Saturday, June 29, 2013

Question for the Week of June 24-30: Levine the Machine

As I noted last week (and a month ago), I probably have to sideline these Question entries so I can recharge and come up with material more like those that I had when I started doing this: the senselessness of Donovan's plan in Last Crusade, the improbability of Hugh Grant's role in so many of his romcoms, and why entertainment comes up with the dumbest, most ill-informed scientific ideas ever. Fortunately, inspiration is never far away.

Films are just one of my interests, but I chose to blog about it because I find it easy to discuss. So yesterday, in talking about an old favorite with a coworker, I suddenly got struck with a Question like the old ones, a Question that isn't just "my favorite X":
In Glengarry Glen Ross, why does Shelly Levine lose his ability to banter and lie with the office manager?
David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross has been well-received since it premiered as a play in 1983; I'm not just talking about people loving the piece - it won Mamet the freaking Pulitzer Prize. The 1992 film adaptation is also widely-loved. People quote Alec Baldwin so often, despite his appearance lasting maybe 3 minutes. Hell, for a movie about 7 men, it is a bit surprising how many women know the dialogue and adore the picture. I won't even start to try to review it here...

If you're familiar with the film (if not, stop reading and watch it asap), then you know what happens at the end: the realtor's office which is the pic's main setting has been burgled overnight. It's morning now, and Kevin Spacey, playing John, the office manager, walks into the middle of a conversation and ruins everything. Al Pacino's uber-salesman, Ricky Roma, is trying to keep Jonathan Pryce's broken family man, James, from canceling a real estate contract James signed the night before. Roma is, effectively, conning James. John sees the distraught James and informs everyone that the bank has already received the deal. This blows the sale altogether.

After a thoroughly curse-laden rant by Ricky, Jack Lemmon's Shelly Levine continues to heap invective on John. Shelly lambasts John for speaking up without knowing what the situation was, and even notes that John was equally foolish for lying to the client. At this point, the beleaguered John suddenly realizes that Levine must have the one who broke into the office - only the person who ransacked the place would have known the bank never received James' check.

As a police officer sits in the next room, interviewing one real estate agent after another, John confronts Shelly, and the older salesman just collapses. He's looking at a prison sentence, and he's got nothing.

Levine turns to mute silence, acknowledging his guilt. An unaware Roma re-enters the room as the crushed Shelly walks toward John and the police officer.

As I was discussing this excellent film with a coworker, today's Question struck me: why does Levine just buckle? John is a mean-spirited and incompetent office manager. Shelly is an experienced, smooth-talking salesperson who has shown that he can argue and bs like a pro. Already in desperate financial straits (due to his chronically-ill child and waning career), and with jail looking him square in the eyes, this is the ideal time for Levine to keep on his crooked path.

For one thing, Shelly could've told John that John is a terrible liar. "I can tell when you're lying, John - you're really not very good at it, just like you're not any good at your job." Done.

For another, Shelly could've told John that he guessed about the check. "Well, John, it seemed like the sort of stupid bs that you would come up with." And while it's not the best response - and the curse would obviously not be abbreviated in the movie - it still keeps the situation relatively stable. It's far better than stammering before admitting to a serious criminal act.

And last, Shelly could've spun John's accusation as being based on the incompetence that John has already demonstrated. "John, you're simply terrible at this job. The idea that you didn't screw up the check deposits never entered my mind. Now stop accusing me of crimes - it's clear that you're just throwing blame wherever you can so you don't look worse than you already do."

None of these replies may be perfect, after all. Shelly Levine, like most criminals, was being stupid when he committed the burglary - the money received for the stolen goods would probably be easy to trace to him. Levine would likely have messed up in some other fashion, as well, eventually leading the police to arrest him. This part of the GGR's final scene is about the complete personal destruction of the tired older realtor. But in failing to respond to John, Levine breaks down before his breakdown!

In the end, this critical failure is a stylistic choice. As natural as Mamet's dialogue can be - people interrupt each other, repeat themselves, fail to finish sentences, change topics in the middle of a conversation - he was still operating as a playwright. This means that the characters will be driven, of necessity, to do what the author desires in order to express the creator's thoughts, intentions, and goals as a story-teller. Even in real life, people often do cave in and confess to doing things that are wrong.

So, as often as I am taken out of a picture by unnatural or logic-defying actions and choices, I can't fault Mamet, who adapted his own work for the screen, for those closing moments. For the sake of Shelly Levine - and his poor daughter - I sure wish he had come up with something better than an admission of guilt. It's only a fictitious crime, after all, and that real estate agency is a terrible workplace, and I despise Spacey's role as John. Putting all my reasonable suggestions aside, Mamet's choice wasn't actually a bad one.


  1. Great choice for a Question for the Week! The scene works because we've seen that Shelley's a rehearsed kind of smooth. He barraged Williamson with abuse because he wanted to get fired, so he could go on to work for the guy to whom Moss sold the leads. Once his pitch to get fired is busted...well, he's not that good a salesman anymore.

    The one that busts my noodle is the scene right before all this drama, when Ricky Roma is chatting up Levine. If everyone knows that the Nyborgs are deadbeats--and Ricky knows them by name--then all the praise Ricky's giving Shelly on his big sale is a pretty vicious load of crap.

    1. I wrote this post knowing that you are more knowledgeable with writing and with Mamet, especially. And you've proved your superior knowledge here, as you're very much right.

      Shelly is a very rehearsed salesman, and so his ability to recover from a mistake has some real limits. Moreover, I ignored the fact that Levine's rant also represented a desire to get the boot. I should've noted that, but I wasn't thinking about the scene as broadly as I should have.

      Your other issue is also quite apt. It's true that Roma is portrayed as knowing who the losing clients are, and so his (exceptional) exchange with Shelly must mean that (a) he is genuinely amazed that Levine sold to that couple (the Nyborgs?), or (b) that he's cajoling an older colleague as the man talks about his ostensible success.

      It's a bit hard to quantify the ways in which this film is both engaging and savage...


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