Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Glengarry Glen Ross.

criterion logoAdapted from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Glengarry Glen Ross shows David Mamet at his searing, profane best.  A group of hard-luck real estate salesman/con artists eke a livelihood out of bad leads and duplicitous sales tactics, but when an emissary from their employer arrives from downtown to abusively inform them that half of the sales team will be fired in a week, desperation leads to a plot to burglarize the office, steal the company’s new, winning leads, and find employment with a rival across the street.  Featuring one of cinema’s greatest movie ensembles, including Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, and Jonathan Pryce, director James Foley forges a tragically hard-bitten portrait of the American dream’s misuse, where survival means always selling and always closing without care or conscience for how it’s done.

Disc Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New audio commentary with playwright and screenwriter David Mamet and producer Jerry Tokofsky
  • Scene commentaries with director James Foley, actors Alan Arkin and Alec Baldwin, production designer Jane Musky, and cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía
  • New interview with Al Pacino
  • ABC: Always Be Closing, a half-hour documentary on salesmanship including interviews with Foley, documentarian Albert Maysles, and director Gregory Mosher
  • Magic Time: A Tribute to Jack Lemmon, a half-hour appreciation of the late actor
  • Appearance by Jack Lemmon on the Charlie Rose Show
  • Appearance by Kevin Spacey on Inside the Actor’s Studio
  • J. Roy: New and Used Furniture, Tony Buba’s 10-minute profile of legendary salesman Jimmy Roy
  • Theatrical trailer, with an appreciation from John Landis for Trailers from Hell
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring essays by scholar Ira Nadel and critic Stuart Klawans

Against a black background, the credits of Glengarry Glen Ross are illuminated from behind by a flickering blue light emulating the nighttime view from a subway or elevated train car.  Some so-cool sax music plays at the same time, codifying the film with an urban allure that is both sexy and anguished.  The film will be decidedly darker that its credits sequence, notwithstanding the black-on-black design, exploring the isolating influence of metropolitan living, the deadening influence of amoral capitalism, the meaning of success and its associated masculine crisis.  The opening credits also does the obvious but important task of declaring this to be a different animal than David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play.  It is based on a screenplay by Mamet, who makes notable deviations from the theatrical production, and is directed by James Foley, who brings a claustrophobic pressure to this tale of desperate salesmen shilling undesirable development real estate and generally struggling to keep up with the demands placed on them.

On a rainy night, the struggling salesmen of Premiere Properties are visited by an abusive representative of their bosses, Mitch and Murray, and are told the new dicta – “fuck or walk.”  More specifically, the two employees with the lowest sales in the four salesmen office will be fired at the end of the month.  (The best salesman gets a Cadillac Eldorado and his job; the second best gets a set of steak knives and his job.)  With a week left in the month and salesman Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) comfortably at the top of the board (and absent from the vitriolic barrage from the man from downtown (Alec Baldwin) as he is across the street plying hard-luck case James Lyngk (Jonathan Pryce) with booze and musings on life and opportunity), the remaining salesmen are left sweating.  (Technically, Baldwin plays a character credited as “Blake,” notwithstanding the fact that he goes unnamed in the film save for identifying himself as “Fuck You!’ when asked.)  Office manager John Williamson (Kevin Spacey) hands out more of the dead-end leads and directs his team to shut up, go out, and save themselves (if they want to).  Slumping old-timer Shelley “The Machine” Levene has a daughter in the hospital and unsuccessfully courts Williamson for a some of the new, good leads that have just been delivered to the office, while quick-tempered Dave Moss (Ed Harris) aims to bring the morose George Aaronow (Alan Arkin) into his plot to steal the leads and sell them to a competitor for cash and a new job.

The next day, Ricky Roma arrives at the office to discover it broken into and the police on scene questioning the sales staff.  The new leads have been taken, along with the phones and some of the sales contracts, although Roma is assured by Williamson that the Lyngk deal he closed the night before is safe.  Shelley arrives riding high on an 8-lot sale and the success of experience and proven technique over defeatism and bad leads.  The arrival of Lyngk at the office, panicked over his wife’s uncompromising direction to retrieve their cheque and cancel their deal with Roma sets off a chain of events with increasing import.  Roma’s hot streak is ended, Williamson confirms his lack of sales acumen, and the perpetrators of the break-in are revealed.  It is a crushing conclusion that denies any redemption for those too weak for this dog-eat-dog world; a tragic, profanity-filled end, fitting with Lemmon’s unofficial title for the production – “Death of a Fucking Salesman.”

Foley’s version of Glengarry Glen Ross makes various changes to the original play, moving it from Chicago to New York, exchanging a snowy winter for a nighttime rainstorm, and allowing its actors to reimagine its characters in new ways (most notable is Arkin’s decision to present Aaronow as less whiny and more conflicted).  The most significant alteration is Mamet’s addition of Alec Baldwin’s character and his vitriolic message to office, establishing a do-or-die atmosphere to Glengarry Glen Ross that provides a desperate motivation to the salesmen.  For many, including the film’s actors, Mamet’s screenplay is an improvement on his play as it enhances the stakes and offers more grist for the mill.

