GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS

By Marc S. Sanders

The characters in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross are under terrible pressure.  They are salesmen who are consistently chasing insurmountable sales goals in real estate properties.  One of them has an ill daughter in the hospital.  Another has a temptation to rob his office as a means of earning some fast cash.  Another is in despair of his self-worth.  To be a salesman, of any kind of commodity, is a tough life to lead.  The payoffs can be enormous when a sale is successful.  However, once a transaction is complete, the response is often “what have you done for me lately?”  These guys are never happy.  However, they are also some of the cruelest, most insensitive, and thoughtless people you will ever meet.  They have no other choice but to behave that way.  It’s the nature of the business.

The film adaptation of Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize winning play contains a collection of outstanding actors doing some of their best work.  They embrace the brutal dialogue the screenplay hands over to them with relentless cursing and flaring tempers.  Glengarry Glen Ross has you believe that you run your sales career on your own with little help or encouragement from the people you slave for. 

Early in the film, Alec Baldwin, known only as a man named Blake (based on the end credits) visits the office where these salesmen are based out of.  He delivers an unforgiving and harsh reality of what these men must do.  They either get their sales numbers high on the board, where they can win a new Cadillac, or they settle for a set of steak knives for second place.  After that, they are fired.  Regardless of where they currently stand though, they should not even be pouring themselves a cup of coffee.  Coffee is only for closers.  The office manager, known as Williamson (Kevin Spacey), only provides the men with sales leads that have already been exhausted with rejection and hang ups. 

Director James Foley does a wise technique with color.  The first half of the film appears in drabs of greens and greys amid an evening of torrential rain downpour.  Before Blake finishes his threatening presentation, he dangles new leads, the “Glengarry Leads,” in front of the men saying these are not for them, because they are only for closers.  The old leads that Williamson hands out are on green index cards, nothing flashy.  Blake’s leads are bright pink with a gold ribbon tied around them.  Foley makes sure that even a prop tells a story.

The salesman that gets the most attention is perhaps Shelley “The Machine” Levene played by Jack Lemmon.  He’s elderly and past his prime with no numbers currently on the sales board.  Frequently, he is making calls to the hospital for an update on his daughter who is due for surgery, but if he can’t make a payment, then the procedure is likely not to happen.  Lemmon is fascinating in maybe the best performance of his career.  Many of his scenes are toe to toe with Spacey as he shifts from pleading to demanding to disingenuously threatening and ultimately bribing Williamson for the new leads. Levene is so out of touch now that he can’t even sell Williamson on helping him out.  Spacey as Williamson is terrific in his defiance to not lend any sort of aid to Shelley.

David Mamet added additional material to the script, not found in the stage play.  The Blake character is new to the film, for example, and I think it is a better, more fleshed out story because of it.  As well, Foley is able to go outside of the reserved settings of the bar and office, as he follows Levene making a knock-on-the-door sales call in the middle of the rainy night to a family man.  This may be Lemmon’s best scene of the film as he weasels his way into the home to quickly get his raincoat and hat off and get a seat on the sofa as he begins his “once in a lifetime” opportunity that the potential customer may miss out on.  It’s a sales pitch, despite Lemmon’s charm, and the patron can see right through Levene’s performance.  As the door closes on Shelley, you’re terribly sad for his desperation and failure.

On the other end of the spectrum is the current, most successful salesman named Richard Roma.  He’s played by a showy looking Al Pacino who initially doesn’t perform in the broad strokes he’s become recognized for as an actor.  Pacino does a quiet, delicate approach to his character’s sales presentation as he shares a table with a sap (Jonathan Pryce) who is weeping into his liquor glass.  Roma stretches the rainy evening out in the bar with this guy, talking about vague anythings, until he can subtly pounce on him with a brochure that’ll get his signature on a contract. 

Two other salesmen, Moss and Aaronow (Ed Harris, Alan Arkin) vent their frustrations elsewhere in the bar as they eventually segue into an idea of burglarizing the office for those tempting new leads.  However, are they working together as a team on this idea, or is one working something over on the other?  Mamet’s dialogue is chopped up perfectly with utterances and interruptions, that before a character reveals his intentions, you are left flabbergasted.  What is demonstrated here is that a skillful salesman is also an efficacious manipulator.

The second half of the film is set on the following morning where the sunlight has come through.  New revelations following the stormy night from before will present themselves as the men gradually arrive at the office to find it actually has been robbed.  The obvious of circumstances are there.  However, Mamet sets up an ending that’ll leave you breathless.  It did for me the first time I watched the film.  Just when you think you are watching a protagonist throughout the film, something else entirely comes up.

