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Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

July 17th, 2008 · 5 Comments

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Synopsis
Real estate salesman Shelley Levene (Jack Lemmon) begins his evening in a phone booth outside a Chinese restaurant, speaking to his hospitalized daughter and promising to visit her after a sales meeting. Dave Moss (Ed Harris) is furious over the “Mickey Mouse sales conference” and confronts office manager John Williamson (Kevin Spacey) about the poor quality leads being handed to them. Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) is excused from the meeting due to his status as top salesman. He stays at the restaurant to work over a potential mark named James Lingk (Jonathan Pryce).

At the office, George (Alan Arkin) is in a state of dread over the weak leads he’s expected to go out and close. The three salesmen receive the strategy session of a lifetime from Blake (Alec Baldwin), who notifies them: “We’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. As you all know first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Anybody wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.” Williamson hands his salesmen two leads each for the night, which Shelley appraises. “These leads are shit, they’re old. I’ve seen that name a hundred times.”

Shelley presses Williamson to hand out the new leads – the Glengarry leads – but the company man is under orders to save the prized cards for closers only. With his job on the line, Shelley offers Williamson a kickback of 20% of his commission plus fifty dollars per lead, but without the cash on him, the manager turns him down. Moss tries to talk George into burglarizing the office and stealing the Glengarry leads so they can sell them to a competitor. When the salesmen arrive for work in the morning, they discover the office has been broken into. Williamson and a police detective try to find out who’s responsible.

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Production history
After attending drama school in New York, David Mamet returned to Chicago in 1969. He worked as a taxi driver, a restaurant delivery boy, and as an appointment setter for a real estate office. Mamet described his employer as “a fly-by-night operation, which sold tracts of undeveloped land in Arizona and Florida to gullible Chicagoans.” Though not very good at his job, Mamet was impressed with the salesmen. “They were amazing. They were a force of nature . . . they were people who had spent their whole lives never working for a salary, dependent for their living on their wits, their ability to charm. They sold themselves.”

In 1983, Mamet wrote Glengarry Glen Ross. Not satisfied with the play, he sent it to Harold Pinter and asked him what it lacked. Pinter responded that the only thing lacking about it was a production, and passed it on to the artistic director of the National Theatre in London. The play had its world premiere at London’s Cottlesloe Theatre in September 1983. The U.S. premiere took place at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, February 1984, with Robert Prosky as Shelley Levene, Joe Mantegna as Ricky Roma and William Petersen as Lingk. It opened on Broadway the following month and ran until February 1985 after receiving four Tony nominations.

Enthusiastically reviewed, the play won Mamet the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Former head of production at Columbia Pictures turned producer Jerry Tokofsky read the play in 1985 at the suggestion of Irvin Kershner, who wanted to direct a film version. Tokofsky caught a performance on Broadway and though he found the plot confusing, contacted Mamet. The celebrated playwright asked for $500,000 for the film rights and another $500,000 to adapt a screenplay. To find the money for this, Tokofsky partnered with a Washington D.C. real estate developer and aspiring movie producer he’d worked with named Stanley Zupnik.

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Jack Lemmon – who Tokofsky approached to play Shelley Levene in 1989 – later summarized the film’s commercial potential: “It’s got no women, it’s got no sex, it’s got no violence and it’s got no special effects. So even if it’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, it’s got nothing that the studios are interested in.” Al Pacino had wanted to join the cast of the Broadway run and expressed interest in the movie, but before Tokofsky could set the project up, Kershner opted to direct RoboCop 2 and Pacino left to star in Frankie and Johnny.

Alec Baldwin, who also attached, left when Tokofsky was unable to raise a letter of credit guaranteeing the actor would be paid. In early 1991, James Foley received Mamet’s script via his agent and agreed to direct, but with his cast falling apart, he exited the project as well. Tofosky begged Baldwin back on board. “Alec said: ‘I’ve read twenty-five scripts and nothing is as good as this. Okay, If you make it, I’ll do it.” Lemmon and Foley returned to the production, as did Pacino, who told Tokofsky that the material had been obsessing him.

Tokofsky ultimately raised half of the film’s $12.8 million budget through foreign sales. The rest came from Live Home Video and Showtime for domestic video and cable rights, then New Line – looking to expand their image beyond the Freddy Kruger pictures they were known for – picked up domestic distribution, guaranteeing $3 million to promote the film in theaters. The cast cut their fees to get the film made. Pacino reduced his usual asking price of $6 million to $1.5 million. Lemmon received $1 million. Baldwin accepted $250,000.

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Shooting commenced in August 1991 at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens and on location in Brooklyn over 39 days. Premiering at the Venice Film Festival in September 1992, Jack Lemmon was awarded the Volpi Cup for Best Actor. The film opened in the U.S. a month later and though it received generally favorable reviews, grossed only $10 million at the box office. Assessing the film ten years later for the DVD’s audio commentary, Foley stated, “I’ve always thought of it as a nature documentary, as if one was watching the Animal Planet channel seeing predatory beasts trying to survive.”

