One of the dangers in adapting a stage play into a film is that you won’t be able to break out of the theatricality inherent with so many plays. Fortunately, film director James Foley seemed to be acutely aware of this when he decided to take on Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), an adaptation of David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name with the screenplay written by the man himself.
Right from the start, Foley keeps things visually interesting by bathing the film in Giallo-esque lighting that would make Dario Argento proud. Cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia photographs two salesmen talking in adjoining telephone booths, bathing them in white and blue light respectively with contrasting red in the background. Not only are these colors of the American flag and thereby making a subtle allusion to the notion that this story is a damning indictment of Capitalism, one of the principles that made the United States what it is today. The two men bitch and gripe to each other about the potential clients they have to cold call and then turn on the charm once they get them on the phone. Welcome to Mamet’s cutthroat world of real estate sales populated by desperate, often cruel men that are driven to make as much money as they can, consequences be damned.
One night, an office of down-on-their-luck salesmen are given the pep talk from hell by a ruthless man named Blake (Alec Baldwin), an executive sent by their bosses Mitch and Murray, on a “mission of mercy” as he sarcastically puts it. He starts off by telling them that they’re all fired. They have a week to get their jobs back by selling as much property as they can. He gives them an additional incentive: first prize is a new Cadillac El Dorado, second prize is a set of steak knives and third prize is, as he puts it, “you’re fired.” If the salesmen do well they will get the new Glengarry leads and the promise of better clients and good money.
Blake delivers an absolutely punishing speech as he belittles them (“You call yourself a salesman, you son of a bitch?”), is downright insulting (“You can’t close shit, you are shit! Hit the bricks, pal and beat it because you are going out!”), and demoralizing by even questioning their manhood. He throws in all sorts of “encouraging” words, like “Get them to sign on the line which is dotted,” and “Always be closing.” Alec Baldwin delivers a blistering performance as Blake. His character was not in the original stage play, Mamet wrote him specifically for the film. In his brief amount of screen time, Baldwin dominates the screen against the likes of Ed Harris and Jack Lemmon as he delivers a devastating monologue with ferocious intensity. At one point, Dave Moss (Ed Harris) asks him, “What’s your name?” to which Blake replies, “Fuck you! That’s my name. You know why, mister? ‘Cause you drove a Hyundai to get here tonight. I drove an $80,000 BMW. That’s my name.” Blake is an icy motivational speaker that only motivates the salesmen out of fear of being unemployed, making this scene eerily relevant to our times as that is also the prime motivator for most people trying to hold down a job in our current economic climate.
If there was ever a film that deserved an Academy Award for best ensemble cast then this is it. Glengarry Glen Ross features a dream collection of acting heavyweights: Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, and Alan Arkin. Pacino plays the slickest salesman of the bunch – Ricky Roma, a smooth-talking, well-dressed bullshit artist of the highest order. This is evident in the scenes where Roma spins an incredibly long and convoluted story, seducing a mild-mannered middle-aged man named James Lingk (Jonathan Pryce). It’s a marvel of acting as we watch Pacino do a spectacular verbal tap dance around the actual pitch until the last possible moment when he’s got the guy’s complete and utter confidence – even then he presents the land he’s pushing as an opportunity as opposed to a purchase, preying on Lingk’s insecurity. It’s a brilliant bit of acting as Pacino commands the scene with his mesmerizing presence. Jonathan Pryce is also excellent as he portrays a weak-willed man susceptible to Roma’s polished charms.
Harris plays Moss as an angry man pissed off at the lousy leads (i.e. clients) and is plotting to defect to a rival, Jerry Graff. George Aaronow (Alan Arkin) is a nervous guy unable to close a sit (pitching a client in person) and seems keen on Moss’ plan to steal the new Glengarry leads and sell them to the competition. John Williamson (Kevin Spacey) is the office manager, a pencil pusher that shows little remorse in what happens to his staff. He’s a smug son-of-a-bitch who takes a particular interest in Shelley “The Machine” Levene’s (Jack Lemmon) plight. Levene is an older salesman trying to make enough money to pay off mounting medical bills for his sick daughter, which colors everything he does.
Levene is a pathetic character desperate to keep his job and still capable of a slick sales pitch (in a nice touch, he often refers to an imaginary secretary named Grace while calling a potential client on the phone), it’s just his judgment that’s off as he finds out with devastating consequences later on in the film. Jack Lemmon somehow manages to make him sympathetic. We see both sides of Levene in a scene where he tries to sell property to a man (Bruce Altman) in his home. The man is not interested and despite Levene’s desperate attempts, asks him to leave. It is an increasingly uncomfortable scene that is hard to watch as the man finally and firmly rebuffs Levene. Your heart really goes out to Lemmon’s character as he dejectedly walks back out into the pouring rain, looking very much like a drowned rat. It is to Lemmon’s incredible skill as an actor that he makes you care about such a pitiful man.
Director Foley successfully transfers Mamet’s play to the big screen by creating atmospheric visuals. There is a somber mood that permeates almost every scene. The first half of the film takes place at night during an oppressive rainstorm. Anchia’s rich, textured cinematography is the key ingredient in giving Mamet’s play a cinematic look. He relied on low lighting and shadows with blues, greens and reds for the first part of the film. The second part adhered to a monochromatic blue-grey color scheme. All the locations are given their own distinctive color scheme, in particular, the hellish red/navy blue of the Chinese restaurant that the salesmen frequent. The overall atmosphere is dark, like that of a film noir.
