Glengarry Glen Ross

Saturday, February 02, 2008

There’s a scene in
Glengarry Glen Ross where Shelly ‘the Machine’ Levine (Jack Lemmon) says that a man is his job. And as far as some people go, he’s right. Many men define themselves by the work they do, the money they earn and the car they drive. I mean, who gives a fuck about friends and family or higher aspirations? Or even simple things like happiness? That shit is for dickless deadbeats. The real meaning of life is a high wage and to vanquish your enemies. Everything else is a pointless waste of time.

In the great scene where Blake (Alec Baldwin) gives his ‘motivational speech’, he mocks the notion of a man being a nice person or a good father. Yeah, is that going to pay for your nice suit or your expensive watch? No it’s not. And he says that any man who can’t close a deal should hit the bricks; they should leave. This is pure Darwinism. Do or die. Fuck or be fucked.

In this sort of environment personal lives are next to non-existent (when work is your entire being, what else is there?), but Shelly Levine does attempt to extend beyond these limits. Through a series of phone calls we hear that he has an ill daughter. But to be honest he always sounds like he’s going through the motions – he seems to be checking up on her out of obligation rather than because of any feelings of tenderness. Shelly’s heart is elsewhere. His heart belongs to the sale.

There’s more than one instance when the sale is spoken about or shown to be close to a sexual act, but the best example is probably the scene where Shelly and Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) are discussing a deal Shelly’s closed. He’s been going through a lean phase, unable to sell shit, but suddenly he’s on top of the word, spilling his guts to his pal. And he talks about it like he’s been with a woman. ‘They signed. It was great. It was so fucking great. It was like they wilted all at once.’ And to make the story even more sexual, Levine had been waiting for 22 minutes for his ‘clients’ to sign the deal. 22 minutes that he had to spend in silence waiting for them to sign the contract. In a world of lies and deceit, this is the closest these men can get to intimacy – the signing of a piece of paper has a purity and a joy that even the act of love lacks.

But it’s not just the orgasm of a scratched name that provides satisfaction, there’s also the foreplay. Sometimes it goes horribly wrong like in the excruciating scene when Shelly turns up at someone’s home and faces a brick wall, but sometimes it goes like clockwork. An example of this is when Ricky Roma is talking to James Lingk (Jonathan Pryce). Roma isn’t so much selling as seducing. He whispers soft words into Lingk’s ear and charms the pants off him. Lingk is fooled into thinking that this is a genuine relationship, that there’s sincerity here. And for once he feels like a man. He can step out of his wife’s shadow and show that he has a pair of balls. But unfortunately, later, those balls are cut off and he comes back begging for his money. But he only does it because his wife has told him to get his cheque back. And at the end he goes to the remarkable length of apologising to Ricky. This is how deep the seduction has gone. The broken sale is a betrayal of sacred the link between men.

But even the sacred bond between men is shown to be completely phoney. After all, what’s the next best thing to making lots of money? To see your colleagues or your friends fail miserably. And what’s more infuriating than someone else’s success? Answer: nothing.

Some of the best exchanges in the film occur between Levine and Williamson (Kevin Spacey). They should be pulling for the same team, but they hate each other’s guts. Williamson is a ‘secretary’ (any man who doesn’t have the balls to hit the streets and make some money is a worthless, prissy faggot) and Levine is a washed up has-been with a big mouth. So at the beginning, when he can’t make a sale, Levine is servile and pleading – he even tries to buy leads from Williamson. But once Levine closes a deal, the real Shelly comes out. He taunts Williamson and asks him what he is. He even demands the new Glengarry leads. But then once Levine becomes comfortable, Williamson tells him the bad news that his deal won’t go through, that the people he sold to are insane. It’s an incredibly cruel scene, with some scathing dialogue. ‘Why?’ asks Levine, wanting to know why he wasn’t told earlier (Williamson was aware all along that a deal wouldn’t stick). ‘Because I don’t like you,’ replies Williamson. ‘My daughter?’ ‘Fuck you.’ In this world there are few things better than screwing someone over, to drag them down and pull yourself up.

Another relationship filled with animosity is the one between Roma and Moss (Ed Harris). Moss despises Roma because Roma’s on top of the board. And there’s a lot of dark humour to be had in the argument they have in the office. The dialogue is perfect. But it’s made even better by Pacino’s performance. His delivery of the lines is outstanding. And I also love him in the scene where he berates Williamson for ruining his sale. ‘You stupid fucking cunt, you idiot…You fairy. You company man…Who told you you could work with men?’ The outrage he feels at losing a sale is probably as strong or stronger than the anger he’d feel if a drunk run over a loved one. And his dialogue also highlights the way that nothing is despised more than incompetence. We can tolerate greed and deceit, but incompetence is beyond the pale. There’s no more worthless human being on the planet than a person who can’t do their job properly.

However, there is one seemingly sincere relationship – the one between Roma and Levine. They seem to get along quite amiably. But then again, you get the feeling that these men are two sides of the same coin. You get the feeling that Roma is a reflection of Levine in his youth. How long before things goes south for Roma? How long before his confidence is ruined and he’s reduced to begging for scraps?

And that’s the scary thing about Glengarry Glen Ross. When you’re doing well, great, but if you begin to do badly, you’re fucked. No one wants to know. No one wants to help. You can’t rely on anyone but yourself.

And the ending wonderfully illustrates how lonely this type of existence is. Levine, unknown to Roma, is going to be arrested for robbing the office – at the end, Levine pathetically tries to talk to Roma one last time before being hauled into to speak to a police officer, but Roma is busy on the phone. So Levine’s departure goes unnoticed. And worse than that, Ricky goes off to lunch alone and Levine’s colleagues continue to try and sell. Yes, the world will manage to revolve with Levine behind bars. He, like us, is easily replaced. Therefore if work is what defines us, we have nothing when it’s taken away.

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  1. Nice commentary on the movie, and meaning behind it.

  2. not to mention your blog is named after this movie, right?

  3. "‘Fuck you.’ In this world there are few things better than screwing someone over, to drag them down and pull yourself up."

    You pretty much summed it up with those words.