Gutting the soul of a salesman Mamet's 'Glengarry Glen Ross' flays the nerves

October 02, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

In the review of the movie "Glengarry Glen Ross" in Maryland Live, the actor Alec Baldwin was identified incorrectly as Alex Baldwin.

The Sun regrets the errors.

You have to know the territory and David Mamet knows iwell: self-doubt, desperation, flaming greed, hunger, terror, and, finally, the will to close in for the kill. The hunter-gatherer's operative mind-set, be he a cave man stalking a mammoth, a Marine sniper stalking an enemy general, or a salesmanstalking a recalcitrant victim.

Thus the real estate office of his "Glengarry Glen Ross" is less a warren of desks and files than some sort of primal glade. It's eat or be eaten. Of necessary consequence to this extreme circumstance, the men who work there are somewhat on edge. Shelley, poor Shelley, who hasn't had a sale in months, knows he's about to be devoured. At the other end of the spectrum is Ricky Roma, a magnificent lion, serene and untroubled, his belly full, his needs satisfied. But even he knows that he's a few thin weeks from catastrophe.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The play, now opened up into a film by James Foley, is a little shaky in the plot department, but as a penetration of the desperate culture of salesmen, a corrosive examination of hunter-gatherer culture, urban-style, '90s-style, recession-style, it's a knockout. And as a registry of the obscenely lyrical blank verse of their shop talk, it's like an ammonia cocktail. Whoa! One sniff and you know you're awake.

On a rainy night in Queens, the office manager of Apex Properties has called a meeting. The sales staff -- a sagging, moping pack of used-up hangdogs -- gathers to listen to what they expect will be another feckless pep talk. But no. Tonight's guest speaker is Blake (Alex Baldwin), from the anonymous horror known as "downtown" -- i.e., the realty firm's owners. He's there to kick butt, light fires, and shoot the wounded. The boys haven't been moving enough of the worthless Arizona desert to suit management.

Baldwin is only on screen for about five minutes, but he's mesmerizing. He's like a Cro-Magnon in a Rolex watch and Armani suit; you can't see the hatchet, but it's there. He radiates contempt and danger. His message: Kill or die. This office has been performing so badly that headquarters has decided to cut back. In the next 24 hours, the best producing salesman will win a Cadillac, the second best a set of steak knives, and the rest will be introduced to the first day of the rest of their lives.

The salesmen demand new "leads" -- contacts with promising buyers. Baldwin tells them leads are only for winners, that to give them out would be to waste them. The leads -- a bundle of blue index cards -- will be stored in the office manager's office and will go to the leading salesman.

Some wag once noted that capitalism was man against man, and socialism just the opposite. The story illustrates that principle: The long night that follows is a desperate enterprise. Jack Lemmon's Shelley lurches out into the rain and one desperate ploy after another trying to get on the road. Mamet may despise him and what he does, but at the same time he's got grudging admiration for Shelley's whining craft, for the desperate tropes he throws out. His favorite is to represent himself as having flown in from out of town with just an hour or two to spare as he brings "financial security" to his marks. He'll frequently allow himself to be interrupted by his faithful, if completely fictitious, secretary Grace.

Others -- Ed Harris and Alan Arkin -- repair in despair to a nearby Chinese restaurant and talk deep plots. It occurs to Harris to break into the office and steal, then sell, the leads. Arkin wants to know, "Are we talking or are we talking?" and no one needs to be told the difference. Meanwhile, Ricky (Al Pacino) is nursing a stranger he met in the bar, and we see his high sleaze in action: He's an oily listener, a nudger, who exchanges worthless sympathy for dollars on the bottom line. He's also queasily magnificent, and to watch him flop poor Jonathan Pryce, as the mark, this way and that is like watching foreplay between a large hungry cat and a small shivering mouse.

Mamet is widely admired for the intensity of his dialogue, but in earlier filmed versions of his works -- his own "Homicide" and "House of Games" come to mind -- the rhythms have seemed almost sing-songy, hypnotic. The effect then wasn't reality but a kind of higher stylization. Foley has encouraged his performers to get away from playing the rhythm game, and generally they labor manfully to keep the piece as "naturalistic" as possible. It's more like eavesdropping than sitting in an audience.

"Glengarry Glen Ross" isn't without flaws; one can feel the claustrophobic press of what had its stage limits -- two sets, the office and the restaurant -- squeezing in. A long subplot about the police investigation into the burglary of the stolen leads that dominates the third act doesn't quite pay off as it should -- for example, too much of it happens off screen, while Lemmon and Pacino are struggling vainly to keep control of triumphs the night before in the foreground. Foley never quite gets the balance right between these two issues.

But the signal triumph of "Glengarry Glen Ross" is how much raw and crackling drama it finds in the most banal of places. There may be 8 million stories in the Naked City, but few of them are this good.

'Glengarry Glen Ross'

Starring Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon.

Directed by James Foley.

Released by New Line.

Rated R.

*** 1/2

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