Men in Hell: 'Glengarry Glen Ross' at 20

David Mamet and James Foley have created a nearly perfectly constructed film.But hell is still hell. And hell needs a ruler. In a production filled with wonderful roles and actors, it’s Ricky Roma and the extraordinary Al Pacino that brings us back again and again.

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“Oh, God, I hate this job,” George Aaronow mutters, the final line of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. The weariness and the previous twenty-four hours of degradation, though, fail to keep Aaronow from falling back in line, picking up the phone, and dialing for the most desperate of dollars. Indeed, the salesmen of Glengarry Glen Ross are endlessly outraged at how they’re treated, but they are not victims, only volunteers. And if Harry Hope’s saloon in The Iceman Cometh hints at a self-imposed male purgatory, then the real estate office of Premier Properties is most certainly hell.

The popular legacy of the James Foley-directed picture, which celebrates 20 years since its American release this month, has long leaned on the seven-plus minutes of Alec Baldwin, as Blake, a tornado of a man, mercilessly bullying the already prostrated sales force. The scene is terrific, and has become referenced and cited and aped to the point of self-parody. It’s hardly, though, what nudges us to revisit the picture, which is Mamet’s greatest cinematic achievement. Blake is certainly entertaining as an abusive huffer and puffer, but lest we forget he’s simply a device, one absent from the stage-play, created to zing the film into its Second Act. And Mamet does what’s required: He raises the stakes, with a visual pun, by cheekily raising a set of steak knives. It’s clever, and with the addition of this scene Mamet and Foley have created a nearly perfectly constructed film.

But hell is still hell. And hell needs a ruler. And for this Blake does not qualify. He’s a one-dimensional blowhard, honest about who and what he is, spewing hackneyed sales slogans beneath a daisy-wheel printed banner that unconvincingly reads “Salesmen are born, not made.” It all whiffs of “the man doth protest too much,” and for any male with even a wisp of self-possession it’s hardly emasculating. For Blake, trampling on these impotent men is more for his benefit than for theirs. He doesn’t hate them. He’s just deathly afraid of becoming them, and his tirade is like a shot of insulin, taken to prevent the unimaginable. No, the Evil One in Glengarry Glen Ross is Ricky Roma, and in a production filled with wonderful roles and actors, it’s Roma and the extraordinary Al Pacino that brings us back again and again.

“A hell exists on earth?” asks Roma to James Lingk, a prospective buyer with an emotional bullseye on his forehead. “Yes. I won’t live in it. That’s me,” Roma finishes, and his ability to locate and exploit Lingk’s considerable vulnerabilities is terrifying. But Roma’s refusal to live in hell is all semantics. Ask the devil, and he’ll say he lives in paradise. Roma is nearly supernatural in his deceits. He’s the Father of Lies. He comes as a best friend, a therapist, and a big brother. He flirts, he bullies, and he intimidates. He becomes whoever he needs to be. “This is Ricky, Jim. Anything you want. You want it, you got it,” he promises later, as the Lingk deal begins to slip through his fingers. Lingk, though, is so seduced by Roma he looks practically love sick. And if not for some amateur-hour misread by office manager Williamson, it looks like Roma makes the deal. Yes, Roma will be anyone and anything, which brings us back to Blake’s speech, where Roma is interestingly absent. Or is he? At the risk of becoming a bushy-browed alter-ego theorist, any devil worth his salt is nothing if not a shape-shifter, so perhaps Roma is very much present in the form of Blake. What better way to take competitors out of a sales contest than to manufacture discord and steer their focus toward all the wrong things? A devil instills doubt and chaos, disorients, and keeps everyone hopelessly on their heels. The neatly twined bundle of pink index cards Blake/Roma presents feels Biblical. “These are the Glengarry Leads. And you do not get them.” This forbidden fruit tease proves irresistible to our salesmen. It’s meant to provoke and instigate, and the predictable chaos ensues. But who has most to gain from Moss, Levene, and the others to be chasing their tails? It’s Roma, of course, who is off selling real estate and winning Cadillacs. And again, let’s remember that the ghostlike Blake was created simply to service the narrative structure of a different medium. Therefore, could it be that Blake doesn’t really exist at all? For a writer of Mamet’s precociousness, it should absolutely be considered.

Nailing down a ‘best performance’ on a resume like Al Pacino’s is impossible, as he could very well be the greatest film actor of the last forty years. The blemishes along the way have become Purple Hearts for an artist that has lived a creative life close to the edge. But in the second half of his career, Pacino has never been better than here. As Roma, he’s absolutely thrilling. He marinates in Mamet’s world and this character and his joy in this immersion is palpable. Pacino simply disappears. There is no Pacino. There’s only Roma, the Devil Himself.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.