Opinion

Even with rain and thunder on the soundtrack and a few scenes that take place outside the two primary locations, there’s never any doubt we’re watching a play about guys in a room. Glengarry Glen Ross isn’t a classic because of its visual palette; it’s a classic because the seven best actors on the planet were cast in its seven roles. Alec Baldwin turns out one of the greatest movie monologues/rants of all time, but the film is way better than just a fireworks display of snappy dialogue. It’s the quiet desperation of the salesmen that stays with you long after the show is over.

Jack Lemmon spends the film hanging by a thread, using his voice to stave off personal disaster moment to moment. On a long list of triumphs, this is one of the greatest of Lemmon’s career. Ed Harris and Pacino lace into their dumbshit boss with all the virtuosity you’d expect – and a lot of the profanity you might not – while Kevin Spacey achieves the icy calculation of a man who knows he’ll get the last laugh. Ironically, Glengarry Glen Ross has become a sort of sales motivation video, which was probably not what Mamet had in mind. This story is about what happens when men who lie for a living finally run out of things to say.

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Mike Sampson at DVD Clinic writes, “My wife finds the film boring and gets annoyed at how I stop and watch it every time that it’s on. She says the movie makes her so depressed and she feels so BAD for some of the characters in the film, she can barely sit through it. I can see that also, but I look past that and see the craft by the actors and Mamet in creating characters that were so pathetic that you couldn’t help but feel embarrassed for them at times. Truly a great movie.”

Glengarry Glen Ross is a thinking man’s drama, perhaps too dry and stagy for some mainstream audiences, but it’s not in the message, but the delivery where the film scores the most points. No gunfire, no explosions, just acid-laced contempt and hatred bubbling under the surface. Guts and glory filmmaking of the highest order,” writes Vince Leo at QWipster’s Movie Reviews.

Brian Calhoun at digitally Obsessed writes, “This depressing look at the sorrowful world of real estate sales is not the type of film that everyone will enjoy; it lacks the overt, brash approach found in most of today’s Hollywood blockbusters. Yet, it is a throwback to the olden days of cinema, a pensive yet engrossing examination of human behavior. Those who crave a strong character-based film will undoubtedly be riveted by Mamet’s unadulterated vision of immorality and misery.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: 24 hour time frame · Based on play · Cult favorite · Famous line · Interrogation · Midlife crisis

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Adam Ross // Jul 18, 2008 at 4:20 am

    Great choice, Joe. I’ve seen lots of horror movies, but I don’t know if there is a scene where I want to close my eyes as much as when Shelly goes into that family’s house. So brilliant, but so hard to watch.

    At my college newspaper newsroom, we had Blake’s speech taped on the wall, and quoting it was encouraged. “Hit the bricks pal, because you are going OUT!”

  • 2 AR // Jul 22, 2008 at 8:55 am

    I finally watched this maybe 5 years ago and found it very engaging, despite the fact that it is, as you say, basically a stage play. It is about the performances, which are all spot-on. Really, my only criticisms amount to the stageyness. Ideally, I want a film to operate on a deeper visual level, but I appreciate wordy films like this one (it’s a welcome respite from the blockbuster mentality for sure).

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Jul 22, 2008 at 6:29 pm

    Adam: Thanks for commenting. To hear some of the reaction, some people feel Glengarry Glen Ross is akin to watching a comedian go on stage and bomb. I didn’t feel uncomfortable watching the movie; the dialogue is so stylized that you can’t take it seriously. “The good news is, you’re fired.”

    AR: James Foley is a contemporary director who was born in the wrong era. He would have made a fine studio director during the ’30s and ’40s, but none of his movies really work on a deeper visual level. That’s a criticism and a compliment. This is his best film.

  • 4 Bill // Jul 24, 2008 at 1:35 am

    All the movies on this page are great. I forgot about The Player. I saw that several times and loved it. One of favorite all time movies is Glengarry GlenRoss. An all middle age or more male caste and so much tension in every frame. Not a pleasant film to watch really in the sense of how everyone loses out morally and most of the people do not even realize it. Well, all of them really are oblivious to how flexible their morals and ethics have become… driven to unethical behaviors really.

    The scene where Jack Lemmon is begging Kevin Spacey for a break is so unsettling and yet perfect.

    My only complaint (and it is minor) is that Al Pacino was too Al in some scenes, a little too loud and hammy… but that is why I love him. Great film! Thanks for reviewing it.

  • 5 christian // Jul 25, 2008 at 1:15 pm

    Jack Lemmon is so fucking good…I love how Al Pacino treats him like a wise pro…

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