Glengarry Glen Ross: An Unconventional Office Noir

The tradition of the Film Noir style has lived well beyond its initial golden period. Just as the filmmakers of the 40s and 50s drew upon the influence of German Expressionism and Hard-Boiled fiction to craft this new type of film, so too have contemporary artists drawn upon Film Noir to tell their own stories. Generally, these inspirations result in an homage or pastiche of classic Film Noirs, like in the case of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) or the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), but in other instances the comparison isn’t so direct in its translation. The definitive traits of Film Noir have found their way into an array of modern films, with filmmakers drawing from this well of influence to color their stories in shades of darkness and pessimism that have always been characteristically synonymous with the style. While the majority of these films do not possess enough of the signature noir traits to be defined as one themselves, they nonetheless bare the unmistakable mark of the style. There are, however, a handful of films that manage to qualify as a kind of noir film without taking the direct approach that Polanski and the Coens had. These unconventional noir films have inherited the uniquely inexplicable quality of a traditional Film Noir without directly imitating what came before, utilizing the same familiar characteristics in new and untraditional ways. Some immediate examples that might spring to mind are Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004) or Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), but you’re not likely to think of David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about four Chicago real estate salesmen.

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Glengarry Glen Ross. Dir. James Foley.

On the surface, Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) doesn’t seem like the kind of film that should be considered a new age noir. Its origins spring from the stage, not some dime novel written by Dashiell Hammett. There are no scrupulous private eyes, seductive femme fatales, or vicious gangsters to be found in this defeatist tale of lowly land pushers; not in the traditional sense, at least. Instead, what designates Glengarry Glen Ross as an atypical noir is its commitment to defining characteristics of noir as opposed to the tropes we’ve come to moreso associate it with. The film is pervasive in noir aesthetics, from the biblical rain and neon lights that decorate the first half to the nihilistic characters and desolate stakes that catapult everything towards a fatalistic conclusion. These facets alone can already be considered derivative of Film Noir, but it goes even further to solidify its basis in the conventions of the style. The magic of Film Noir comes from the struggle of telling brutal mystery stories through the limitations of the Hollywood Hay’s Code, which prevented the depiction of the violence and sex that was the entire selling point to begin with. Thus, Film Noir relied on a lot of implication and double entendre to slip past the censors, propagating the mystery element further and increasing the allure to a magnetic level. David Mamet’s exceptional script perfectly aligns with these aspects, utilizing the cryptic salesman jargon to obscure the mystery plot of stolen leads and embroiling it with the kind of cynical, disparaged characters that are the backbone of any great noir story.

The Asphalt Jungle. Dir. John Huston.

Taken as basic story beats, the plot of Glengarry Glen Ross very much resembles a typical Film Noir. Heist films can be classified in their own subsection of noir, containing such classics as John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), and the French caper Rififi (1955) from Jules Dassin, which features, perhaps, the most skillful heist sequence ever filmed. Though Glengarry Glen Ross does not give us the privilege of witnessing the actual heist as these classics do, it nonetheless provides the same structure and thrills of a typical noir heist film, albeit twisted to better fit Mamet’s gloomy workplace setting. Instead of jewels or a fortune of cash, the prize is prime real estate leads that can be sold to a competitor. Instead of a meticulously crafted plan there’s a shrouded idea of what might happen before a break in acts where the plot is executed. This belying of the plan is where Mamet’s signature language comes in, clouding the conversation with heavy profanity, abrupt interruptions, and a perversion of the very words themselves to achieve the same seductive result that aligns with Film Noir. This parallel of styles is intrinsic to the entirety of Glengarry Glen Ross, but one sequence in particular stands as the most evident of this tantalizing duality.

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Glengarry Glen Ross. Dir. James Foley.

A typhoon of rain cascades over the windows of the office, illuminated by red neon light. Dave Moss sits on the arm of a couch, peering through the window blinds while taking an occasional drag of his cigarette. “Buncha fucking nonsense,” Moss says, as George Aaranow approaches him. The two commiserate in the verbal thrashing they’ve just received from Alec Baldwin’s flashy salesman from downtown. The dialogue between the two men is rapidly paced, nearly cutting off one another with their responses. “You going out?” asks Moss. “I have to go out, I can’t make a sit,” Aaronow immediately retorts. “Get your coat on, you’re coming out with me.” Moss beckons Aaronow to come along with him, extending an offer of warmth and kindness that has been foreign to his character until now. The two continue their shared frustration in a damp car ride, Moss continuing to fire on all cylinders. “All this garbage, ‘Sell ten thousand and you win a Cadillac, you lose and we’re gonna fire your ass.’ It’s medieval.” Aaronow continues to quickly and enthusiastically agree with everything Moss says. It is here when Moss begins to pivot the conversation to its ultimate purpose. “And you know who’s responsible?” He posits, “You know who it is: It’s Mitch and Murray. ‘Cause it doesn’t have to be this way.” Moss’ uncharacteristic friendliness towards Aaronow is but a means to an end, a tool he must use to enact his broiling plan.

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Ed Harris as Dave Moss in Glengarry Glen Ross.