And then there is Mamet’s trademark hard-boiled dialogue or “Mamet speak” as it is known. It has a sharp, staccato quality to it that cuts right to the point with characters often interrupting each other or their dialogue overlapping as evident in the scene where Moss tells Aaronow of his plans to rob their office. One thing that is evident in Glengarry Glen Ross is just how good Mamet is at writing amusing dialogue. For example, at one point, Williamson asks where Roma is to which Moss replies, “Well, I’m not a leash so I don’t know, do I?” Mamet’s characters talk like they are thinking about what they are going to say next as they are saying it — much like in real life.
David Mamet’s play was first performed in 1983 at the National Theater of London and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984. That same year it made its United States debut in the playwright’s hometown of Chicago before moving to Broadway. Shortly thereafter, producer Jerry Tokofsky (Dreamscape) read the play on a trip to New York City in 1985 at the suggestion of director Irvin Kershner who wanted to make it into a film. Tokofsky then saw it on Broadway and contacted Mamet. The playwright wanted $500,000 for the film rights and another $500,000 to write the screenplay to which the producer agreed. Washington, D.C.-based B-movie producer Stanley R. Zupnik was looking for A-list material and co-produced two previous Tokofsky films. Zupnik had seen Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway and found the plot confusing. He also knew of its reputation in Hollywood as being a commercially difficult project but figured that he and Tokofsky could cut a deal with a cable company.
During this time, Al Pacino and Alec Baldwin became interested in Glengarry Glen Ross but without any concrete financing both Kershner and the actors dropped out for various reasons. Pacino had originally wanted to do the play on Broadway but was doing another Mamet production, American Buffalo, in London at the time. Director James Foley read the script in early 1991 and was hired to direct only to leave the project soon afterwards. By March 1991, Tokofsky contacted Baldwin and practically begged him to reconsider doing the film. The producer remembers, “Alec said: ‘I’ve read 25 scripts and nothing is as good as this. O.K. If you make it, I’ll do it.’” This prompted Foley and Pacino to get back on board with Jack Lemmon agreeing to do it as well. Foley and Pacino arranged an informal reading with Lemmon in Los Angeles.
From this point, Foley and Pacino had subsequent readings with several other actors. Lemmon remembers, “Some of the best damn actors you’re ever going to see came in and read and I’m talking about names.” Alan Arkin originally wasn’t interested in doing the film because he didn’t like the character he was asked to portray but fortunately his wife, manager and agent pushed him to do it. Tokofsky’s lawyer called a meeting at the Creative Artists’ Agency, who represented many of the actors involved, and asked for their help. CAA showed little interest but two of their clients – Ed Harris and Kevin Spacey – soon joined the cast.
Due to the uncompromising subject matter and abrasive language, no major studio wanted to finance Glengarry Glen Ross even with actors like Pacino and Lemmon attached. Financing ended up coming from cable and video companies, a German television station, an Australian movie theater chain, several banks, and, finally, New Line Cinema over the course of four years. Because of the film’s modest budget of $12.5 million, many of the actors took significant pay cuts do it. For example, Pacino cut his per-movie price from $6 million to $1.5 million. This didn’t stop other actors, like Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis, Joe Mantegna, and Richard Gere from expressing an interest in the film.
Once the cast was assembled, they spent three weeks in rehearsals. The budget was set at $12.5 million with filming beginning in August 1991 at the Kaufman Astoria soundstage in Queens, New York and on location in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn over 39 days. Ed Harris remembers, “There were five and six-page scenes we would shoot all at once. It was more like doing a play at times [when] you’d get the continuity going.” Arkin said of the script, “What made it [challenging] was the language and the rhythms, which are enormously difficult to absorb.” During principal photography, Tokofsky and his producing partner Zupnik had a falling out over credit for the film. Upon the film’s release, Tokofsky sued to strip Zupnik of his producer’s credit and share of the producer’s fee. Zupnik claimed that he personally put up $2 million of the film’s budget and countersued, claiming that Tokofsky was fired for embezzlement, which seems rather ironic considering the subject matter of the film. To date neither one of them has gone on to produce another film with the lone exception of The Grass Harp in 1995 by Tokofsky.
It takes a certain kind of personality to sell something that people don’t need but convincing them that they do. There is a whiff of pathetic desperation to Mamet’s salesmen. It seems like their best days are behind them. It’s a vicious circle of sorts – they can’t get access to new, potentially good clients unless they close some of their old ones and they are all deadbeats. These salesmen will say and do anything to keep their job, which begs the question: is that what it takes to be a good salesperson? Ed Harris believes that the film is “about the evils of the free enterprise system. You’ve got these guys selling bogus real estate and they’re upset because they can’t sell it.” The film is a rather timely one as it addresses tough economic times, something that we are experiencing now. One of the reasons Mamet’s characters have such a hard time selling these properties is because nobody has any money and what they do have they’re holding onto it. First performed on stage in the “Greed is good” 1980s, Glengarry Glen Ross was a scathing indictment of the free enterprise system. The film was made in the early 1990s when the economy was doing well and now it has become relevant once again in the lean and mean post-9/11 New Millennium.