Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

“While the law [of competition] may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it ensures the survival of the fittest in every department.”

–Andrew Carnegie, The Gospel of Wealth, 1889

There is no shortage of exotic places for tragedies to play out.  Castles in Denmark and Scotland for Hamlet and Macbeth.  A palace in ancient Thebes for Oedipus.  A high cliff in the Caucasus for Prometheus, and a blasted heath for King Lear.

And, of course, a real estate office across from a Chinese restaurant in downtown Chicago.

Now, desperate men trying to sell swamp land to rubes might at first glance not seem the most promising material for tragedy, but the mark of a good playwright is to find material where others wouldn’t think to look for it.  David Mamet is a very good playwright.  And he once worked in a real estate office.  James Foley’s film version of Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) does the play full justice without making us feel we’re watching a stilted translation from one medium to another.  This is the Reservoir Dogs of real estate.  For viewers unaware of Glengarry Glen Ross’s origins, they might well assume that Quentin Tarantino had decided to do a picture substituting words for guns.

GGR is amazingly cruel.  There isn’t a single physical act of violence in the whole film, but the people at the center of this story destroy one another by what they say.  The movie is rated R for profanity.  No gore.  No sex.  A bunch of guys in business suits in an office, in a restaurant, in a car, in some phone booths.  A recent book on global corporations is called Cannibals with Forks; the salesmen of Glengarry Glen Ross have built their careers on that kind of an ethos.  But where today’s fork-toting cannibals have become powerful enough to circumvent governments, Mamet’s characters suddenly find themselves at the bottom of a new, scarier food chain.

The entire cast is extraordinary.  Jack Lemmon gives one of the best performances of his career as Shelley “the Machine” Levine, a real estate star in heavy decline who once made the top of the sales charts for months on end, but at the moment we meet him is floundering in debt and unable to close a deal.  He’s like a magician who’s still got the moves & the spiel, who’ll still go onstage for even the most pathetic or unwilling of audiences, but whose rabbits, when they finally come out of the hat, are dead.  Lemmon is spell-binding as he switches from unctuous pitches to clients, to cowed phone calls to the hospital where he can’t pay his daughter’s bills, to sycophantic appeals to his boss’s pity and greed, to arrogant office braggadocio when he thinks he’s successfully browbeaten an elderly couple into signing away their life savings.  After receiving critical kudos just about everywhere, it was the biggest surprise of the 1992 Academy Awards when Jack Lemmon wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar.

He’s not the only salesman in trouble in the office of Premiere Properties.  George (Alan Arkin) and Dave (Ed Harris) do a series of verbal pas de deux in which they demonstrate to their own satisfaction that what’s happening to them is everyone else’s fault. If they can’t close, it’s not because their lives have become as meaningless as the “service” they’re offering; it’s because the leads are lousy, management’s incompetent, and they should really be working in the real estate office across the street. One critic said that the dialogue in Glengarry Glen Ross works like a jazz ensemble performance, with the players coming forward, riffing, then letting others take the solos.  The metaphor fits.  With dialogue, however, you need two players to step forward each time.

One guy in the office isn’t a loser.  Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) could sell a self-help manual to Bill Gates.  He doesn’t talk to clients, he seduces them.  Having no moral scruples is an asset.  Working on an insecure but likeable client played by Jonathan Pryce, Roma doesn’t hesitate to exploit what he recognizes as a possible latent homosexuality.  Even when Pryce’s character finally understands that he’s been shamelessly used and lied to, he’s got such a strong bond with Roma that he can’t leave without apologizing for not letting himself be exploited further: “I’ve let you down.  I’m sorry. Forgive me.”  Shakespeare’s Richard III would have appreciated the irony.

Ricky Roma does have one problem, though. He’s stuck in the same real estate office as Shelley, Dave, and George.  And John.  John Williamson (Kevin Spacey) manages the office of Premiere Properties.  Younger than any of the men who work for him, the only thing he’s got going is the cold bureaucratic efficiency that’s the mark of the new order.  He despises his own men because he knows they’re going down and he doesn’t want to go down with them.  He is in turn despised because he’s never been a player in the game. The others live or die by their wits; John just follows orders.  His pitchmen double team pigeons and tell nostalgic war stories of past scams; John files paperwork.  The one chance he does get to join the game, he blows it completely and costs Roma his sale and a Cadillac bonus.

