Directed by James Foley
Glengarry Glen Ross is famous for that speech Alex Baldwin yells at the struggling salesmen, the one with “always be closing.” I’m trying to figure out if that speech out of context is a good representation of the film as a whole. Baldwin’s character is never again seen in the film, and even his energy is nowhere to be found around the dingy real estate offices out of which work the four salesmen we follow throughout the film.
From that one clip you might be seduced by Baldwin’s confidence, his pride and his alpha male quality. He’s very self-assured, with no room for anything beyond his control and no care for anyone but himself. He stands below and in front of a sign that declares “salesmen are born, not made.” He is everything he hopes to embody, but the people he yells at, our four protagonists, are not quite there.
It’s an incredible cast. Beyond Baldwin and Kevin Spacey (…), the four main characters are played by Alan Arkin, Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino and Ed Harris. They’re all old, even if they don’t know it yet, and the burden of working in sales, particularly at this company, certainly weighs on them.
The four salesmen work for a New York real estate office, and they’re given crappy ‘leads,’ from which to make phone calls and sell their soul trying to get the person on the other end of the line to buy up land. In several cases we see them effectively con someone into purchasing what they’re selling, giving the impression that even they know what they’re doing is dishonorable.
The four characters are divided into two groups. Two of them, Harris and Pacino, are self-assured, in the same vein as Baldwin, but they’re subjugated by Spacey who holds all the power by holding all the leads. Their rampant cockiness is tempered by their situation, relegated to crappy desks in a crappy office. The other two, played by Arkin and Lemmon, are much more sympathetic even as they make the same phone calls and prey on the same types of customers. The only difference is that they wear their emotion, their self-doubt on their sleeves.
But what does that matter? They’re doing the same job. Their characters highlight the predicament these salesmen face. They’re under intense pressure to make the sale, giving it everything they’ve got, but making the sale often means damaging someone’s life. It’s especially hard to watch Jack Lemmon and his cheeky smile work so hard and reap so little reward. In the end we see just how desperate he really was, and his plastered grins are suddenly replaced by a teary-eyed realization that he’s done for, with perhaps a recognition that he was always screwed.
The walls are constantly closing in in Glengarry Glen Ross. The story is told over the course of less than two days. We meet them in the cramped offices on a rainy night. When they’re not there, they’re likely at the Chinese restaurant across the street. Every time we see the outside street, there is always a loud commuter train going by, reminding you that this is anything but paradise. It’s just another street people pass through on the way to the rest of their lives. For the four salesmen it’s all they have, the purgatory between life and home.
We never get any sense of the salesmen’s home life, either because they don’t have any or just because the condensed plot doesn’t offer time to show anything but their work life. Either way, the effect is the same. We only know them when they’re ‘on,’ and they just about always have to be on. The job requires it.
The story bounces around between each of the four salesmen. Every conversation is loaded with self-loathing, self-confidence and desperation. This is no way to live, in other words.
After they express their respective frustrations towards the customers, the leads, their boss, and basically the entire institution that controls their lives, they turn to each other and consider how to undermine the whole process. On set, the story goes that the cast referred to the production as “Death of a Fuckin’ Salesman.” In Death of a Salesman, Wily Loman is a struggling salesman who… well he dies, like in the title. So it’s not a very cheerful story. The story shows his downfall, his shortcomings, and it’s an indictment of the American Dream, as Glengarry Glen Ross is. I guess GGR just shows how screwed up our capitalistic society is. We see the struggles of the people who perpetrate it, the people who carry out the perpetuators’ orders and the people who buy into it. It’s all a fraud, a way of life that eats away at your soul.
So the Alec Baldwin speech is a little misleading. It’s like watching Breaking Bad and saying you want to be like Walter White, or the same goes for Tony Soprano and Don Draper. These characters are lathered in the filmmakers’ criticisms of a time and place, both contemporary and past, and without thinking it’s easy to buy into those criticisms because there truly is something appealing about them. And, well, that’s the American Dream. By buying into it, we’re confirming the filmmaker’s criticisms (or that of writer David Mamet).
Other films both glorify and condemn this kind of culture and this way of thinking. There’s Boiler Room which more closely follows a character’s rise and fall inside a company that profits off the gullible. The Wolf of Wall Street does the same thing. And yet those movies indulge in the perceived glamour of such a way of life before pulling the rug out from under us. Like with just about any depiction of the mafia/gangster lifestyle, the audience is allowed to bask in the wish-fulfillment of being this type of person. You’re powerful, wealthy, your social life is just en Fuego, and everything is coming up Milhouse. But then we see the other side, the inevitable downfall, and that’s meant to reframe everything that came before it.
In Glengarry Glen Ross there is no indulgence in the rise because there is no rise. These are just characters who might as well be walking the plank, so to speak, and in the end they fall off. They bought into something sold to them or they’re forced into this career as a means to survive, but there’s no glamour whatsoever in it. Each sale only lifts your spirit by pushing back the inevitable. The next day it’s a clean slate, and you have to fight for your life all over again under the guise that you can save it.
Up Next: Bernie (2011), Lost in Translation (2003), Double Indemnity (1944)