In his appreciation of the film for Trailers from Hell, John Landis embraces Mamet’s over-the-top use of profanity and masculine antagonism.  Landis ably argues that the theatricality of Mamet’s dialogue is made transcendent by its obscenity and vitriol, creating a heightened reality that exceeds any campiness or staginess that might otherwise exist in this adaptation.  Certainly Landis’ unpacking of Glengarry Glen Ross‘s verbose anger is on point, however the original play is still bombastic in its own right.  Foley’s film adaptation distinguishes itself through the close-up (or at least shots that bring us more proximate than allowed in the stage play), putting us up close against the fear and loathing that motivates nearly all of these characters.  In Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950), it’s said, “We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces.”  Glengarry Glen Ross might say, “Fuck you for asking me to choose; you’ll look me in the face while I tell you to fuck off six different ways.”  Up close, we get to see the uncertainty behind Moss’s rage, the comfort and confidence within Roma’s disgust for Williamson, and the slithery desperation of Shelley.

Glengarry Glen Ross is best known for its profane volume, something best epitomized by the berating speech delivered by Blake.  In his commentary, Baldwin acknowledges the effort of acting in a Mamet work and the mistake of perceiving bombast, particularly angry bombast, as great acting.  Baldwin notes that anger is a particularly easy emotion for anyone to access.  Glengarry Glen Ross is actually full of stupendous performances that don’t register on the decibel meter – Roma’s slow sales pitch marked by winces of frustration; Aaronow’s exhausted moral conflicts; Shelley’s immutable smarminess, whether he be selling, bragging, or pleading – but the unacknowledged prince of such moments is Jonathan Pryce.  Absolutely no one talks about Pryce’s contribution to the film.  He is absent from any discussion on the commentaries and generally omitted from reviews of the film, but Pryce is wonderful as the defeated James Lingk.  When he arrives in Premiere Properties, he is a lamb wandering into the lion’s den, yet it is he who puts them on their heels and ultimately sets them against each other.  Mamet famously scripts every stammer and every misspoken word, and Pryce’s Lingk is a character barely capable of uttering a complete thought, wracked by self-doubt and terrified at his wife’s wrath and Roma’s disappointment.  Lingk is an anomalous character in Glengarry Glen Ross, and therefore easily lost amid the tenacious figures operating upstairs at Premiere Properties, but he is a key figure to the film’s climax and Jonathan Pryce delivers a masterful performance of exquisite timidity.

Glengarry Glen Ross PosterWith its stellar ensemble, the connection to Mamet, and its cult status among cinephiles, James Foley’s Glengarry Glen Ross is a natural addition to a Collection that seems to be placing greater emphasis on more current works.  And with the film being part of the Westchester Films catalogue (and Westchester’s relationship with Shout! Factory appearing not to impede dealings with the Collection), we hope that the film would be available to Criterion and provide an opportunity to bring a Blu-ray edition of Glengarry Glen Ross to the American market.  Unfortunately, poster and cover treatments for Glengarry Glen Ross, the film, are somewhat disappointing.  In keeping with Criterion’s sometime minimalist style, we like this poster simply showing a phone and the bundle of good leads.  Alternatively, we’re also fond of this fan-made poster simply presenting the all-important “line that is dotted.”

Glengarry Glen Ross DanielCredits:  The current Glengarry Glen Ross DVD provides a very informative and engaging array of special features that we’ve ported over in full.  (That short film by Tony Buba is a real treat!)  To those extras, we’ve added an imagined commentary shared with David Mamet on the basis that Mamet is supposedly quite fond of Foley’s translation of his screenplay and as Mamet has previously given commentaries to Criterion editions of House of Games (1987) and Homicide (1991).  In light of the film’s tumultuous production history, we’ve proposed that this commentary be shared with producer Jerry Tokofsky.  For a brief synopsis of that production, we recommend Bernard Weinraub’s brief account, “The Talk of Hollywood; The ‘Glengarry’ Math: Add Money and Stars, Then Subtract Ego.”  We’ve also added a new interview with Al Pacino, who would bring particular insight to the work given that he played Ricky Roma in the film and then returned to the play 20 years later to act as Shelley Levene on the stage.  Essays are proposed by Stuart Klawans who provides an essay on Criterion’s release of Homicide, and by Ira Nadel, a Mamet scholar and an officer of The David Mamet Society.

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2 thoughts on “Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992)

  1. Silver Screenings March 30, 2016 / 5:50 pm

    Thank you for posting this. I keep meaning to see this one – due to the great cast – but also keep forgetting about it.

    I can’t believe this one isn’t a Criterion title. But I’m sure it will be at some point, no?

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