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 VERDICT

By Marc S. Sanders

Sidney Lumet is a master filmmaker at shooting predominantly talkie films. In The Verdict by David Mamet, his best special effect is, at least, the just as legendary Paul Newman as washed-up alcoholic attorney Frank Galvin. Lumet opts to shoot Newman for the screen talent he is. Occasionally, his camera points up at Newman, who looks as if he will fall over. Lumet also makes Newman look great as he runs down a hallway, or with a stare of his familiar blue eyes. The chemistry of camera and performance are blended rhythmically.

Alcoholism has been depicted countless times, but Newman’s interpretation ranks at the top of the list. He can’t function without his drink whether it’s gaining a high score on pinball, flirting, reading a brief or even getting a fast protein fix by dropping an egg yolk in a beer. Paul Newman makes you wonder if Frank Galvin is going to pass out or fall asleep even while he’s barely practicing legal brilliance. He toes the line beautifully between coming undone and barely squeaking by. This is one of his best roles ever.

Frank is given a chance to salvage himself as goes up against the Boston Archdiocese and the hospital it owns in a case of medical negligence, who are represented by a conniving antagonist in the form of James Mason with his limitless resources, power, strategies and army of lawyers. If this were a silent film, I’d buy it with Mason twisting a handlebar mustache. He’s absolutely a man you love to hate.

The dialogue crackles against simply the inflection of vocals from Newman, Mason, an unexpected Charlotte Rampling as Galvin’s sudden love interest, a difficult judge played by Milo O’Shea, and Frank’s assistant played Jack Warden. The delivery of lines, the twisty double crosses, and conflicts play to the precision of great Shakespeare. So much so that when on the rare occasion these characters curse or the ominous cue of music steps in, it’s all shocking and applauded.

The settings are great for atmosphere too. Worn in leather chairs, polished cherrywood tables and courtrooms with their squeaky floors. This is a well-worn Massachusetts backdrop of legal reputation and intimidation.

Every member of the filmmaking team from Lumet to the cast, to the composer,Johnny Mandel, and David Mamet’s fantastic script have been thought out and measured to completion.

Some will say this film is dated (rotary phones, ladies’ hairstyles, wardrobe; year of release was 1982). I say its themes are still significant. Power is something that must always be overcome by a weak, flawed protagonist. Whether or not Frank Galvin can do it, matters not. It’s the struggle that’s important to follow in a film like The Verdict.

HOUSE OF GAMES

By Marc S. Sanders

David Mamet is one of the most renowned writers of the last fifty years.  The first film he directed was for his script, House Of Games, with his wife at the time, Lindsay Crouse, and Joe Mantegna.  It’s also important to point out that he recruited well known con artist and card trick player Ricky Jay to consult on the film and join the cast.  When you are constructing a film about the confidence game, a guy like Ricky Jay, who is widely known for his slight of hand and scam artistry, is important to ensure your story remains solid and airtight. (Note: seek out videos of Ricky performing eye popping card tricks and magic on You Tube.  He’ll make you believe that you’ve never seen a card trick before because not many come close to his mastery with a deck in hand.)

House Of Games plays like an instructional or “how to” video demonstrating how to be a successful con artist.  Crouse portrays a psychiatrist with a best-selling book titled “Driven” that focuses on obsessive behaviors.  One of her clients reveals that his compulsive gambling habits have put him $25,000 in debt with a card shark.  Crouse takes it upon herself to confront the card shark (Mantegna) on behalf of her frightened client.  Shortly thereafter, he’s got her acting as his wife to determine if the guy at the other end of a poker table is bluffing.  Then he’s introducing her to his con artist buddies, and she is becoming enamored, not only with him, but with the art of the con and the steal.  Her mundane life gives her the urge to see more.

The other Unpaid Critic, Miguel, recently reviewed this picture.  At the time of this writing, I have not read his review, but he forewarned me that the performances are stripped down to nothing.  Mantegna and Crouse are left bare to just delivering Mamet’s dialogue.  Miguel hadn’t liked this film the first time he saw it many years ago.  On my first viewing, this past week, I was engrossed.  However, I could foresee the ending as quickly as the film began.  I dunno.  Maybe it’s because I’ve seen several con artist films before like The Grifters and the granddaddy of them all, The Sting.  Films that focus on the best liars seem to always move towards a twist where even the viewer is scammed.  It’s fun to participate in the activity.

With House Of Games, the sequence of events move step by step.  Following the two characters’ introductions to each other, Mantegna is caught in the middle of doing another con but now he’s reluctantly forced to include Crouse in on the game.  This time it is seemingly much more complex and grander than the first time they worked together at the poker table.  It also gets all the more confusing when an unexpected murder is involved.  This con spells out a long night for the couple who are also falling for one another. 

