by Istvan Kolnhofer
What else can be written about James Foley’s adaptation of David Mamet’s Pulitzer prize winning play other than devastatingly scorching.
Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin, and Jonathan Pryce: perhaps the greatest acting ensemble ever put before a camera, collectively portray employees of a real estate agency- the sales department. Some of the greatest characters written in the 20th century cinema. Lemmon, ‘the machine’ Levene, is the old hero, now on a steady and sharp decline. Revered by others. Pacino,Ricky Roma the hot shot. He keeps an arm’s length from everyone. Alan Arkin, George, is simply the loser. Never was hot, never will be – totally hopeless. Ed Harris is Dave Moss, a fighter, kinda like DeNiro in Raging Bull. Not hot, willing to do anything to reach the top. Like a rabid pitbull. Frustrated and at the boiling point. Kevin Spacey, Williamson, is the manager. A puppet of the owners, a real pencil pusher. But at least he doesn’t live off of door-to-door sales. Alec Baldwin, in his greatest performance of his career, only taking up a mere 10 mins of screen time, tears the screen to shreds and burns the film up with one of the most incendiary, provocative, foul-mouthed, scene-chomping speeches ever. I was 17 when I saw this in the theatre and Alec Baldwin blew my mind with that scene. In college we used to watch this film over and over and rewind the speech 10 times over. We knew every line, every gesture. Jack Lemmon’s face when Baldwin yells "Put that coffee down! Coffee’s for closers". Or "You see this watch? this watch costs more than your car".We would kill ourselves laughing, that’s how much we loved it.
Mamet’s character driven screenplay delves into the place in our souls and in our psyches, where desperation exits. The men live off of selling near useless Florida real estate, and their tool is the cold call – the hard sell. Lemmon, Pacino,and Bladwin are true masters. Gold belt senseis of the cold call. The bullcrap that they can unload is remarkable. Stream of consciousness. Lie upon lie. Smug and greasy. Pacino’s monologue to the hapless gimmel Pryce, leads to tangents about pedophilia, and the stench of urine in subways. He wields a cheezy brochure of the properties like it’s Shakespeare, with a picture of a fabergé egg on it. Lemmon meanwhile desperately stands in rain drenched phone booths, creating illusions to the listener like a verbal ballet. When he worms his way into one of the lead’s house, he plants himself on the couch and grabs a stuffed animal he sees there. That little thing he does there, that gesture; in those 3 seconds, his character’s conflict is symbolized. Though the guru to all younger than him, his decline is turning into an avalanche, ready to bury him. He is so desperate he resorts to the cheesiest, phoniest, approaches. It is heartbreaking to watch. Drama not unlike that of the great Greek tragedies of Aeschylus and Euripides. Classic human fare. Alan Arkin is slightly type-cast as the bumbling, mumbling, passive, loser. He has done it so many times. But this has to be the apex of that characterization for him. Ed Harris is so full rage, spitting venom (and literally spitting on Al Pacino during his farewell speech, his "farewell to the troops"). It is literally one of the most expletive laden tirades ever projected in mainstream cinemas. You are just waiting for his ears to smoke and his head to explode. Gut wrenching. Williamson, is subject to, by Roma and Levene, the harshest tongue whippings ever. Ferocious, nasty, derogatory. Spacey is literally humiliated by these masters of bulls**t. He most certainly gets his comeuppance; and later, a pretty nasty little service return of his own. Much is written in these reviews about the swearing in the film. Swearing, in Mamet’s works, is part of the syntax of those worlds. It is almost like the curse words become subtext. It is like the plié in his abusive ballet of words. But nonetheless, umbrage can be made about this matter. It is after all, foul swearing, carpet-bombed from a writer who uses it as his key verbal motif. You simply have to accept as Mamet’s artistic license and move on. It is one of those things that you simply cannot let ruin the experience for you. Mamet is widely considered one of the greatest living playwright and screenwriter in the English language. Just consider the swearing as part of the stylization of the cold-caller salesman language.
The narrative of Glengarry Glen Ross takes place in one evening and the next morning, and is mostly in a dingy office and a Chinese restaurant. Superbly light, and with an awesome jazz score, it has great camera moves that highlight, accent, punctuate, and round out the actors’ performances. My favourite motif is the subway that rattles by – at crucial moments of crucial dialogues. It is interesting to note, that the director, James Foley, who superbly crafted this ensemble piece, never really became an A-list director. All the elements are there, perfectly and purposely assembled – the sound, the image, the performances. Perhaps, Mamet did more directing than the writer normally would? Or did the real cinema pros – the cast – just take the ball and run, literally directing the film themselves, so used to playing those roles on stage, with the exception of Pacino and Baldwin. Another note of interest, is that I have seen this film numerous times, with a variety of people, and have yet to meet a female who liked it. This seems to categorize Glengarry Glen Ross as perhaps one the more masculine, testosterone soaked, man-only films ever. Like wild male animals fighting it out in the jungles. Despite that, I say this is definitely a must see for guy and gal cinema lovers all over.