Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

Few contemporary writers for the stage, TV and cinema have come close to David Mamet for the quality, quantity and variety of their work. Among its peaks, and characteristic of his highly individual ear for American demotic at its most creatively and colourfully obscene, is Glengarry Glen Ross. The title comes from the dubious parcels of real estate in Arizona and Florida that its ruthless characters sell to gullible buyers from a branch office in Chicago. 

Mamet wrote the play in 1983 and sent it to his mentor, Harold Pinter, saying he didn’t know how to bring it to a satisfactory end. “It’s perfect, stage it,” Pinter replied, and it was put on in London at the National Theatre with a British cast before having its Broadway premiere the following year, when it received the Pulitzer prize. It took nearly eight years to reach the screen under the direction of James Foley, but by then had attracted one of the best American casts ever assembled: Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Alan Arkin and Ed Harris as the salesmen desperately hanging on to their jobs and Kevin Spacey as the chilly branch manager who despises them.

In his screenplay Mamet made only one change to an all-male play that takes place on two sets (the office and a nearby Chinese restaurant) during a special sales drive. But it’s crucial. Early in the first act he introduces a demonic visitor from head office who tells them in the most brutal terms their jobs are in serious jeopardy. In the cast list he’s called Blake, but he tells them “Fuck You – that’s my name!”, and he’s played with an indelibly stunning force by Alec Baldwin.

The characters lie, steal and exploit, deceiving themselves as much as their sad clients. (One of their dupes is Jonathan Pryce, who in the 2007 West End revival was to play the burnt-out salesman Shelley Levene, the role taken by Jack Lemmon in the movie.) They’re dishonest, double-dealing tricksters who invite our sympathy as victims of a merciless, unforgiving system while winning our grudging admiration for the pride and cunning they show in the artistry of their deceptions. It’s an image of a society that Mamet despises and yet finds fascinating, though recent interviews suggest he’s now inclined to view the capitalist system more sympathetically than he did in the 80s.

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