One of the most heralded pieces of dramatic tension in recent memory, David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Glengarry Glen Ross combines classic elements of American greed, as well as the unseen intrigue that occurs when some don’t get all to which they feel they’re entitled. In a sense, it is a cauti0nary tale for all of us: Watch out for your wishes, because sometimes when they comes true, you may get more than you had originally envisioned.
Although the play had long and very successful runs in London and Chicago, it was the motion picture from New Line Cinema that remains etched in our collective memory. It depicts two days in the lives of four real estate salesmen and how they become desperate when the corporate office sends a trainer (Alec Baldwin) to motivate them by announcing that, in one week, all except the top two salesmen will be fired.
Shelley “The Machine” Levene (Jack Lemmon), who has a sick daughter, does everything in his power to get better leads from his boss, John Williamson (Kevin Spacey), but to no avail. When his coworker Dave Moss (Ed Harris) comes up with a plan to steal the leads, things get complicated for the tough-talking salesmen.
Moss’s plan requires George Aaronow (Alan Arkin) to break into the office, stage a burglary and steal all of the prime leads. Aaronow wants no part of the plan, but Moss tries to coerce him, saying that Aaronow is already an accessory before the fact simply because he knows about the proposed burglary.
At a nearby bar, Ricky Roma (Al Pacino), the office’s top “closer,” delivers a long, disjointed monologue to a meek, middle-aged man named James Lingk (Jonathan Pryce). Roma does not broach the subject of a Glengarry Farms real estate deal until he has completely won Lingk over with his speech. Framing it as an opportunity rather than a purchase, Roma plays upon Lingk’s feelings of insecurity.
The film then skips to the next day when the salesmen come into the office to find that there has been a burglary and the Glengarry leads have been stolen. Williamson and the police question each of the salesmen in private. After his interrogation, Moss leaves in disgust, only after having one last shouting match with Roma. During the cycle of interrogations, Lingk arrives to tell Roma that his wife has told him to cancel the deal. Scrambling to salvage the deal, Roma tries to deceive Lingk by telling him that the check he wrote the night before has yet to be cashed, and that accordingly he has time to reason with his wife and reconsider.
Levene abets Roma by pretending to be a wealthy investor who just happens to be on his way to the airport. Williamson, unaware of Roma and Levene’s stalling tactic, lies to Lingk, claiming that he already deposited his check in the bank. Upset, Lingk rushes out of the office, and Roma berates Williamson for what he has done. Roma then enters Williamson’s office to take his turn being interrogated by the police.
Levene, proud of a massive sale he made that morning, takes the opportunity to mock Williamson in private. In his zeal to get back at Williamson, Levene accidentally reveals that he knows Williamson lied to Roma minutes earlier about depositing Lingk’s check and had left the check on his desk and had not made the bank run the previous night — something only a man who broke into the office would know.
Williamson catches Levene’s slip of the tongue and compels Levene to admit that he broke into the office. Levene finally caves in and admits that he and Moss conspired to steal the leads. Levene attempts to bribe Williamson to keep quiet about the burglary. Williamson scoffs at the suggestion and tells Levene that the buyers to whom he had made his sale earlier that day are in fact bankrupt and delusional and just enjoy talking to salesmen. Levene, crushed by this revelation, asks Williamson why he seeks to ruin him. Williamson coldly responds, “Because I don’t like you.”
The entire production, both on the stage an on-screen, is filled with envy, vengeance and thwarted dreams. It is, in a sense, the classic American tale of conniving and conning. What Mr.Mamet never makes clear though is who is being conned and who is conning.