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 FORTUNE COOKIE (1966)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ron Rich, Judi West
My Rating: 5/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 96%

PLOT: A crooked lawyer persuades his brother-in-law to feign a serious injury.


Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie reminds me of what it might be like to watch Jerry Lee Lewis play “Chopsticks.”  You sense it’s being done as well as it possibly can be done, but you wonder why it’s being done at all.  C’mon, man, let’s hear “Great Balls of Fire!”

Notable for being the first of twelve films Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau starred in together, The Fortune Cookie tells the story of a hapless TV cameraman, Harry Hinkle (Lemmon), who is covering a Cleveland Browns football game from the sidelines.  A burly punt returner accidentally runs him over during a play and knocks Harry out cold.  While he recuperates in a hospital bed, his thoroughly unscrupulous brother-in-lawyer, Willie (Matthau), concocts a very modern-sounding plan: Harry will fake serious injuries in the hospital so Willie can work his magic with the insurance company and get a big payout.  Harry demurs at first but is enticed to go along when he finds out his ex-wife, for whom he still carries a torch, is very interested in assisting with his recuperation from his “serious” injuries.

Meanwhile, the poor football player who knocked him down, Luther (Ron Rich), is wracked with guilt over the damage he thinks he’s caused.  He pitches in to buy Harry a motorized wheelchair and offers to assist with his rehab back at home.  This gnaws at Harry’s conscience.  Things don’t get any better when he’s brought a lunch of Chinese food at the hospital, and the fortune inside his fortune cookie bears a grim warning…

There’s nothing wrong with The Fortune Cookie that a rewrite or some editing couldn’t have fixed.  That might be considered sacrilege, considering the script was penned by Wilder himself and his legendary writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond, but in watching the film, I was struck by how many scenes involved a semi-static camera just watching people talk, and talk, and talk.  I don’t mind a lot of dialogue in a scene when the characters have something to say, or when the story is being driven forward.  But here, we usually get a five-minute scene when a two-minute scene could have done the job just fine.

Take one scene in particular that almost had me literally nodding off, when Harry’s ex-wife, Sandy (Judi West), has returned home to help with Harry’s rehab.  Harry is still feeling guilty about the sham he’s perpetrating, but he’s so besotted with Sandy that he’s willing to keep up the pretense just to keep her around.  They catch up a little, blah blah blah, he says he never threw away his ring, blah blah blah, she dumps out her purse looking for her ring, blah blah blah, he puts on a little music, he’s happy, she’s happy, and <snoorrrrrrre.>

I could list any number of films, including some of Wilder’s other films, where other characters talked for even longer than Harry and Sandy, but they were so much more interesting!  What happened here?  What went wrong?  Even in the scenes where Willie, the huckster, is rattling off his grand plans and needling the insurance company attorneys, Matthau just comes off as a two-bit hack that no sane person would pay any attention to.

I’m not saying he must be likable, that dreaded word.  There are movies that are very, very good and that contain nothing BUT unlikable characters. (Anyone wanna watch The Godfather?) But here, something is off with the tone.  When I wasn’t bored, I was inflamed with distaste for what Harry was being forced to do, both by Willie and by his own hormones.

The movie does have one saving grace.  The comeuppance, when it, er, comes up, is brought about with the kind of shock comedy scene that Mel Brooks might have loved.  I don’t want to spoil it, but it features the kind of language that would have been right at home in Blazing Saddles.  When I got over the shock of what I had just heard, I sat back in admiration and smiled, and thought to myself, a little ruefully, “Now what would this movie have been like if it had been this nervy all the way through, instead of just here at the end?”

But The Fortune Cookie even mucks up the ending with an “epilogue” scene that’s so gratuitously manipulative, I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been tacked on by the studio who demanded a happy ending, or at least a happier ending.  If the movie had earned it, I’d have been on board, but everything that came before was so humdrum that it felt super-cheesy.

Billy Wilder’s résumé reads like the Pixar catalog: one hit after the other with only a couple of rare misses.  Double Indemnity.  The Lost Weekend.  Sunset Boulevard.  Ace in the Hole.  Stalag 17.  Sabrina.  Witness for the Prosecution.  Some Like It Hot.  The Apartment.  Even One, Two, Three, which may not exactly be his finest moment, but at least it had James Cagney to liven things up.  I ask again: what happened here?  Where is the dynamite chemistry between Lemmon and Matthau that would become legendary in later films?  Where is the zaniness of Some Like It Hot or the earned pathos of The Apartment or the edginess of Ace in the Hole and Stalag 17?

