The Great Scenes: “You never open your mouth, ’til you know what the shot is.” from GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS
The Movie: Glengarry Glen Ross
Spoiler Level: Moderate to High
(Profanity Level: Earmuffs – Not safe for work or tiny ears)
The Setup: Glengarry Glen Ross is director James Foley’s adaptation of the 1982 David Mamet play, about four real estate salesmen struggling to keep their jobs. After an edict from their disembodied bosses Mitch & Murray announces that all but two high performers will be fired, things get tense. That edict, by the way, is delivered by Blake (Alec Baldwin), in what many might consider to be the film’s essential scene. My pick is a bit different, but equally withering.
Early in the film, rock star “closer” Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) attempts to sell insecure James Lingk (Jonathan Pryce) on a shady real estate investment, finally snagging him after a lengthy monologue. During a series of interrogations surrounding the burglary of a stack of coveted “leads”, Lingk returns to the office to back out of the deal. With help from a ruse by Shelley Lavene (Jack Lemmon), a sad sack with no major prospects, Roma is able to falsely calm Lingk into thinking that the sale is moving; a safe bet, but not final. When cocky John Williamson (Kevin Spacey), the office manager, bluffs that the investment is already made, and that the check is cashed, it screws up the whole deal. Williamson’s attempt at being “one of the boys” blows up in his face, and consequently, he must face the wrath of Ricky Roma.
The provided clip comes in a little late, but it’s still amazing, and ends right on point, before the film shifts into its final revelation.
Why It’s Great: David Mamet is a master of simple emotional trajectories, always making his characters’ motivations clear and concise. James Foley seems to understand that intuitively in his direction of the adapted script, arguably Mamet’s most famous story. While Foley hasn’t ever really recaptured the dynamite he bottled in this film (his films since have included the Mark Wahlberg pictures Fear and The Corruptor), here he shows the restraint and craftsmanship of a true veteran.
The entire film is set in closed, sterile, man-made rooms, taking a cue from the stage play. What Foley conveys with cinematography, production design, and shot design is a sense of early 90’s office life that exudes the frustration and banality of bureaucratic control. Just look at the apparently elusive natural light that attempts to seep in through frosted windows and closed blinds, and the jagged walls of the room that seem to only exist to reveal more corners stuffed with filing cabinets and paperwork. This isn’t where these guys live… it’s a temple built by richer men with a warehouse mentality.
Regarding Foley’s coverage: as Roma’s plan starts to unravel, we get a good idea of what’s happening not only in the foreground, but the background, following Levene’s retreat. We stick with Roma’s POV, as he circles Williamson like a hungry lion. The shots become increasingly singular as Roma moves into his interrogation session.
Pacino could be accused of playing to his own cliche here, but his performance as Roma is perfectly apt. Meanwhile, Spacey just dies quietly in front of the camera, as the false bravado his character has established throughout the film deflates in at least one direct perspective shot.
An element that’s used brilliantly throughout the whole film is a nearby city train track, as the film presumably takes place in Mamet’s Chicago. A noisy passing train comes at a strategic time in this scene in particular, as the outside world – and a nearby investigating officer – interrupt Roma’s tirade to bring things back into perspective.
There’s a no-frills quality to this scene that relies heavily on performance and production design, and that’s why it’s great. Glengarry Glen Ross is a fantastic movie, one of my all-time favorites, one that treats informational revelations the way an action-thriller might treat explosions. It went a long way in influencing me as a writer and director, and – with all humility – while the traces might not be extremely evident, there is a lot of Glengarry Glen Ross in The Nocturnal Third.
“You wanna learn the first rule? You’d know it if you’d ever spent a day in your life. You never open your mouth, ’til you know what the shot is… you f*cking child.”
(In a bizarre side-story, I worked for James Foley’s brother, Jerry Foley, for a day in 2006. He was directing an Andy Kindler bit shooting at Huntsville’s US Space & Rocket Center for The David Letterman show, and I was on the camera crew. At the time, I didn’t think it’d be polite to rave about how awesome his brother’s 14-year old movie movie is.)