, with whoever’s on top immediately stepping on whoever’s below him. And they all get subdued by the biggest dog of all, in the form of a big shot from downtown who shows up just to browbeat and abuse them. Speaking of which…
This bit of conventional wisdom gets fuzzy, because stage-to-screen adaptations, like any other adaptations, often change the source material considerably. But given that plays already read like screenplays, and the original Glengarry script was a Pulitzer-winner in its own right, the idea of tacking on extra scenes to pad out the lean, propulsive story seems counterintuitive. And yet the attempt to expand Glengarry to a 100-minute movie instead of a tight 80-minute one resulted in easily its most memorable and quotable segment, when successful “downtown” salesman Blake (Alec Baldwin) comes to give John’s office the hard sell and try to get them angry and terrified enough to push their fraudulent land packages no matter what the clients think about it. Never mind the infinitely quotable lines and the intimidating, thrilling performance from a young, sharp Baldwin. That scene makes the movie. It drives the tension to dizzying heights, provoking whatever pity viewers will be able to muster for these pitiless, selfish scammers. It’s an exceptional case of an after-the-fact addition to an established, highly successful text making an immeasurable difference.
There are other additions throughout the film, particularly to develop Shelley’s character further. But the single Blake scene, one of the all-time great one-scene wonders, is the key to how and why the movie works. It’s what turned a dreamy, wistful actors’ showcase into a breathless and mesmerizing movie. And just incidentally, that scene alone is a master class in acting. Speaking of which…
The acting in Glengarry Glen Ross is impeccable, but it’s as much a question of casting as execution, because each of these actors is bringing a familiar persona to the set. Virtually all of the cast members are now household names, whether they were near the beginning or the end of their careers in 1992. But all of them are playing types they were already famous for, or would become more famous for. Pacino as the acid-spitting firebrand. Harris as the intense, buttoned-down conservative with secrets and more willpower than anyone else in the room. Spacey as the steely-eyed functionary dripping contempt. Arkin as fuzzy and almost friendly in his bafflement. Pryce as the Everyman victim, playing at being harder than he is, and suffering as a result.
And especially Jack Lemmon, putting a long career of acting tics and idiosyncrasies to use yet again—the mid-sentence direction shift, the conceptual double-take, the ingratiating smile with a little sleaze underneath. Shelley Levine is unquestionably an old-school Jack Lemmon role, and Jack Lemmon never gets lost in him. There are too many familiar tricks to that performance, in his cadences and his glances. The consternated, frustrated Lemmon from The Apartment and Some Like It Hot is clearly visible in Lemmon’s fight for survival; he’s just older now, and the stakes feel higher and heavier. His perky polish and fussiness from The Odd Couple, his self-hatred and irascibility from The War Between Men And Women, his weariness from Missing—they all combine into one intensely jittery, expressive character with all his antecedents showing.
And none of the familiarity lessens Glengarry Glen Ross, any more than Pacino lessens it by alternating venomous shouting and easygoing smugness, or Spacey lessens it by alternating his House Of Cards edge with his Henry & June bafflement. If anything, these roles, which ask each of the actors to roll back and forth rapidly from fury to misery, from submission to dominance, from con artists to marks themselves—they highlight everything the actors can do, and let them define their talents. It really is an actors’ showcase, especially as Foley rolls in eagerly to catch every tiny subtlety of how they meet each other’s eyes, or don’t, to express their moment-to-moment positions in the alpha-male struggle for control.
Glengarry Glen Ross flouts more conventional wisdom, just by being what it is: It’s a small, insular, highly stylized movie, where vivid reds and blues burn through the first half of the film as a constant visual distraction. It’s relentlessly circular and dialogue-driven, even when the characters are communicating nothing of value. It is, in short, a strange and unrepeatable success, driven by its own uniqueness as much as anything else. Certainly Foley, who never again got his hands on material this rich and a cast this perfect, was unable to repeat his aesthetic success; he went on to helm the trashy nonsense of Confidence and the utter nonsense of Perfect Stranger, before more recently finding his milieu again as a director on House Of Cards. But it’s no shame that he never did better than Glengarry Glen Ross. Few directors have, even the other ones who knew enough to pay attention to which way the desks are pointing, even when the camera isn’t capturing them all at once.
Over in the Forum, Scott and Genevieve continue the conversation by digging more closely into Glengarry’s quoteable dialogue, the question of what the movie and its characters value, and the masculinity of this world of men. And on Thursday, Tim Grierson examines the film as a launching point for the Kevin Spacey persona that’s come to define his career.