In adapting his play for the screen, David Mamet took the unusual step of creating an entirely new character for the opening scenes.  Played by Alec Baldwin, this character has some of the film’s choicest dialogue.  He’s a verbal hitman, sent by Head Office to ensure that the losers of Premiere Properties toe the new corporate line.  He’s a cannibal with a Rolex and a really big fork.  The Hannibal Lecter of laissez-faire: “We’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest.  As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado.  Anybody want to see second prize?  [Holds up prize.]  Second prize is a set of steak knives.  Third prize is you’re fired.”  When Dave asks Baldwin just who he thinks he is to be treating him like a loser, Blake tells him: “You drove a Hyundai to get here tonight.  I drive an $80,000 BMW.…You see this watch?  That watch costs more than your car.  I made $970,000 last year.  How much you make?  You see, pal, that’s who I am, and you’re nothing…. I can go out there tonight with what you got and make $1500 in two hours…They’re sitting out there waiting to give you their money—are you going to take it?  Are you man enough to take it? You wanna work here, close!….Don’t close, you’ll be shining my shoes….”  Here’s a prophet for the new millennium.  Wealth equals wisdom. What is profitable is moral.  It is easier for a rich man to get into heaven than for a poor man to find a tax break.  The lion shall lie down with the lamb, so that lunch will be served quicker.

A word of praise for James Newton Howard, who composed the fine, low-keyed jazz soundtrack for this film.  Howard is one of those unheralded professionals on whom all directors rely.  Few people outside the business would even recognize the name, yet James Howard has scored over seventy films since 1986. As they say in France, chapeau!

The cast of Glengarry Glen Ross spent weeks rehearsing Mamet’s dialogue.  They honed it razor-sharp.  As the massive hype over the new Star Wars film washes over us, how refreshing it is to have words, even profane ones, triumph over special effects and spectacle.

Looking Back & Second Thoughts

This is the second time in two weeks that I’ve struck out in being able to find a copy of my featured film for another viewing.  I might have expected difficulties with tracking down Jacques Doillon’s Ponette, but Glengarry Glen Ross should have been a cinch.  Oh well.  Something to look forward to in the future.

One comment I will make is that with Glengarry Glen Ross delivery is everything.  Much of the film’s dialogue is included in the Quotes section on the Imdb page for the film, but if you haven’t actually seen & heard GGR’s actors delivering their lines onscreen you’re not likely to understand what all the fuss is about.  Much as I was tempted to throw in a few chunks of dialogue below, without Lemmon, Pacino, Baldwin, Harris and the rest of crew there just wouldn’t be enough blood on the floor.

Make that two comments.  Composer James Newton Howard now has 165 film credits on Imdb.  He has received 8 Oscar nominations.  What is the Academy waiting for?

Movie Information

Genre: Drama
Director: James Foley
Actors: Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, Jonathan Pryce
Year: 1992
Original Review: June 1999


What cult films can teach us about art, representation—and failure

This is a recent episode from CBC Radio’s Ideas in the Afternoon program, dedicated to all those films that we love to hate and sometimes simply come to love.  One of the featured speakers is Ernest Mathijs, a professor of Film Studies at the University of British Columbia and author of three books exploring cult cinema.  I’m also going to throw in a plug for my favorite books on the subject, all by Danny Peary: Cult Movies 1, 2, 3; Guide for the Film Fanatic; Cult Movie Stars.

These are the 25 worst Oscar snubs of all time

An insightful, entertaining opinion piece from Rachel Leah at  If you’re reading this while self-isolating from the COVID-19 virus, you can share some thumbs-up with your partner Rachel’s choices, express your indignation, or suggest other sad lapses in the Academy Awards’ checkered history.  I’m surprised there isn’t a whole book called Films That the Academy Got Wrong.  Two fine books that do exist are Mason Wiley & Damien Bona’s Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards, and Anthony Holden’s Behind the Oscar.

