Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Being is sales can be tough; I remember in Grade Ten working at a company phoning people during their dinner hour asking them to participate in a survey which, more often than not, they declined in a response filled with colourful metaphors. It wasn’t a boiler room, but I remember the manager cracking the whip and ensuring we were on the phones making calls, persuading the leads to take the surveys. I didn’t last long, maybe a month, but that was my first (and last) foray into telemarketing, but I do remember the pressure me and the other teens were under to get people to take those surveys.
By no means do I feel I am a kindred spirit to salesmen who make their living by commission. But I do think back to that one summer month every time I watch Glengarry Glen Ross and am thankful I moved on to other endeavours.
Glengarry Glen Ross is adapted by David Mamet from his acclaimed 1984 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning play of the same name. Like Death of a Salesman, the film examines the nature of the American Dream and what it means to be successful. Unlike its predecessor, though, Glengarry Glen Ross shows the new, raw capitalism where morality and dignity need to be checked at the door.
The film covers two days in the lives of four Chicago real estate salesmen. Shelley Levene (Jack Lemmon), Ricky Roma (Al Pacino), Dave Moss (Ed Harris), and George Aaronow (Alan Arkin) use dodgy tactics to get people to invest in equally dodgy real estate. To make matters worse, many of the leads handed out by office manager Williamson (Kevin Spacey) are people who don’t have the money or desire to actually invest in land.
Suffice it to say, times are tough in the office. The owners send company man Blake (Alec Baldwin) to deliver the new sales contest. First prize: a Cadillac El Dorado. Second prize: a set of steak knives. Third prize is a kick to the curb, as only the two top salesmen will be allowed to keep their jobs and access to the more promising Glengarry leads. David Mamet added this scene specifically for Baldwin, which is arguably the best seven minutes of abuse captured on film. This speech lays out the themes, sets a tone of panicked urgency, and shoves the flawed four down a very steep hill. While there are many famous quotes from the speech (“Coffee is for closers”, “You see this watch? This watch costs more than your car”), the one that crystallizes the theme is, “Only one thing counts in this life: Get them to sign on the line which is dotted.” That is the number one rule of capitalism; the salesmen understand this and so do we, whether we agree with it or not.
Glengarry Glen Ross is in a film about honour without honour, a scathing commentary on American business practices. Success is rewarded with good leads and Cadillacs, while failure is equally rewarded with abuse and a pink slip. In this brutal system without compassion, the meek do not inherit the earth. The characters often refer to themselves and talk of “men”, which means a lot more that the obvious gender and age. In their world, “manhood” needs to be earned, not merely through hard work, but also through using one’s wits and captaining one’s destiny. Levene tells Williamson “A man’s his job,” and since Williamson takes orders from the owners and passes them along, the implication is clear; he is not a man. It doesn’t help that the prevailing mood is one of desperation, so much that the salesmen contemplate doing whatever it takes to get ahead and keep their peers in the rear-view mirror. The fact we see only two days only serves to dial up the tension even more for these stressed-out salesmen who have lie to people in order to earn that commission. Credit Mamet, who makes them sympathetic characters right from the start, and we want them to manipulate their clients just to climb the salesboard.
Willie Lowman wouldn’t stand a chance against these guys.