More than any other aspect of screen writing, dialogue is the trickiest to nail (at least for me). To find the perfect balance between propelling the story forward without inundating the audience with flat exposition is one of the toughest high wire acts of all. Some writers have a natural gift for it. You could almost just simply listen to an Aaron Sorkin film with the visuals turned off and not miss a beat of what was happening or lose a second of enjoyment. It’s snappy, witty, and fast. Woody Allen is the same way, and though this may seem hyperbolic, I’ve long believed that Deadwood scribe David Milch is the best writer of poetic (yet astonishingly crude) dialogue since William Shakespeare. Playwright David Mamet deserves to rank among these men.
It is often under the leanest conditions that writers deliver the most precise and captivating material. Conversations with Other Women is more or less a man and a woman reminiscing on their past love and their current entanglements for an hour and a half, but it’s romantic drama perfection. You Can Count on Me is on its face a simple story of brothers and sisters who can’t be what the other needs, but a truer depiction of the modern family has yet to be made. Based off Mamet’s own stage play, 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross could be reduced to its base story of four men competing in a sales contest, but beneath that, it’s a stark condemnation of human greed and the perils of ambition. It is a warning of the lengths that men will sink when their careers depend on it, and it is one of the most finely acted films I’ve ever seen.
Endearingly referred to as “Death of a Fuckin’ Salesman,” Glengarry Glen Ross charts a fateful twenty four hour period at a flailing Chicago real estate firm. When a tough-talking and foul-mouthed representative (Alec Baldwin) from the home offices drops an atomic ultimatum into the mix of a heated sales contest, the four salesmen working at the company and their manager (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil‘s Kevin Spacey) find their world’s turned upside down. The top salesman at the end of the week wins a Cadillac El Dorado. The second best gets a set of steak knives. And the bottom two performers get shit canned.
Every man in the office spirals into his own turmoils and base instincts. Shelly “the Machine Levine (Jack Lemmon) has a sick daughter and is riding a month of bad luck and shitty leads. The oldest man in the office, Levine works harder than nearly everyone else, but the customers haven’t been calling. Dave Moss (Ed Harris) is an angry schemer with dreams of stealing and selling the valuable “Glengarry leads” to a rival agency and wants his coworker George Aaranow (Catch-22‘s Alan Arkin) to do his dirty work. Smooth-talking Rick Roma (Scarface‘s Al Pacino) is the only guy in the office closing any sales but even he finds himself tested when a big deal threatens to fall apart even after the paperwork has been signed.
We are 306 movies into this blog, and Glengarry Glen Ross has without question the best ensemble cast of any film yet. It won that race and then lapped everybody around it for good measure. The performance from Alec Baldwin perhaps sums this film’s strengths up better than any other performance (although trust me, we’ll get to Pacino and Jack Lemmon in a second). He’s in the film for all of 7 minutes but by the time his seven minutes are up, you may find yourself exhausted from the gushing fountain of vitriol, greed, and obscenities that spews from his mouth (and person). The man is capitalistic excess and evil incarnate and Baldwin turns the small role into one of the greatest one-scene performances in all of cinema.
Baldwin appears early in the film and disappears quickly, but after his monologue, I thought it would be impossible for any one to top him in the film. Apparently, I’d forgotten how great Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon are. Jack Lemmon is primarily known for his comedic roles. With Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon is responsible for some of Hollywood’s most beloved comedies. But he turns Shelley Levine into such a broken, sniveling, desperate man that you forget you’re even watching Jack Lemmon. You just see a man who has fallen to the lowest nadir of any man’s life, and Lemmon makes you feel every last bit of pressure as money and greed and the futility of life suck his very essence away. It was a masterful performance.
And Al Pacino! After his hammy, overwrought turn in Scarface earlier this week, I’d nearly forgotten how terrific he is when he controls himself and lets the explosions come with precision. Ricky Roma has a silver tongue and we see him ply it over a customer as he tries to make a sale and later have to weave even more intricate lies and run-arounds as he tries to keep that client in the company’s fold. But, as fate and the incompetence of others threatens to unfurl Roma’s machinations, Roma unleashes his not-so-righteous fury on those that threaten to impede him. And watching Pacino flip that switch from cool to terrible is one of the most delightful experiences in all of film-making.
The whole cast is wonderful from Arkin’s spineless Aaronow to Ed Harris’s manipulative Moss to Kevin Spacey’s bureaucratic Williamson. It would be too easy to spend this entire review raving about how wonderful and nuanced each performance is. These actors gel with the type of coordination and rhythm that you only seem to find on television programs where the same actors have been performing together for years. Mamet’s world feels lived in and the intimacy each performer brings to the table makes you feel each stab and wound as these men betray and assault one another to survive.
As much as Glengarry Glen Ross brutally savages the spiritually decayed men that inhabit its walls and sell their souls for real estate and fleeting success, the film’s true indictment rings against the system and culture that forces Ricky Roma an Shelley Levine to be the kind of men they become. These men are forced to fight tooth and nail for useless leads. They have to degrade their own ethics and morals to close on these worthless leads and only then will the company let them touch the real leads that might lead them to fruitful deals. The original stage play was one of the first major indictments of Reagan-era greed and ennui, and it rings even truer today as a haunting prediction of the spiritual state of our nation.
Glengarry Glen Ross is one of those films that has it all. It has a monumentally important story. It’s characters are as fleshed-out and developed as any that have hit the big screen. The performances are universally sublime. There isn’t wasted second in a story that is the definition of efficient. And the dialogue is as sumptuous a feast as you’re likely to ever find. It has been six months (Margaret in August) since a film received the honors I’m about to bestow upon this film, but nothing has come close to deserving it in a while. Glengarry Glen Ross is cinematic perfection and, simply put, one of the best films I’ve reviewed so far.
Final Score: A+