Moss’ character is the most central to the Film Noir comparison, as he embodies two very different roles that are directly linked with noir. The first is the most obvious: he is the mastermind of the heist. Long before he first speaks to Aaronow, even before the events of the movie begin, Moss has already begun hatching a plan to steal the Glengarry leads. As we learn later in his conversation with Aaronow, he has already arranged everything with Mitch and Murray’s competitor, Jerry Graff, who will buy the stolen leads and provide new jobs for them under his business. The only thing is, he needs a patsy; someone to do the actual thieving. Enter Moss’ second role: The Femme Fatale. Obviously, Moss isn’t a sumptuous seductress like Barbara Stanwyck or Lana Turner were, but the methods he employs to deceive Aaronow into doing his dirty work fit the role just as neatly. Combine that with his fragile, shriveled masculinity, and you’ve got a recipe for a deceptive noir dame that lures men to their foolish downfall. This drawn-out sequence in the rain-soaked car is a full-on seduction, slowly playing at what Aaronow wants to hear to try and convince him that stealing the leads really is in his best interest.

Barbara Stanwyck seducing Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity.

When Moss eventually begins hinting at the idea of robbing the office, he does so in an intentionally unspecific way. “Somebody should stand up and strike back” he says. He’s made a lot of headway in getting Aaronow on his side, but not enough yet to fully drop the bomb of his plan into his lap. Like other foolhardy noir protagonists, Aaronow possess the required traits for someone like Moss to manipulate to his bidding. He is meek, good-hearted, and possesses a clear moral compass, but not one moral enough so as to not be subject to tampering. He’s too trusting for his own good, like Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (1944): the quintessential Film Noir. Their conversation continues on, skirting around the issue and slowly chipping away at what’s really being said. The editing is tight, leaving no space between lines and causing near overlaps in the rapid responses. The end of Moss’ sentences feeds into Aaronow’s reactions, encouraging one another to delve further into this ploy. “Someone should rob the office” Moss finally blurts, and then looks to Aaronow to measure his response for approval. His reaction is a dismissive “Huh.” Moss recognizes that Aaronow isn’t on board yet, but hasn’t jumped ship either, and quickly alters the discussion to be more vague about what he wants. Aaronow is dismayed enough to want to take action, but not yet corrupt enough to do something so explicitly wrong. He will continue to entertain the conversation, even so much as inquiring into the proposal further, so long as it remains nothing more than that.

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Alan Arkin and Ed Harris in Glengarry Glen Ross.

Moss chooses his following words carefully, framing the rest of the discussion as just a hypothetical situation. “For the leads, you’re saying, say someone took ‘em, went to Jerry Graff… I was saying, yeah. A guy could take, like anything else, it seems to me, that is negotiable, a guy could sell ‘em.” Their conversation is littered with “shoulds” and “coulds” and they constantly remind each other that they’re “just talking about it”, “speaking about it”, “not actually talking about it.” Here, the conversation now more closely resembles the double-talk-laden dialogue of past Film Noirs, leaning heavily on the subtext instead of the literal words being used. When the conversation does inevitably shift to “actually” talking about it, Moss begins to rope Aaronow fully into his scheme. “You and me, yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying. Twenty-five hundred dollars a piece, you and me, for one night’s work, and a job with Graff, working the premium leads.” It’s enticing to be sure, but Aaronow still displays reluctance. Moss pushes Aaronow to commit by enforcing urgency: “It’s got to be tonight… You have to go in. You have to get the leads.” This catches Aaronow off guard, not realizing Moss didn’t intend on going with him to actually take the leads. The chance is too great, and Aaronow tries to refuse, but it’s too late now. Aaronow has been caught in the web of deceit, struck by the charms of his deceiver, and now fully complicit in the crime. With that, the first act ends, and the story picks up the next morning, with the leads stolen and a mystery as to who did it.

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Glengarry Glen Ross. Dir. James Foley.

The immediate signifiers of Film Noir are techniques that cinema has largely evolved away from. No longer is there stark black and white photography or misanthropic character stereotypes to rely on for identifying these types of films. Even cigarette smoking has long since become culturally irrelevant, no longer embodying that sense of cinematic mystique that dazzled and amazed. Film Noir still lives on, though, evolving to take form in different and creative ways. What’s always a constant, though, is that perpetual feeling of ambivalence, that cynical edge that gives Film Noir its unique style. That will never go away. We won’t always have a great World War to be pessimistic about, but even the mundanities of life can get us down enough to feel embittered. That’s what makes Glengarry Glen Ross such a perfect example of an unconventional noir. Here we have all the identifiable characteristics of a noir used to express the frustrations of a fruitless and tiresome work environment. At the end of the film, when the perpetrator of the stolen leads is being taken away by the ineffectual police officers, you get the sense that their loss of everything they care for may not be all that much a loss after all. Glengarry Glen Ross doesn’t end with the thief being locked away, but rather with a reminder of how unforgiving their world is. The final shot is a sole salesman remaining in the office, still putting himself through the torture of forcibly calling uninterested clients to sell subpar land, resigned to begrudgingly work himself into an early grave, having earned not even a brand new Cadillac for all his troubles. That’s as cynical an ending as anything you might find watching any other classic Film Noir.

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