Death of a fucking salesman.
David manet’s “story for everyone who works for a living” is profoundly angry. Not just in the dialogue, which sizzles with barely contained aggression. Not event in the atmosphere of pounding, violent rain, that seems to add to the mounting pressure on all the characters in this film adaptation. Glengarry Glen Ross contains a palpable anger at a system that brutalises ordinary people and reduces them to con artists on commission.
The play fundamentally makes most sense when read as a polemic against late-eighties-early-nineties American capitalism, or at least the skeevy sub-sector it inhabits. All of the men here could be doing or even making something worthwhile. Instead, they are peddling land that’s almost certainly worthless, using tricks ranging from cod-philosophy to fake prizes. And Manet, who worked in such a boiler room environment, added a very telling scene when he adapted his Pulitzer Prize winning play for film.
Mike D’Angelo has delved into this compelling scene in some detail for the AV Club, but it’s also worth emphasising what Blake (Alec Baldwin) in saying about the system here. Without sales, he informs the characters, they are nothing. He wears a watch more expensive than Dave Moss’ (Ed Hariss) car, and that apparently gives him the right to abuse them. He explicitly derides any notion of self worth beyond the sales figure attached to one’s name. And just for an added dose of brutality, he reveals that half of them will soon be sacked – made destitute by a sales competition with a Darwinian edge.
Of course, any angry critique of a system that doesn’t portray the people it oppresses wouldn’t make for rich drama. Over the following hour and a half, we see the hardscrabble existence of some desperate men using every trick at their disposal.
Levegne’s (Jack Lemon) tactic of offering bogus prizes to would-be investors is more pathetic than the successful and charismatic Roma (Al Pacino) befriending James Lingk (Jonathan Price), possibly preying on a closeted homosexuality to close a deal. When Levegne tries to bribe Williamson (Kevin Spacey) to obtain better leads, and fails, it’s even more pitiful, as is Aaronow (Alan Arkin) listening to the scheme of his smarter colleague Moss to rob and sell the mythical Glengarry leads. But all of these men are working cons, of one sort or another.
The self-posession of Pacino as Roma could easily lead us to imagine that he doesn’t feel the same pressures as his colleagues – he’s spared the dressing down from Blake, after all. But his desperate and somewhat ridiculous effort to evade a mark with cold feet underlines the fact that he too is a con man – just a better one than the others. And his explosion at Williamson, who undermines his con, is a release of built-up tension.
Levegne’s smug gloating in this moment, of course, proves his undoing. But it’s also telling: flush with the success of a sale, he transforms from being pitiful to insufferable overnight. Gone is the ingratiating loser that echoes Willy Loman and inspired Gill in the Simpsons: When Levegne is on top, he’s as brash as anyone, and his eagerness to further humiliate an antagonist leads him to disaster.
If we’re looking for a man who truly acts like a beaten dog, then we have Aaronow. The performance of Alan Arkin here is far less electrifying than that of his colleagues, but considerably less showy, and takes quite a bit of generosity. How many actors could stay so perfectly passive through Baldwin’s tirade while still remaining evidently engaged? Even though he’s barely spoken before Moss tries to enlist him in his larcenous plan, it’s obvious that he’s an easy man to underestimate.
Moss, meanwhile, illustrates what happens to ego when it meets oppressive authority. His rebellions, though frequent, are usually futile. Her pushes back against Black, but passively – he still sits there and takes the abuse. He gives lip to the police officer investigating the office theft, but still submits to an interrogation. The one rebellion that he sees through – the robbery – has proved self destructive, even if we don’t see him arrested on-screen. Along with Levegne, Moss will face consequences: even a system that ostensibly rewards individualism and initiative, the man who rebels comes a cropper.
All this is a pretty bleak reading of the play, and many works making the same point are unreadable or unwatchable. In truth, there are moments when casual brutality or vicarious embarrassment makes this difficult to stick with. But a crackling energy, from script to performance, elevates this far above the average late capitalist morality tale.