Cutthroat Americana

Mamet's hard-hitting `Glengarry Glen Ross' is brutal realism

`GLENGARRY Glen Ross" is the flip side of "Wall Street," the Oliver Stone movie that skewered the "greed is good" mentality of big-money wheeling and dealing in the 1980s.

Written by David Mamet, whose view of the American scene is both accurate and unrelenting, the new film reveals what life in the business world often means for ordinary people scrambling to survive in a cutthroat economy at a recessionary time. It's not a pretty film, but it's a boldly intelligent and grippingly dramatic one. After having its North American premiere at the recent World Film Festival here, it's now opening in theaters in the United States.

The heroes of "Glengarry Glen Ross" are real-estate salesmen who don't work from luxurious suites in elegant skyscrapers, as the "Wall Street" crowd does. They make their desperate sales calls from assembly-line desks in a miserable little office, then drive their cars through rain or snow to browbeat their potential customers, hoping one of the poor suckers will be weak or gullible enough to actually buy something.

Business has been slow lately, so the company manager has dreamed up an exciting sales contest: First prize is a Cadillac, second prize is a box of steak knives, and everybody else gets fired. It's not a promising situation, especially when life is already difficult for workers like Shelley, whose daughter is in the hospital, and George, whose earlier success in this business has gone completely sour. Even a younger guy like Dave is getting more anxious by the minute, blaming problems on everyone except himself and convinced that robbing the sales office might be the best way to stave off disaster.

Obviously, these are not glamorous characters - their language and ethics are equally foul - and it's reasonable to wonder why audiences should spend a couple of hours with them.

One answer is that the salesmen may be painfully ordinary, but they're also painfully real, with hopes and fears more vivid than anything in the usual run of screen comedies and fantasies. "Glengarry Glen Ross" is about an America that rarely gets into the movies, aside from an occasional documentary like the Maysles Brothers' classic "Salesman," a bleakly honest film, which Mr. Mamet's drama often recalls. Mamet's vision is blistering, but it's unfailingly candid and charged with a deep-rooted compassio n that embraces all but the most hopelessly self-centered of his characters.

The movie is also brilliantly acted by a superbly chosen cast. Jack Lemmon plays somber, energetic chords that haven't been in his repertoire since he won an Oscar as the hard-driven protagonist of "Save the Tiger" years ago. Alan Arkin and Ed Harris bring their most inventive resources to George and Dave, respectively, and Al Pacino is slickness personified as Ricky, the office hotshot. Also on hand are Alec Baldwin as the office manager and Jonathan Pryce as a customer who could save Ricky's hide in th e all-important sales contest, if only that nagging wife of his - women have a revealingly low profile in the world of macho desperation explored here - will keep her nose out of the deal.

When the stage version of "Glengarry Glen Ross" appeared on Broadway in the mid-'80s, part of its power came from its tremendously concentrated form, so lean and spare that it could almost be called minimalist theater.

Mamet's screenplay opens up the action a bit - new subplots and locations are added - but his writing remains terse, stylized, and hard-hitting. In filming it, director James Foley has devised a potent visual style full of neon colors and vivid compositions that enhance the rigor of Mamet's dialogue while adding a dark-hued impact of their own.

OTHERS who deserve praise for the film's success are cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia, whose assertive lighting and camera style accounts for much of the movie's pungency, and editor Howard Smith, who never allows momentum to flag. Jane Musky designed the production, and James Newton Howard composed the music. These and other contributions to the project have been smartly orchestrated by director Foley, whose earlier credits - including "After Dark, My Sweet" and "At Close Range," among others - only hin ted at the high level of filmmaking savvy he shows here.

On screen as on the stage, "Glengarry Glen Ross" is a powerhouse experience - forcefully written, bruisingly performed, and one of the most thoughtful American films in recent memory.

* Rated R; contains much vulgar language.

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