Miguel is right.  The performances are most definitely stripped down and often the dialogue is wooden.  Crouse and Mantegna are deliberately flat.  I don’t even think they laugh or smile if I remember correctly.  It is likely because Mamet wants the viewers to follow along and pick up on how a successful con job is meticulous in its methods.  A con artist is not going to make waves with loud, angry monologues or passionate seductions and outrageous silliness.  What’s important is that everything that plays out seems convincing with no distractions that lead to doubt.  So, when the only African American in the cast (extras included) leaves a key on a hotel counter, you notice it.  It happened for a reason.  Later, when the characters come upon a BRIGHT RED Cadillac convertible, you are going to remember it.  A Swiss army knife with tropical artwork on the handle.  A gun metal briefcase with a large amount of cash.  A gun.  A murder.  Props and scenarios guide Mamet’s picture. Not the characters. 

Fortunately, the film remains very engaging.  As well, while I could figure out what was being played here during the entire course of the picture, as a viewer I had no choice but to feel proud of myself for uncovering the puzzles and riddles at play.  For me, watching House Of Games was like answering “Final Jeopardy” correctly when none of the contestants on screen had a clue. At least I was smiling by the end.

HOUSE OF GAMES (1987)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: David Mamet
Cast: Lindsay Crouse, Joe Mantegna, J.T. Walsh, Ricky Jay
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 96%

PLOT: A psychiatrist is led by a smooth-talking grifter into the shadowy but compelling world of stings, scams, and con men.


I’m sitting here trying to figure out how to summarize the story of David Mamet’s House of Games without giving away plot points, and it’s virtually impossible.  Mamet’s screenplay is composed almost entirely of double-crosses, triple-crosses, short cons, long cons, and the kinds of surprises that are greatly diminished in their description.  Remove one surprise, and the whole thing collapses like a house of cards.

A distinguished psychiatrist, Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) pays a visit to a handsome con artist, Mike (Joe Mantegna), on behalf of one of her clients, who is distraught because of how much money he owes to Mike.  Dr. Ford is unexpectedly intrigued by Mike’s business methods, Mike senses this, and takes her to a back room where he and some other gentlemen are playing poker.

(These men don’t talk much, but when they do, it’s almost exclusively in poker patter.  “A man with style is a man who can smile.”  “Damn cards are as cold as ice.”  “The man says you gotta give action to get action.”  “Everybody stays, everybody pays.”  It’s like they learned how to talk from watching endless episodes of the World Series of Poker on ESPN2.)

Mike makes a deal with Margaret: if she helps him beat the hot player (Ricky Jay) at the table, he’ll tear up her patient’s marker.  The hot player has a tell when he’s bluffing.  Mike will go to the restroom.  If the hot player shows the tell, Margaret will tell Mike, and Mike will beat him because he’ll know he’s bluffing.  Mike goes to the bathroom, the hot player reveals his tell, and Margaret tells Mike when he comes back.  The hot player raises the pot, but Mike can’t cover it.  Margaret comes to the rescue: she’ll stake Mike with her own money.  But, uh oh, turns out the hot player wasn’t bluffing…and now Margaret owes $6,000 to a total stranger.

And that’s where I have to stop. If you think I’ve given too much away, you’ve got to trust me – I haven’t.  That’s barely the preface.  What follows is a character study of a woman who suddenly realizes that, after a lifetime of helping patients, she needs some kind of release, a change in routine.  Mike can provide this much-needed change.  The fact that it involves conning innocent people out of their hard-earned money is incidental.

Her fascination lies in Mike’s method.  For a great con to work, you can’t take someone’s money.  They have to give it to you.  They have to trust you to do the right thing.  The trick is working out how to gain the other person’s confidence without them realizing what’s happening.  We are shown two or three examples, and they’re all brilliantly sneaky.  At one point, Mike tells Margaret the cardinal rule of the con: “Don’t trust nobody.”  After watching this movie, I can’t say I agree 100% with this credo, but a healthy dose of skepticism never hurt anybody.

So how does Margaret square that credo, or anything about Mike’s lifestyle, with her profession?  She helps people for a living.  Her livelihood depends on getting strangers to trust her, but not to take their money…although let’s not forget she is well paid for her services.  Is her fascination with Mike an acknowledgement of the similarities between the two of them?

The screenplay doesn’t provide easy answers.  When we get to the final shot of the film, we can clearly see the choices Margaret has made, but it’s still unclear as to why she made them.  This is one of those movies where the complexities only really come alive during lively discussions afterwards.

Before watching it for this review, the last time I had seen House of Games was over thirty years ago.  At the time, I was unimpressed.  I originally gave it a 2 out of 10 on the IMDb website.  It was slow, the actors looked like they were giving bad performances, and nobody talked like real people talked.

Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to see not one, but three films by a French director named Robert Bresson.  (Bear with me here, I do have a point.)  Bresson, who was active mainly in the ‘50s and ‘60s, was famous for his method of shooting scenes over and over again, take after take, until all emotions had been drained from the actor.  His philosophy, in a nutshell, was that, in a film, the story isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.  If a screenplay couldn’t carry an emotional impact just by virtue of the story alone, if he had to rely on someone’s specific performance to make the movie work, he wasn’t interested.  The results are films that are curiously compelling, despite their utter lack of anything modern audiences might recognize as a typical acting performance.  His films are routinely included on the most prestigious lists of greatest films ever made; seven of them made it onto the 2012 critics’ poll by Sight & Sound magazine, a feat unequaled by any other director.

Sitting down to watch House of Games for the first time in three decades, after having seen Bresson’s films for the first time, I think I see what David Mamet was going for, in this, his directorial debut.  The actors aren’t quite dead-panning the entire time, but their performances (with one or two necessary exceptions) are pared down to the bare minimum of emotion.  Vocally, they’re angry, curious, flirtatious, what have you.  Facially, they’re ciphers.  Which, if you’re a good con man, that’s exactly what you want to be: a blank slate for the unlucky mark to interact with, then forget immediately.

I think back to those poker players and their mournful aphorisms, always said in nearly monotone.  And then I think to the film’s finale when Margaret believes she might be able to turn the tables on Mike (long story), and as the frantic words come out of her mouth, there’s not a smidgen of emotion on her face.  Like…a poker player.  Neat.

THE UNTOUCHABLES

By Marc S. Sanders

Brian DePalma directed the very loose cinematic adaptation of Eliot Ness’ squad of treasury agents during the 1930s prohibition era. The movie is The Untouchables, based on the famed TV show starring Robert Stack. It’s a gorgeous picture with incredible set designs, props, and Georgio Armani costume wear. It’s also bloody as hell.

Kevin Costner solidified his leading man status as the righteous Eliot Ness who swears by the law he promises to uphold, while making efforts to topple Al Capone’s (a convincing looking Robert DeNiro) massive Chicago empire that thrives on the buy and sell of illegal alcohol. Capone controls the city on all levels, from government officials down to the police force. His power is unlimited, but he has not filed his tax returns in four years. It’s crazy, but that just might bring him down.

Ness teams up with veteran beat cop Jimmy Malone played by Sean Connery, in one of the most celebrated and winning roles the Academy Awards ever bestowed. Malone knows where the underground liquor operations are located. He knows who accepts the bribes and kickbacks too. The question is how involved does he want to get. He’s the grizzled Irish mentor for Ness, and his timing is perfect for David Mamet’s script.

Memorable additions to the team also include a young and tough Andy Garcia and nerdy Charles Martin Smith as the IRS agent happy to pick up a shotgun for the cause.

DePalma’s film carries the epic look. There’s much splendor in the art direction of the film. It’s a glamorous piece of film, but it’s also just a movie.

Mamet’s script takes lots of liberties against the actual occurrences that came through historically. I do not recall hearing that The Untouchables ever took down a deal while riding horseback alongside the Canadian Mounties, for example. A villainous henchman for Capone is Frank Nitti (a happily slimy Billy Drago), always dressed in bad guy white and putting on the bad guy charm. His demise in the film never happened and most certainly not so adventurous or violently, but DePalma and Mamet clearly don’t care. This is lean entertainment for action sequences set in a gorgeous gangster period. The Untouchables is a slick looking gangster flick and nothing more.

A real star of the film is the Oscar nominated score of the film from The Maestro, himself, Ennio Morricone. His opening piece of drum beats with quick piano keys during the credits will get your pulse going. He also has great horn sections that capture the four heroes in tight shots of shining cinematography from Stephen H Burum. For me personally, this is my favorite soundtrack of Morricone’s massive career.

Costner is well cast. He has the handsome hero look to him. Garcia became a well-known and sharp looking tough guy. Smith did not move on to more celebrated material beyond this. He was remembered comedically here, just as he was in American Graffiti. He also directed since this film. As a team though, Costner, Garcia, Smith and Connery have wonderful chemistry together.

DeNiro actually took a step back from the spotlight here. His Al Capone is not so much a character as he is an every so often antagonizing appearance with a couple of well paced lines from Mamet’s famed dialogue. He’s got a memorable moment with a baseball monologue that convinces you of Capone’s strong arm, but his villain does not get too personal with the hero.

The Untouchables holds a special place in my heart. It was the last film I saw before my life changing move from New Jersey to Florida in 1987. Because the move was hard on me from a teenager’s perspective, I found great escape with this film as I memorized the lines of the enormously colorful characters along with getting absorbed by the violence and emotional variety of tones in the score. Having watched the movie many times since it was released, it’s become a kind of therapeutic experience for me. I take in the gorgeous craftsmanship of the film, the humor and the surprise moments many of the beloved characters face.

The Untouchables is not a perfect film I thought it was at age fourteen. It’s almost proud of its admitted inaccuracies, but it remains a favorite and very personal piece for me. I still love the film, all these years later.