Through the years I’ve always felt that if the members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences really respected all aspects of fine acting they would create an Oscar for most outstanding ensemble acting in a film. Oscars should be given to groups of players that collectively contribute to the effectiveness and success of a film and the filmmaker’s concept of his/her art form. In recent years, films like David Dobkin’s The Judge (2014), David O. Russell’s The Fighter (2010), Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), or Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983) each featured large casts that collaborated in incredible ways to create their film’s mood and spirit. Add to that list director James Foley’s 1992 gem, Glengarry Glen Ross – which contains one of the most outstanding ensemble casts of male performers that make this adaptation of David Mamet’s play one of the most powerful transfers from stage to screen.
Based on his 1984 Pulitzer Prize winning play, Mamet’s tale is about a group of real estate salesmen working for Premiere Properties. Since times have been rough for the company (owned by guys named Mitch and Murray), they are offering a unique sales contest for their salesmen to inspire revenue, wherein the winner gets a new Cadillac El Dorado; second prize is a simple set of steak knives and the third is you’re out of a job. The film is classic Mamet foul-mouthed dialogue and character-driven narrative at its best.
Foley’s film features: Al Pacino as Ricky Roma, the company’s slick top salesman; Jack Lemmon as Shelley “the Machine” Levene, the desperate old pro; Ed Harris as Dave Moss, the guy with a secret plan to screw the company; Alan Arkin as George Aaronow; Kevin Spacey as John Williamson, the office manager who controls all the sales leads; Alec Baldwin as Blake, the company’s motivational contest promoter, and Jonathan Pryce as James Lingk, a prospective investor.
Foley keeps the story confined to mostly the same space as the play’s production – a Chinese restaurant/bar and the real estate office – adding only several scenes that take place in cars. But this is not just a filmed stage play. For much of the film, the fast-paced dialogue and the staccato outbursts of scat-like rhythms in the salesmen’s life philosophies are edited with crisp cutting. At other times Foley moves his camera in a deliberate slow panning motion or brisker tracking shot to add tension and excitement to an otherwise static monologue on a telephone, or two person conversation. Foley favors a classical film noir visual style. During the first half of the film there is a constant rain storm and the neon light from the Chinese restaurant casts a reddish glow through the windows in the office across the street. There are shadows in nearly every scene, reflecting the dark and desperate predicaments these salesmen face.
Then, when the office is mysteriously burglarized overnight and valuable sales leads are stolen, a police investigation ensues and no one is free of suspicion. This outstanding film received only modest success in its release. This was also probably the last significant role Lemmon would play before his death in 2001. It received an Oscar nomination for Pacino, as best supporting actor. Director Foley has since gone on to reunite with Spacey and direct a dozen or more episodes of House of Cards.