“Always Be Closing”: Glengarry Glen Ross and Hard Selling Hope

“All train compartments smell vaguely of shit.  It gets so you don’t mind it,” is one of the first lines of dialogue out of real-estate salesman Ricky Roma’s (Al Pacino) mouth to a potential client as he launches into an eloquent stream of consciousness full of mind-bending wisdom that could be cross-stitched on a pillow.  David Mamet’s whip-crack dialogue in Glengarry Glen Ross pulls double-duty giving us a thorough exposition for each character in this film as well as doing what dialogue does by simply moving the story along.  Mamet is a master at making life-altering conversations out of sentence fragments, and being delightfully quotable, it’s the primary element of this film that gets the most attention.  “That’s the worst thing that I can confess.”

Glengarry Glen Ross is the story of a group of real-estate salesmen who sidle very close to the thin line between salesmen and con-artists whilst being pretty lousy at their jobs. And on a hot, rainy Chicago night, they’re given a fantastic, razor-sharp tongue-lashing from company honcho played by Alec Baldwin demanding that they “Always Be Closing” or they’re all fired.  They’re all after the good leads which are locked up by the office manager until they close the current crappy leads just handed to them.  It’s not long before one or two, maybe three of them toss around the plan to break into the office and steal the good leads, maybe even sell them to a competitor, thus securing significant financial returns, and taking this job and shoving it.

Immediately the bright red, almost neon hues of the Chinese restaurant where Ricky Roma’s business transacts, along with Ricky’s devil-may-care disposition make us pretty comfortable as the heavy Kurosawa rain falls outside and continues through two-thirds of the film.  

In the remaining third, the rain has subsided, it’s a sunny, beautiful day, and in spite of all that, all the colour has evaporated from the film, leaving us with the bland greys and browns of the office suite where these guys work.

According to director James Foley on a featurette in the new Shout Factory blu-ray release, the original script called for snow and freezing temperatures, adding just one more layer of misery to these guys’ plight as they bitch and moan about their jobs, the management, and yes, occasionally the weather.  However, given the film was shot in the summer, Foley developed an alternative to get the same miserable point across with a perpetual deluge and an implied heatwave.  He even states that the rain is symbolic of sadness.

This is all easy enough to conclude, but on my most recent viewing, it occurred to me that for all its raging masculinity, and all its wonderfully eloquent cursing and insults, at the very heart of this film is a story of a very human, very relatable version of hope.  And I don’t mean a better world version of hope.  I’m talking about the hope that many of us feel on a daily basis at a very primal level as we roll out of our beds and say to ourselves, “I hope I can do this today.”

These guys don’t want to fail.  Hell, I daresay they don’t even want to be wealthy.  They just want to make a living, and they’re absolutely aware of the scheming line of work they’re in.  They don’t want these jobs, but some circumstance landed them here, and now they’ve got to make the most of it and keep bringing home a paycheck.  So what are they filled with?  A very well disguised, and sometimes very screwed up version of a working man’s hope.  Hope to close the deal.  Hope to get the bills paid.  Hope for better leads.  Hope for finding a better job.  And at one point, a hope to get away with a robbery.  

I challenge director James Foley’s claim of the symbolic sadness laced throughout the aesthetic of this film.  In fact, I say it’s the exact opposite.  The situations these characters endure are indeed sad, but their individual driving force is that of hope.  The settings and the conditions of those settings in this film tell us what’s at its heart.  The comfortably lit, brightly coloured Chinese restaurant is a symbol of hope and promise in the midst of the incessant downpour that our characters hope goes away—they’re desperate for a symbolically clear sky and a sunny day, and to get out of the blandly coloured office where they likely spend most of their lives these days.  The rain and the office become catalysts for hope.

With a helping of classic textbook irony, the clouds part, the rain stops, and the sun shines the next day, as Ricky Roma arrives with a newly signed contract at the boring office which is being torn apart by the police because the Holy Grail of leads—the Glengarry leads—have been robbed.  But this doesn’t get him down, he’s ready to rumble and get his name at the top of the sales list.  Not far behind Ricky, Jack Lemmon’s struggling, over-bearing Shelley Levene also arrives having finally closed a sale for a property in exotic Arizona.

And hope springs eternal, and we’ve reached the light at the end of this tunnel because the rain has stopped and we can live the rest of our best days in the colour hue of the Chinese restaurant that offered and reflected so much promise of a life for closers.  But what about that textbook irony?  Roma’s client James Link (Jonathan Pryce) pops in unexpectedly and in spite of Ricky’s hard-sell attempt to be the cool-headed, bullshitting Buddha that sold Link the property the night before, Link says he’s out and is off to the bank to cancel the check.

Shelley, the cringe-worthy but sympathetic, old-school salesman we’ve been rooting for all along, ends up not faring any better than smooth-talking Ricky Roma. For all his sugary icing on the many-layered bullshit cake, which happens to be his weapon of choice when making the hard-sell, discovers that his most recent clients are actually senile and broke and that the check they wrote will likely bounce.  And to add insult to injury, we also learn that it was Shelley who was the chief culprit behind stealing the Glengarry leads, leading to his implied, inevitable arrest.

In the film’s final moments, as the sun is shining, the rains of hope suddenly seem more full of promise than the promise actually reaped, and that working-man’s hope can’t help itself but to dig into the hearts of men once again giving our characters the only thing left in the world they can possibly have.  They have unintentionally sold themselves and each other yet another opportunity to hope.

(Blu-ray release on Shout Factory’s Shout Select label)

Words by Lucas Hardwick

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