Glengarry Glen Ross has been regarded as a modern-day Death Of A Salesman.  Maybe it is.  I’ve worked in this kind of field before. There were months where I was good at it, and like everyone else, I would brag about my success with recaptured anecdotes and celebratory curse words flying out of my mouth.  There were also months where I would gripe about how uncompromising this life is. When I didn’t want to do sales any longer, I spent twelve years as an assistant to sales representatives.  They are not your friend.  They are only focused on the next contract to be signed and booked before month end, and they will ask anything of you with a seething f-word attached to their request.    Are we so terrible if we can not make an unreachable goal with tools that offer no help and supervisors that lend no encouragement or forgiveness?  To be a salesman means that any of your past accomplishments or education do not define you.  You are only identified as the one who must acquire the next thing, and then the next thing after that.  It will change your attitude about yourself and how you treat others.  It’ll alter your dialogue which is so vitally apparent in Mamet’s story.  It will even influence you to take measures you never thought you’d be capable of.

James Foley enhanced an already electrifying script from David Mamet.  He knew that if he was going to show how hard and challenging it is to be a salesman of boring, uninteresting, and practically intangible parcels of land, then he was going to have to be relentless in the art direction and settings contained in the film.  The first half of the film never, ever lets up with the rain storm going on outside in the city street.  The evening is as black as can be, and yet Williamson casually will ask Levene if he is going out tonight. Who in the dead of night in the rain is going to want to talk to a droning salesman about anything?  Yet, that’s what is expected of this life.  The office setting is unfriendly, decorated with ideals that hang from the walls with phrases like “A man must embrace further than what he can reach.”  Little touches like this only add to the uncaring and selfish nature the men really have for one another. 

Glengarry Glen Ross depicts a hard life for the man in a suit.  You may dress like what is expected of a professional, but you are also always scraping the bottom of another bottom.  The cliché that money can’t buy happiness is personified in a film like this.  You may get to the top and score a nice commission, but it’ll soon be forgotten and nothing you’ve done before will lend to your current state.  Next month, someone else will be standing where you are standing.  Worse, you may never be standing on top again, and then what will you do?

Sadly, I believe that Glengarry Glen Ross reflects what many people experience at least at one point in their lives.  We are all salespeople to a degree whether we are doing a job interview or even trying to impress the parents of someone we are dating.  It doesn’t always work out.  The question is where do any of us go from that point.

THE FIRM

By Marc S. Sanders

Sydney Pollack was the first director to take a crack at adapting one of John Grisham’s best-selling books, namely the still most popular novel, The Firm. Wisely, and with a measure of risk, Pollack took the script from David Rabe, Robert Towne and David Rayfiel and maintained a true adaptation for the first hour of the film while inventing a new kind of second half that I think improves upon Grisham’s story.

Mitchell McDeere (a well cast Tom Cruise) is the most sought after Harvard law graduate in the country. A small Tennessee firm makes an offer to him that outbids any of the big leaguers. Considering that Mitch comes from a poor broken home with a brother (David Strathairn) currently in jail for manslaughter, the offer and treatment given to Mitch and his school teacher wife Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn) could not be more enticing. A house, a car, school loan payoffs, and a near six figure salary in the first year is not something anyone would walk away from.

Once the happy, young couple are comfortable though, a curious FBI man (Ed Harris, an MVP of this stellar cast) inquires if Mitch finds it odd that this firm has four of its lawyers dead within the last ten years. The two most recent casualties perished in a boat accident.

The sharp minded Avery Tolar (another welcome performance from Gene Hackman) is assigned to make sure Mitch follows the path the firm expects of him. Avery also has his sights set on Abby. For a guy who has never been regarded as good looking, Hackman plays a pretty effective flirt.

The firm, led by a seasoned Hal Holbrook with a charming Mark Twain like bow tie, and a perfect henchman villain played by Wilford Brimley (definitely on my top list of best bad guys) are involved with the Mafia and their shady dealings of money laundering, racketeering, murder and embezzlement. Now Mitch is stuck.

The FBI want to use him to uncover the firm’s activities but that risks blowing his career and maybe his and Abby’s life. If he doesn’t cooperate, then the Feds will run him in with the rest of the gang.

A second hour focuses on a complicated way for Mitch to get out of this ordeal. It means a lot of white collar work and contrived timing in the script. Fortunately though, Pollack builds suspense with foot chases and some allies on Mitch’s side, including Holly Hunter as an hourglass figured, bombshell secretary to a private investigator (Gary Busey) that Mitch went to see. His plan involves traveling to and from the Cayman Islands, and making copies of legal documents to build evidence of mail fraud against the firm.

Mail fraud???? That’s right mail fraud. It’s not a sexy crime, but the script with Pollack’s direction and a hard pounding piano soundtrack from Dave Grusin manage to keep the suspense up and alert.

Pollack directs Cruise to sprint across downtown Nashville for some great sights and hideouts in broad daylight. Your adrenaline moves with the film even if you can’t connect all the dots of Mitch’s complex plan.

In fact, it’s best to just give up on following every little step Mitch and his team take to stay ahead of the firm. What works best is the seemingly no win scenario for Mitch and Abby. Pollack follows a Hitchcock trajectory. He leaves the bomb on the table but doesn’t detonate it right away. Thus the suspense holds steady.

