Most movies about con artists let us revel in the vicarious thrill of the scam. It’s a double-edged pleasure: Even as we share the hustler’s amoral cleverness, we take a sadistic delight in laughing at the putz he has just conned, knowing full well it could have been us. Glengarry Glen Ross, the corrosively funny film version of David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, is about a Chicago real estate office full of shabby, desperate swindlers — low-life ”businessmen” who pass off swampland as the buy of a lifetime. Mamet’s ingenious comic premise is that these bogus salesmen are the con men and the putzes. Braggarts and chiselers all, they’re hooked on the high of selling; they’re like gambling addicts who tell themselves that this time the dice are going to come up right. Yet their scams aren’t getting them anywhere. They work harder executing hustles than they would if they made an honest living. The ones they’re really conning are themselves.
On stage, Glengarry Glen Ross was explosive yet compact. Powered by the live-wire naturalism of Mamet’s dialogue, it had the combustible force of a six-pack of dynamite. The movie version, directed with unobtrusive precision by James Foley, stays amazingly true to the play’s feisty spirit. In Glengarry, Mamet orchestrates his usual blowhard patter — the herky-jerky repetitions, the profanity, the atmosphere of rapid-fire Scorsesean grittiness. This may be the one case, however, in which he has found a subject fully worthy of his characters’ macho bluster. The salesmen in Glengarry are pathetic, but they’re also quick, defiant, and hilarious — moral dwarfs with the verbal gifts of snake-oil salesmen. Mamet gazes at them with a kind of heartless clarity; his view is almost cathartically unsentimental. At the same time, he admires their crude, never-say-die energy. What makes these scuzzy losers appealing and resonant rather than depressing is the almost lunatic sense of dedication they bring to their disreputable calling.
In the early scenes, as they babble on about their eternal quest for ”leads,” we’re not sure, exactly, what they’re talking about, and that’s part of the joke: We’re witnessing a camaraderie as cultish and squalid as that of the gangsters in GoodFellas. The leads, it turns out, are what every salesman depends on: the names of potential suckers. Everyone wants leads, the fresher the better. But some need them more than others. Take Shelley Levene (Jack Lemmon). Sweaty and compulsive, edging past middle age, he’s on a losing streak that’s starting to look permanent. Then there’s the short- tempered Dave (Ed Harris), who’s just desperate enough to try and coerce his buddy George (Alan Arkin) into helping him execute what sounds like a perfect crime: breaking into their own office, stealing a list of 500 fresh leads, and selling them to a rival company.
Only one of the characters doesn’t need to meditate on such schemes. Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) is the unofficial king of the salesmen, the sort of guy who could sell swampland to his grandmother (and, more to the point, who would). When we first meet him, he’s seated at the bar of a tacky Chinese restaurant, working his magic on an eager-eyed mark (Jonathan Pryce). Ricky’s whole trick is to avoid the hard sell. He flatters his customers, plies them with liquor, wins their trust. In his serpentine way, he turns duplicity into an art form.
Glengarry doesn’t have — or need — much of a plot. It takes place during a single 24-hour period, during which the office is broken into (but by whom, it’s not clear). In the morning the police show up to question everyone there. Yet for most of the salesmen, this isn’t a major cause for concern. The real dilemma is that the deals they’ve made the night before are blowing up in their faces.
The performers achieve a true ensemble rhythm; at times, the entire office seems like a single, shouting organism. Yet a couple of the actors outdo themselves. As Ricky, Pacino demonstrates his peerless gift for comic volatility. When his mark from the night before shows up in the office, meekly requesting to be let out of the deal, Pacino feints, jabs, cajoles, and squirms — his performance becomes a small aria of sleaze. And Jack Lemmon, an actor I’ve seldom been able to watch without squirming myself, is a revelation. Lemmon hasn’t abandoned his familiar mannerisms — the hammy, ingratiating whine, the tugging-at-the-collar nervousness. This time, though, he trots out his stale actor’s gimmicks knowingly, making them a satirical extension of the character’s own weariness. Shelley’s folly isn’t just that he’s a failed salesman. It’s that he’s nothing but a salesman, a walking compendium of cheap tricks that stopped working years ago. As Lemmon plays him, he’s the weaselly soul of Glengarry Glen Ross — Willy Loman turned into a one-liner. A