Strictly Film School


Two wide-ranging websites by cinephiles for cinephiles.  I believe that the first is no longer an active site, but there’s still a lot of good stuff there and the links all work.  There’s always so much more to learn & discover.

Films Worth Talking About:

The Divine Comedy (A Divina Comedia), Bram Stoker’s Dracula, White Badge, Basic Instinct, Wayne’s World, The Player, Indochine, Dien Bien Phu, Batman Returns, Universal Soldier, Death Becomes Her, Husbands and Wives, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, The Last of the Mohicans, A River Runs Through It, Strictly Ballroom, Savage Nights (les Nuits fauves), Reservoir Dogs, la Crise, The Bodyguard, Malcolm X. Chaplin, City of Joy, Sister Act, Salaam Bombay, The Public Eye, Man Bites Dog, Patriot Games, Scent of a Woman, Bob Roberts, Un Coeur en hiver, A Few Good Men, The Story of Qiu Ju, A League of Their Own, Forever Young, Leaving Normal, Into the West, Zebrahead, Mr. Baseball, The Babe

The Bigger Picture

FilmsHomicide (1991), Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), Oleanna (1994)


Books:  David Mamet, Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practices of the Movie Business; David Mamet, On Directing Film

The Word on the Street

[NOTE:  At the time I was working on this entry, I was rather surprised to see 400 User Reviews on Imdb, many of them lengthy.  This film certainly has had an impact.  I’ve included one negative review, but high praise seemed to carry the day.]

GGR contains at least two, maybe three of my favorite performances by anyone. Baldwin, who I really don’t like, is perfect. Lemmon is excruciatingly good, and Pacino actually makes me forget who I’m watching. He really sinks into his character. Pryce also gives a commendable performance.   [MrsRainbow]

I’ve read the comments about the amount of profanity in this movie..if you’ve ever worked in a less than ethical sale office, you’ll know the language is very real…having worked a few years in telemarketing selling everything from wireless cable licenses to vitamins and ad specs, I can tell you, the dialog is very real.
This is my favorite movie of all time…sure, it’s not flashy, upbeat or effect-laden, but it’s so realistic that the first time I saw it, I got goosebumps…
Every character in the movie is one that I recognized from my office experiences…   [SykkBoy]

This movie has no sex, no violence, no car chases, no action – but absolutely the most powerful acting I have ever seen. Uncompromisingly realistic.
Having said that, I can understand why so many people do NOT like it – you have to like dramas, and especially one centered so much around desparation and conflict, and NOT around action. It is adapted from the stage play, and I appreciate the way in which it was shot, retaining so much of the raw appeal that can only be felt at the theatre, as opposed to the cinema.   [magma_iceman]

Due to all the profanity in this film, it is basically not possible to show it on network television. This may be the primary reason the film has slipped through the cracks over the years, and not made many top 100 lists and so forth. If you want to see some great actors doing what they do best, then DO NOT MISS THIS FILM!   [TOMASBBloodhound]

Mamet’s character driven screenplay delves into the place in our souls and in our psyches, where desperation exits. The men live off of selling near useless Florida real estate, and their tool is the cold call – the hard sell. Lemmon, Pacino,and Bladwin are true masters. Gold belt senseis of the cold call. The bullcrap that they can unload is remarkable. Stream of consciousness. Lie upon lie. Smug and greasy…..

The narrative of Glengarry Glen Ross takes place in one evening and the next morning, and is mostly in a dingy office and a Chinese restaurant. Superbly light[ed], and with an awesome jazz score, it has great camera moves that highlight, accent, punctuate, and round out the actors’ performances. My favourite motif is the subway that rattles by – at crucial moments of crucial dialogues. It is interesting to note, that the director, James Foley, who superbly crafted this ensemble piece, never really became an A-list director. All the elements are there, perfectly and purposely assembled – the sound, the image, the performances. Perhaps, Mamet did more directing than the writer normally would? Or did the real cinema pros – the cast – just take the ball and run, literally directing the film themselves, so used to playing those roles on stage, with the exception of Pacino and Baldwin. Another note of interest, is that I have seen this film numerous times, with a variety of people, and have yet to meet a female who liked it. This seems to categorize Glengarry Glen Ross as perhaps one the more masculine, testosterone soaked, man-only films ever. Like wild male animals fighting it out in the jungles. Despite that, I say this is definitely a must see for guy and gal cinema lovers all over.   [MovieMan1975]