So, the best kind of counsel I can give is to just enjoy The Firm as it runs through its paces. It’s a solid white-collar thriller.

THE TRUMAN SHOW

By Marc S. Sanders

Perhaps The Truman Show directed by Peter Weir demonstrates that no matter what time period a person exists in, he/she/they will never be limited to life within a television set.  Life is meant for more than just stories coming from an electric box.

Jim Carrey portrays Truman Burbank who is the star of the addicting and ratings bonanza 24/7 television program known as The Truman Show.  Since his birth, Truman has been observed by the world.  His parents are actors.  His friends are too.  Co-workers and neighbors and townsfolk as well.  His wife Meryl (Laura Linney) is just an actor.  It’s all fake.  Yet, for Truman it’s all real.  He has no idea that he is a worldwide guinea pig meant for complete observation.

Now that Truman is in his thirties, though, he is becoming wise to the fact that something doesn’t feel right.  Every day, for example, is no different than the one before.  It’s all routine.  He kisses his wife on his way out the door.  He waves to his neighbors.  He always teeters on selling an insurance policy to two dweeby twin brothers.  He picks up a magazine at a local stand in the center of his harbor island town.  He responds positively to his boss and then he comes home and mows his lawn. 

It’s only when odd occurrences appear that Truman starts to think and for the television show’s creator, Christof (Ed Harris), that’s a dangerous risk for the longevity of the program.  Christof manipulates everything that happens to Truman thereby manufacturing his fear of the ocean.  An episode from long ago focused on Truman’s near fatal drowning accident with his “father” who went missing.  That fear keeps Truman contained and unable to explore beyond Christof’s inserted limits.  His program allows for sponsorships like the six pack of beer that Truman’s best friend Marlon (Noah Emmerich) always carries or the household products that Meryl uses at “home.”

Peter Weir’s film is concerned with discovery.  Efficiently speaking, he presents the script written by Andrew Niccol with a “how it works” narration as part of a fast moving first act.  When we, the viewers of the film (not the viewers of the show within the film) are accustomed to Truman’s normalcy, then we perk up when we see something out of place like a set door that reveals a backstage catering counter for cast and crew.  We find it amusing when the weather doesn’t work properly and it only rains directly over Truman, and nowhere else.  What would Truman make of a stage lamp falling out of nowhere from a clear blue sky? Christof would not even think to imagine. Even more disturbing is when one of the program’s actors does not cooperate with the illusion, like a girl named Lauren (Natasha McElhone) when she attempts to reveal the truth to Truman as they genuinely become attracted to one another.  Suddenly, “her father” whisks her over to a mysterious place called “Fiji,” and Truman becomes fixated on visiting that locale one day.

Unlike Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, I don’t consider The Truman Show to be brilliantly prophetic.  Ever since the television was invented, we’ve become addicted to the images emanating from the box in the center of our living rooms.  So, I guess I’m not as fascinated with this film as others have claimed.  The viewers depicted in the movie like regular bar patrons, old ladies who are sewing throw pillows and blankets while watching on their sofas, and parking garage security guards working out of their enclosed booth, are hooked.  They’d never even think of falling asleep or changing the channel.  We are not however, and are left with observing Jim Carrey doing another silly role sprinkled with some sensitivity and an intelligence that is slowly becoming aware.

Perhaps Weir and Niccol are toying with the idea of God, and his play toy that he calls man or in this case Truman (True-Man).  God has the will to control a person and keep him contained, but his invention will eventually develop a mind of its own.  Intelligence breeds defiance and a want for freedom.  History continues to show that.  Therefore, man will build up the gumption to sail across the treacherous seas in search of what’s out there beyond what the eye can see.  God will test and test and test.  Man will either pass or fail, again and again.

In this age of endless reality tv programs, far be it for me to say that the set up of The Truman Show is unlikely.  Yet, it still does not seem possible.  It’s ridiculously over the top.  (Watch me eat my words one day.)  So, Peter Weir’s picture is a fantasy, I guess.  However, is it a fantasy I really care about?  Unlike the viewers of the program within the film, I never cared about Truman.  I never cared about Christof, Truman’s antagonist.  I definitely don’t care about the actors in the tv show.  Sure, Niccol’s script is an idea: “What if a guy was born and raised and lived within a television show?”.  However, is this an idea that is worth running through with?  What’s to gain from the picture? I guess I missed a number of episodes or a couple of seasons to empathize or follow the ongoing story. 

Having seen all the episodes of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad or even Cheers and The Big Bang Theory, I was there from the beginning.  So, I was concerned with the outcome of Tony Soprano and Walter White and whether Sam & Diane would make it as a couple.  Truman Burbank is just another Jim Carrey caricature that I just don’t care about.  So, you’ll have to excuse me if I go check out what’s on the other channel instead.  Maybe Jeopardy is on.