According to the trivia section on IMDb, the opening football game sequences were filmed during an actual Vikings-Browns football game, which the Browns lost, at home, 27-17.  After watching this movie, I felt like those Cleveland fans must have felt: always glad to see my boys play, but man, it would have been WAY cooler if they had won.

THE APARTMENT

By Marc S. Sanders

You ever come across a film that begins as sweet screwball, and then segues into serious sensitivity?  If you have, then maybe you have seen Billy Wilder’s classic film The Apartment.  Beyond the film being an Oscar Best Picture winner, Wilder’s film demonstrates that there is a screwball mentality in all of us, but we also know when the party must end.

Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, one of over 31,000 people who works for Consolidated Life in a Manhattan high rise.  He’s a likable fellow who happily does his work with a typewriter amid a sea of other desk jockeys on a floor that seems to expand beyond the architectural limits of the building.  When his eight hour day comes to a close, he’s normally the last one to leave for home because it is likely his apartment located outside of Central Park is occupied with one of the company big wigs that liberally uses his pad to entertain a lady friend beside their respective wives.  Baxter has been relegated to a door mat who holds out hope that any one of these ranking supervisors may one day promote him to an executive position with a private office and a view of the city.  Promise finally opens up when the President of the company, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), summons Baxter to his office to commend him on the positive feedback from the other men in the office and to request some time with the apartment himself.  Sheldrake would like to have some time away from his wife and children to host Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the building’s elevator operator.  If Baxter had the availability to his own apartment and a little bit of bravery, he may have asked Fran for an evening out together on another occcasion.

The Apartment begins almost like a farce or sitcom as the revolving door of Baxter’s apartment welcomes one new executive after another.  You may be expecting confusion and misunderstandings that’ll lead to outrageous laughter.  However, poor Baxter is the victim to all of this coming and going by even surrendering his home to Joe Dobisch (Ray Walston) who calls unexpectedly at eleven o’clock at night requesting the place for an hour.  Baxter takes shelter on a park bench in the December cold. The humor of this arrangement is not so funny any longer.  After Sheldrake’s regard for Fran is more apparent, then it’s more clear that these characters are not spawned from the happy home life scenarios of 1950’s television programming.  Sheldrake is only charming to an adorably likable woman like Fran for as long as he cares.  Some might say he’s not terribly cold hearted though.  After all, though he forgets to shop for a Christmas gift for Fran, he offers her a hundred dollar bill from his wallet instead.  Up until this midway point, Shirley Maclaine has been so good at maintaining a cheerful disposition that suddenly her self worth seems a whole lot less than a hundred dollars following Sheldrake’s latest disregard.  Surprisingly, Fran overdoses on a bottle of sleeping pills.  When Baxter discovers her in his bed, he races to revive her with the aid of a doctor neighbor.  Baxter does not give up on helping Sheldrake make this right, while tending to Fran’s recovery on Christmas Eve.  Yet for Sheldrake, this is all an inconvenience and now without even looking for a better way to live, Baxter finds an opportunity to allow his own personal strength to come through against the executives at the office, as well as Mr. Sheldrake, and most importantly with the woman he cares for, Fran.

Jack Lemmon has a energetic method to his performance, as I find he does with most of the roles in his career.  He plays men who never break to sit and breathe.  They are always on the go.  They almost never sleep.  So, his fast paced delivery and flirtation with Shirley MacLaine let Wilder’s film perform at a fast pace.  The range of both Lemmon and MacLaine really work for The Apartment, because they can be naturally funny and intensely serious when the moment calls for it.  Lemmon can sell me as a guy who will use a tennis racket to strain his spaghetti while at the same time standing up for his convictions when life can not allow humor for a moment.  MacLaine can portray a woman with a menial job like an elevator operator and yet still be considered valued and recognized as genuinely hurt when disregarded.  For Fred MacMurray, I think it’s fair to say he actually makes for an effective villain, someone you love to hate, with his portrayal here.  I knew of MacMurray with his television program My Three Sons before I ever saw The Apartment.  What a departure the two roles are.  Here, he is a charming fellow on the outside with a hollow mentality inside.  He’s a man who only cares for his immediate needs.  He can not be inconvenienced with someone else’s feelings whether it is Baxter’s inconvenience or Fran’s despair.  Nothing else matters.  No one else matters.

The film may be called The Apartment, but office politics seems more at play here. Billy Wilder’s film is surprising but it’s honest too.  I doubt many of us would ever surrender our own home night after night to the more powerful and influential.  However, many of us, with a drive to climb a corporate ladder likely have compromised our ideals to get to a higher plateau at one time or another.  Personally, I have to shamefully admit that I have committed such an act.  The Apartment questions when enough is enough.  What’s special about Wilder’s film is that C.C. Baxter must discover if he lives to work or works to live.