Jack Lemmon is… impressive, in what he called one of his favorite films of his entire career. Lemmon abandoned his comedic roots for this drama and it paid off — he’s not only an excellent funnyman, but a great actor.   [MovieAddict2015]

In adapting his own play for the screen, Mamet returns to one of his favorite themes by exploring yet another variation of the `con’ forever being perpetrated somewhere, on someone, in one way or another. In Mamet’s world (in films such as `House of Games’ and the more recent `Heist’) nothing is ever as it seems, and the confidence game is always afoot, the causes and effects of which make up the drama of his stories.   [jhclues]

Every character is multi-dimensional, and I was able to feel either a deep sympathy or a deep hatred towards each of them. Some have criticized this film for being visually unimpressive, since it takes place mainly on one location. That didn’t bother me one bit. When you have actors this engaging, setting is definitely not the issue. People always feel that when a play is adapted onto screen, it has to take place in many different locations, to “take advantage” of it being a motion picture. I always feel that good writing and good acting are the key elements of a good movie. If you want to see great visuals, go rent the whole “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. But for those begging for something of substance should love this movie. I’m constantly on the edge-of-my-seat when I watch this movie. All aspiring actors should be required to watch “Glengarry Glen Ross” as a prerequisite, because all you need to know about great acting is in this movie.   [guyfromjerzee]

The play is a work of genius–it won a Pulitzer Prize….This is an extraordinarily intense film, so intense if you watch carefully you can see first Jack Lemmon and then Al Pacino so fired up and wildly expressive that spit comes out of their mouths along with the words. (I’ve done that.) In fact, all the actors feed off of one another. Being on the set must have been just an amazing experience with everyone trying to outdo everyone else. The timing alone is worth the ticket….Note that no women grace the screen. I mean zero. This is a war flick with con artists in the trenches. Note also how carefully plotted the story is. Mamet thought it out and worked and reworked it so that everything fits.   [DeeNine-2]

I have watched this film in excess of 30 times and I never tire over the citrus sharp dialogue and clever interplay between so many accomplished actors in one room. However Jack Lemmons’ performance was totally underplayed by the critics. It is he and not Al Pacino who should have been nominated for an Oscar. Pacino’s role was competent but did not come anywhere near that of Jack Lemmon. It makes you wonder if you are indeed watching the same film. Alec Baldwins six minutes was very slick but any actor would love that script as it just required the actor to turn up and deliver it. A wonderful film that will last far longer than the film that won the Oscar for best film that year. What was it….? {Unforgiven}  [bladerunna1]

“Glengarry Glen Ross” is writer David Mamet’s masterpiece. In the 1992 classic, his rapid, incisive dialogue is quicker and more brutal than in every other movie he’s done, and the characters, played by such people as Kevin Spacey, Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon, all exhibit a kind of rowdy vileness and vitriolic disposition that is appalling, engaging and astounding. Mamet’s message is not just that real estate is a cutthroat business; the real focus of Mamet’s screenplay, based on his 1984 Pulitzer Prize winning play, is the struggle between men–the need for a weak, hurting, woeful individual to lash out against those who prevent him from being better; and the need for those at the top of their game to slander those they know are starving.   [nin_fragile14]

It seems incredible to me given the cast, that this film could be as dull as it actually was. The primary reason for this was the plot, namely there wasn’t one. In the last twenty minutes you hear something about a robbery but believe me, by then you will probably just be so desperate for the film to end.
I had heard so much about the ‘incredible script’ and ‘brilliant acting’. Well I don’t know about you, but I don’t consider shouting every line for two hours great acting. While the script consisted of about a million swear words, and if you can discern anything else from it you’re a genius.
The only people who say this is a great film are those who aspire to sounding intelligent and being ‘academic’. To those people I say just be honest and admit that this film is terrible.
The director was clearly trying to be arty by not having a plot and hoping that everyone would just assume that they didn’t get it if they disliked it, well judging by the amount of positive reviews here it worked.   [michaelfoster4]