Monday, December 12, 2011

Death of a Fu%#ing Salesman

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.

7 comments:

  1. An excellent, excellent essay. I'm a huge Mamet fan and, while I don't think this is his best, the ABC scene is one of the best ever written. I realise that this is not the point of your writing here, but I just thought I'd drop it in anyway.

    (Incidentally, the SECOND best scene ever, for me, was also written by Mamet in the movie Lakeboat, where two chaps discuss drinking.)

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  2. @Colin.....Thank you for the kind words and comments. I agree that Glengarry is not Mamet's best; I do like his adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, as well as his screenplays for The Verdict and The Untouchables. I also thought The Spanish Prisoner was a good film, if not well known, as well as Ronin, even if it's a "you either love it or hate it" film.

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  3. I'll have to disagree with you on Ronin, but it's great to hear someone with love for The Spanish Prisoner. I adore that film.

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  4. Have you seen that SNL Xmas sketch Alec Baldwin did years ago where it was sort of a remake of his scene from that film?

    It was hilarious. Baldwin looked like he was back in that film where he almost screwed up that line as he was supposed to say "Always be Coddling" and he said "Always be closing". He told an elf, "Put that cocoa down! Cocoa's for closers!"

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  5. @ Colin, sometimes things change from completed script to shooting and editing. Perhaps John Frankenheimer made changes to Mamet`s script that led to the disappointing film that is Ronin. Good to hear form a fellow Spanish Prisoner admirer!

    @ thevoid, I keep missing the SNL Christmas special when it airs this time of year. I will look for it this year, hopefully I will catch it.

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  6. So, the question of all questions: who do you think does the best acting in the film?

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  7. @ Alex, I would have to say its a tie between Jack Lemmon and Al Pacino. Lemmon is wonderful in this film; you can almost smell the desperation coming off his character as we watch him slowly unravel and buckle under pressure from work and home. Pacino, while he does get fired up and launch a nice verbal invective later in Act Three, there is a nice scene where he talks to Jonathan Pryce's character in the bar and he plays it cool. Really cool. Michael Corleone cool. And he closes him; that's the confidence he has in himself, because it never was about the product. These salesmen don't believe in what they're selling because it's all a con; the use whatever means they can to "get them to sign on the line that is dotted." Since Pacino's Ricky Roma is number one on the board, he walks about self-assured; the other three have to fight it out from the beginning for those steak knives.

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