Let me start by saying that Glengarry, Glen Ross is a movie that everybody should watch, if only to see what it looks like when one of the world’s foremost playwrights gets some of the world’s best actors into a room and forces them to act their asses off. David Mamet. Al Pacino. Jack Lemmon. Alec Baldwin. Ed Harris. Alan Arkin. Kevin Spacey. Jonathan Pryce. Just watch it, and see if you agree with me that it’s one of the most riveting dramas ever made.
Try imagining yourself working as a skeevy real estate agent in a dingy boiler room office with colleagues who would stab you in the back just to make another sale of worthless land to people who neither want nor can afford it. Meanwhile, you have these faceless bosses who seem less interested in running a profitable business than in running a white-collar prison camp. Their favored means of motivation is putting a total weasel in charge whose responsibility is to make sure that you cannot get your hands on really good sales leads until you can prove that you don’t need them. And to top it all off, when things slow down, they send a sharply-dressed firebreather with an actual set of brass balls in his briefcase to scream at you for 10 minutes about how coffee is for closers.
Add to it that you’re Shelley “The Machine” Levine (played by Jack Lemmon, in a performance that nearly won him an Oscar), a guy who has been worn to a nub by the pressures of his work. You’ve already got trouble paying for your chronically ill daughter’s medical care, so keeping this abysmal, morally questionable job of yours is literally a matter of life and death. I don’t know about you, but all that’s pretty horrifying to me.
Despite how gray and depressing this setting is and these characters are, it is an incredible experience to see one terrific performance in this movie roll into another as these characters all squirm and connive and cheat each other. Except for Levine, all of them can leave this racket whenever they want. You get the feeling that even the ones that are no good at it stick around because of the lure of easy money that comes from bilking dopes out of their life savings. Even Shelley, with whom you sympathize over his unique cocktail of troubles, was once one of the office hotshots, a sales legend who earned so much he could avoid any abuse from his superiors. Maybe the poor guy just needs a break, you know?
And that’s when it happens: after we see everybody else in the office twist and turn, Shelly finally comes in one morning on a high. He has just scored a huge sale and believes he has saved himself. Suddenly, he can afford to be charitable, and he helps a rival salesman deceive a client in order to prevent a sale’s cancellation. But when that beady-eyed office manager screws it all up, and flushes the sale down the tubes, Shelley commits an astonishing heel turn. He upbraids the office manager for the mistake, but he doesn’t just yell at the guy. He seeks to humiliate him, just as he has been humiliated throughout the movie. And there we see a moment of truth: Shelley isn’t a decent guy caught in a bad position. He’s just another bully and a con artist who’s in this line of work because he gets off on taking advantage of people. We just never saw it because he was so deep in the hole. The very moment he feels a little of his strength return, he finds the first sign of weakness in somebody else and goes for their throat.
Justice soon follows, however. It turns out that the big sale Shelley thinks he landed was just a wild goose chase set up by the office manager, purely out of malice. And while Shelley went on his abusive rant, he let slip that he took part in a little office burglary that makes his impending loss of a job the least of his concerns. Just as fast as he is built up, Shelley is as swiftly destroyed, and as the movie ends, we learn with the harshest truth of all: he deserved it.