Speaking as some who worked in retail sales for few years out of college, I can certainly vouch for the authenticity of much of what transpires in James Foley’s film of David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross. The scene in which Alec Baldwin’s character verbally emasculates the sad sack salesmen is reminiscent of any number of sales meetings or visits from the district manager.
Okay, I can’t ever recall being called a “cocksucker” in those sessions (it was often mixed company, after all), but the message was same. Selling is everything. A good salesmen should be able to sell water to a drowning man. Excuses are for losers and low numbers are the way out the door. You might notice that I don’t work in that field any more.
Four salesmen work in a real estate office in a less-than-ideal section of New York City and for three of them, times are tough. Shelley “The Machine” Levene (Jack Lemmon) is on a record cold streak. Dave Moss (Ed Harris) seethes with bitterness and defeatism. George Aaronow (Alan Arkin), already out of his depth as a salesman, feeds off Moss’s negativity. The problem, they say, is that the sales leads provided by the downtown office are shit. Only Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) is closing sales these days. Roma is the kind of slick character who could sell a silent movie to blind man. Presiding over this bunch is the office manager, John Williamson (Kevin Spacey), an officious paper-pusher who is the subject of open contempt from his own sales force.
Tonight the office is visited by a man from the downtown office named Blake (Baldwin) who lays down the law. This month’s sale contest has a new prize. First place is a Cadillac. Second place is a set of steak knives. The prize for third place is unemployment. His spiel is profane, insulting and an appeal to basic greed. He’s a better man than they are because of the car he drives, the watch he wears and how much he made last year.
The firm offers another incentive. The new leads from downtown, the premium leads, the Glengarry leads are locked in Williamson’s office for now and they will go to the ones left standing when the month is over. Later, Shelley futilely begs Williamson for just one of Glengarry leads while Moss and Aaronow hatch a different plan. Meanwhile, Roma goes about smoothly seducing (that’s the only word for it) a prospective buyer (Jonathan Pryce).
The next morning, the sales men arrive to find that the office has been burglarized and Glengarry leads stolen.
As you might guess from the cast, Glengarry is an acting tour de force. Seven of our best actors either on their way up or at the very top of their game. Al Pacino actually dials it back, giving a restrained, moderated performance although you could tell this is the same actor who would go on to play Satan in The Devil’s Advocate. In a way, Roma is a similar character: amoral and living only for the thrill of the deal. Jack Lemmon seems to be made of desperation and sweat and Ed Harris radiates bitterness like an X-ray machine. Kevin Spacey, still a few years away from his star-making turn in The Usual Suspects, keeps Williamson from being a caricature of the venal company man. He’s a dick, but you kind of get why.
True to its stage roots, most of the action is confined to the office with a few trips out to the restaurant across the street. The limited space serves the film well, showing how their jobs have become their lives and the office is more their home than where they live. It also shows quite vividly why sales jobs are often so easy to find, even in hard times, and so hard to keep, even in good times. It can be a brutal, Darwinian way to earn a living.